US risks another long, costly en­tan­gle­ment

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - RICHARD SPENCER

The US war on Is­lamic State is pretty much over. But for all the sound and fury, that was never much more than a sideshow; now the main event is back on.

Four years ago, be­fore the rise of Is­lamic State, and as Rus­sian, US and Ira­nian proxy forces fought each other, Syria’s civil war was shap­ing up to be a 21stcen­tury ver­sion of the Great Game.

On Wed­nes­day night, it wasn’t just proxy forces but, so it is re­ported, real live Amer­i­cans, Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans who came to blows in the desert. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­her­ited an Amer­i­can pres­ence in the Mid­dle East that, ac­cord­ing to his cam­paign plat­form, he did not want.

US troops, and some Bri­tish spe­cial forces, were fight­ing in dusty towns in east­ern Syria of which few peo­ple in the West had ever heard.

Ac­cord­ing to his iso­la­tion­ist “Amer­ica First” prin­ci­ples, he should have pulled them out once Is­lamic State was de­stroyed or at least re­duced to man­age­able pro­por­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, un­der any ne­go­ti­ated pro­posal to al­low that to hap­pen, the prin­ci­pal ben­e­fi­cia­ries would be the regime and its back­ers, Rus­sia and Iran.

Al­low­ing its ri­vals to waltz into ar­eas cleared of Is­lamic State by US fighter-bombers hardly con­forms to Trump’s other slo­gan: “Make Amer­ica Great Again”. So stay Amer­ica will. That de­ci­sion was con­firmed last month by Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who said in a speech that US in­ter­ests in Syria en­com­passed not just fight­ing Is­lamic State but en­sur­ing a fi­nal po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment “post-As­sad” and rein­ing in Iran.

There was no in­di­ca­tion that he feared what so many oth­ers do in the Wash­ing­ton for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment: that the US has com­mit­ted it­self to in­volve­ment in a com­plex, pro­tracted and po­ten­tially very costly fight.

In Iraq, Ira­nian-backed Shia mili­tias and Sunni ji­hadists fought US and Bri­tish troops un­til, even­tu­ally, Barack Obama with­drew them.

Tiller­son said in his speech that the US troop with­drawal in 2011 had been pre­ma­ture and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would not make the same mis­take.

That, of course, in­vites Iran and the As­sad regime to test his re­solve.

The regime’s in­cur­sion this week into ter­ri­tory con­trolled by US-backed forces looks sus­pi­ciously like a test of will, es­pe­cially at a time when Wash­ing­ton’s lo­cal al­lies are em­broiled in a sep­a­rate fight against its NATO ally, Turkey.

If that is the case, at­ten­tion will now fo­cus on Trump and whether he and his team have the stay­ing power and will­ing­ness to take risks with US lives that his pre­de­ces­sor lacked.

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