Why US must ex­pand, not with­draw, forces from Syria

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In early April, Trump stated that the US should with­draw its mil­i­tary forces from Syria. Sec­re­tary of De­fense Mat­tis seems to have per­suaded Trump to post­pone this plan for at least six months, cit­ing strate­gic ne­ces­sity, with which I fully agree. Beyond that, how­ever, US forces must not only re­main in Syria, but be fur­ther aug­mented to make the US a cred­i­ble player in shap­ing a per­ma­nent solution to the war that rav­aged the coun­try, en­sur­ing the se­cu­rity of our al­lies, and sta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.

We must care­fully re­view the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of leav­ing or stay­ing, es­pe­cially now that the tur­moil in the re­gion is likely to in­ten­sify rather than sub­side in the wake of the US’ with­drawal from the Iran deal. The rea­sons for stay­ing and fur­ther boost­ing US forces in Syria are man­i­fold.

First, the pull out of US forces within the next six months—at a time when Iran is in the process of es­tab­lish­ing sev­eral per­ma­nent mil­i­tary bases in Syria, loaded with medium and long-range mis­siles that can reach any part of Is­rael—is a recipe for war be­tween Is­rael and Iran. Al­though Is­rael has and will con­tinue to at­tack Ira­nian mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in Syria, the pres­ence and fur­ther aug­men­ta­tion of US forces will, in and of it­self give cre­dence to the US’ re­cent de­mands that Iran leave Syria and stop threat­en­ing Is­rael’s ex­is­tence with im­punity.

Se­cond, whether or not Iran con­tin­ues to ad­here to the terms of the nu­clear deal, the Amer­i­can with­drawal from it would mo­ti­vate Iran to fur­ther desta­bi­lize the re­gion, sup­port ex­trem­ist groups, and ac­cel­er­ate its bal­lis­tic mis­siles pro­gram. The question is, will Iran end its ma­lig­nant activities and walk away from the cen­tral pil­lars of its for­eign and se­cu­rity poli­cies, in­clud­ing its in­volve­ment in Syria and Ye­men? There is no doubt that the con­tin­ued and en­larged Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria would force Tehran to think twice be­fore it fur­ther en­trenches it­self in the coun­try, fear­ing Amer­i­can re­tal­i­a­tion that Iran can­not take lightly.

Third, for decades our al­lies in the re­gion (the Gulf states, Jordan, and Is­rael) have and con­tinue to de­pend to var­i­ous de­grees on the US’ pro­tec­tion of their na­tional se­cu­rity. It is true that the US has a huge mil­i­tary and naval pres­ence in the Mediter­ranean and the Gulf, but Amer­ica’s beefed up pres­ence in Syria, where the real bat­tle for dom­i­nance be­tween ad­ver­sar­ial pow­ers in the re­gion is tak­ing place, is cen­tral. With­out Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence, the US will not be in a po­si­tion to in­flu­ence the de­vel­op­ment of events postISIS’ de­feat. It will be left to Rus­sia, Iran, and to a lesser ex­tent Turkey to de­ter­mine the fu­ture of Syria, when in fact Amer­i­can al­lies in the re­gion will be ad­versely af­fected in one form or an­other by the na­ture of any out­come.

Fourth, the con­tin­u­ing mil­i­tary pres­ence of the US and its fur­ther en­large­ment will pre­vent ISIS from reemerg­ing in Iraq and Syria. No one should mis­take the de­feat of ISIS in the bat­tle­field with its ide­o­log­i­cal dura­bil­ity. They have al­ready emerged in many coun­tries in the Mid­dle East, North Africa, and Europe, and re­main a men­ace to Amer­ica’s friends and al­lies in the re­gion. The US’ mil­i­tary pres­ence on Syr­ian soil has both prac­ti­cal and sym­bolic im­pli­ca­tions that ISIS can­not ig­nore, given their ex­pe­ri­ence in fight­ing US forces, which was the most sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor that led to their ul­ti­mate de­feat.

