US risks another long, costly entanglement
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.