Bolton’s Terrible Ideas for Syria

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

To get some idea of what John Bolton will tell Trump about Syria, it is useful to revisit an old Bolton op-ed from a few years ago. It may give us some clues about the position he’ll take on Syria today, and it is a helpful reminder that he is remarkably wrong about virtually everything he writes about. Bolton wrote this back in 2015:

Today’s reality is that Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone. The Islamic State has carved out a new entity from the post-Ottoman Empire settlement, mobilizing Sunni opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-dominated government of Iraq. Also emerging, after years of effort, is a de facto independent Kurdistan.

If, in this context, defeating the Islamic State means restoring to power Mr. Assad in Syria and Iran’s puppets in Iraq, that outcome is neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.

Bolton was hardly the only person to declare Iraq and Syria dead in recent years, but everyone that has said this keeps forgetting to check with the governments of those countries and the people that live in them. Meanwhile, the “de facto independent Kurdistan” was not so independent or as formidable as he imagined. His assessment of the situation then was wrong, and his recommendations were no better.

If Bolton still thinks that carving a new Sunni state out of both Iraq and Syria is the thing to do, that would strongly suggest that he isn’t going to support U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Setting up a new state to serve as “a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad” would require a much larger US military and political commitment, and it would also require the US to oppose both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. It’s a terrible plan that would mire the US in new open-ended conflicts for no good reason, but then what else would you expect from Bolton?

The strongest evidence that Bolton thinks the US should keep its forces in Syria indefinitely is that he says so plainly towards the end of the op-ed:

The military operation is not the hardest part of this post-Islamic State vision. It will also require sustained American attention and commitment. We cannot walk away from this situation as we did from Iraq in 2011 [bold mine-DL].

Bolton uses the Iraq war dead-ender myth that the only real mistake the US made was withdrawing to support his harebrained scheme to carve up two countries against the wishes of their people. We know that Trump has bought into that myth as far as Iraq is concerned, if only because it gives him something to blame Obama for, so it is not a huge leap to think that he will be swayed by Bolton’s view that the US“cannot walk away” from Syria.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at

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