Fifth, noth­ing will de­ter the main an­tag­o­nis­tic play­ers in Syria—the As­sad regime, Rus­sia, Iran, and Turkey—other than a ro­bust Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence. These coun­tries un­der­stand the lan­guage of force bet­ter than any­one else. I am not sug­gest­ing the US should ready it­self to fight against any of these pow­ers. The mere Amer­i­can pres­ence, how­ever, sends a clear mes­sage that the US in­tends to play a weighty role in the search for a solution that will pro­tects its own na­tional in­ter­ests and those of its al­lies.

Sixth, since the ad­vent of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and now un­der Trump, the US by its own in­con­se­quen­tial in­volve­ment has sent a clear sig­nal that it has no geostrate­gic or se­cu­rity in­ter­est to be deeply in­volved in Syria’s civil war. The US merely set­tled on pro­vid­ing marginal fi­nan­cial and lim­ited mil­i­tary train­ing to the rebels in their fight against the As­sad regime. This indecisive ap­proach was noth­ing but a dis­mal fail­ure. The ab­sence of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary mus­cle in Syria has marginal­ized the US while al­low­ing Rus­sia, Iran, and Turkey to dis­re­gard the US with­out suf­fer­ing any con­se­quences.

The ab­sence of a ro­bust Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria al­lowed Iran to play a ma­jor role in the coun­try and se­cure a con­tigu­ous land­mass from the Gulf to the Mediter­ranean; gave an en­tirely free hand to Rus­sia, mak­ing it the ul­ti­mate ar­biter in the coun­try; em­bold­ened Turkey to con­duct mas­sive mil­i­tary in­cur­sions into Syria aimed at es­tab­lish­ing a per­ma­nent pres­ence in the coun­try; and raised se­ri­ous doubts about Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to se­cu­rity in the re­gion.

This danger­ous slide can­not be re­versed by sim­ply bomb­ing some of As­sad’s chem­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties and stor­age, as Trump has done twice in the past be­cause of As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons against his own civil­ians. Al­though killing nearly 4,000 Syrians over the past seven years with chem­i­cal weapons is atro­cious and beyond the pale, what about the more than 500,000 who were mer­ci­lessly slaugh­tered by con­ven­tional weapons?

Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary ab­sence is a fac­tor, and no one who knows the dy­namic of the con­flict, the power plays, and the con­tin­u­ing volatility of the re­gion can sug­gest oth­er­wise. Even a cur­sory re­view of the con­flicts cur­rently rag­ing in the Mid­dle East sug­gests that the US’ stature is di­min­ish­ing, and we are much worse off to­day than we were in the year 2003.

The dis­as­trous Iraq War has mas­sively desta­bi­lized the re­gion and we are still suf­fer­ing from its con­se­quences. The war gave rise to the bit­ter Sunni-Shi­ite con­flict, Iran was handed a golden op­por­tu­nity to en­trench it­self in Iraq and sub­se­quently in Syria while play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role in the civil war in Ye­men, it gal­va­nized the emer­gence of ISIS, and thrust the Mid­dle East into tur­moil, the end of which is far from in sight.

Yes, his­tory is in­struc­tive, and the US, re­gard­less of its global geostrate­gic na­tional in­ter­ests, can­not in­volve it­self in ev­ery con­flict. That said, the US must not be par­a­lyzed by past mis­guided poli­cies. The US has moral and prac­ti­cal obli­ga­tions to care­fully ex­am­ine each con­flict on its own and de­ter­mine its long and short-term ram­i­fi­ca­tions if we act, and what would hap­pen if we don’t.

The US can­not im­pact the de­vel­op­ment of events in Syria with­out a cred­i­ble and strong mil­i­tary back­ing to de­ter any ad­ver­sary from act­ing in any way deemed in­con­sis­tent with the US’ and our al­lies’ in­ter­ests. I hope that Sec­re­tary of De­fense Mat­tis, who seems to have a clear grasp of the re­al­ity in Syria, will con­vince Trump to em­brace this ap­proach and pre­vail.

As long as Amer­ica re­mains on the right side of his­tory and up­holds its moral obli­ga­tions, it will re­claim its global lead­er­ship role, which is sorely lack­ing.

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