By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
President Trump’s stunning announcement last month that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria sent national security strategists of both parties into meltdown mode over his ill-conceived decision.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans criticized the President’s decision. Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the withdrawal a “Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin.” Other national security analysts and former military commanders echoed the pullout as unwise.
The perplexing part of the whole situation is that those who are the most adamant about ending U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts now seem to advocate that the U.S. redouble its efforts in the Middle East.
For all the angst over Trump’s decision, his critics failed to clearly address the objectives the U.S. is trying to achieve in Syria. In fact, it remains unclear what the U.S. wants to achieve in the Middle East.
So far, the U.S. repeats the same strategy year after year, hoping for a different outcome. Few people ever analyze whether that course of action is actually working.
National Football League coaches consistently adjust their game plans throughout the contest to focus on what has worked and they adjust or alter what hasn’t. Unfortunately, the U.S. just keeps running the same plays. You would think that after a few years of doing the same thing, it would be time to revise U.S. strategy.
US Lacks Strategy for Syria
Ever since ISIS burst on the scene, Democratic and Republican presidents have failed to articulate an effective strategy other than the need to defeat the Islamic State. They do not understand that other long-term issues remain.
One question that no one ever addresses is what will happen to the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds have been the U.S.’s most loyal ally in the fight against ISIS and have withstood the worst of fighting against the Islamic State.
However, with a U.S. withdrawal, the Kurds will feel abandoned yet again by America. The Kurds will then face the wrath of Turkey, which regards them as terrorists – fit for destruction in the same manner as their Kurdish brethren in Turkey were.
Many national security strategists have strongly disagreed and openly criticized the President’s withdrawal decision. Yet these same individuals have never presented an acceptable counterargument on how the U.S. should deal with myriad issues in Syria.
A few of the major problems that need addressing:
- How can a stable government ever be established in Syria when the majority of the population detests and fears President Bashar Assad?
- What can be done about all the other non-state extremist elements that operate throughout Syria?
- If Assad is removed or replaced as president, who will lead the country?
- After the defeat of ISIS, what is the strategy to stabilize the country? We can’t even provide an effective humanitarian aid program or an effective plan to rebuild Syria that would help unify the country against the various extremist elements.
- What is to be done with other internal and external threats? Everyone has been focused on the threat from ISIS, but no one has presented a strategy for dealing with the spread in Syria of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah influence in support the Assad government.
- What about the role Turkey is playing in Idlib, where residents of the last rebel stronghold hate all sides in the civil war?
- How should the destabilizing impact of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe be handled?
Other Areas of the Middle East Require US Attention
The focus has been on Syria, but other, more pressing areas of the Middle East have a much higher national security priority for the U.S.
Israel faces immense challenges on its northern border from a reinvigorated Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is flush with revenue from Tehran. The funds were part of the Iran nuclear deal and transferred to its terrorist proxy organization.
America’s other longtime regional allies, Egypt and Jordan, currently face an unstable future due to a lack of any meaningful or effective economic development. That hampers both countries’ revitalization efforts, foments instability and contributes to the continuing turmoil in U.S.-Turkey relations. All of this has a direct impact on Syria and throughout the Middle East.
The Gulf Region Holds a Strategic Importance for the US
For decades, the Gulf region has had significantly more strategic national importance to the U.S. than Syria. This is unlikely to change in the near future.
Military Analyst Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes “It is the Gulf as whole, however, which is the most immediate challenge to U.S. policy, and where the lack of a credible mix of U.S. strategies in dealing with other countries is most important.”
A Stable Iraq Would Benefit the US
Of all the Gulf countries, Iraq is the most unstable and holds significant national security importance as a counterweight to the expansion of Iran’s influence in the region.
Iraq is more important to the U.S., than Syria in terms of its stability and development. The withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Iraq in 2011 followed the Obama administration’s failure to build upon the success of the American combat forces’ surge there in 2007-08 that stabilized the country.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq allowed the country to descend into chaos. That destabilization brought about the rise of ISIS.
A stable Iraq, however, will help prevent the rise of new extremist groups. A stable Iraq is also crucial for U.S. economic security because any impediment to the free flow of petroleum from the Gulf would have a disastrous impact on the global economy.
What Happens After the Defeat of ISIS?
The U.S. has focused solely on defeating ISIS. However, there has been little thought given to what happens to areas formerly occupied by the Islamic State inside Iraq. Those areas have a Sunni majority.
Iraq is virtually bankrupt and the predominately Sunni cities in the eastern and the northern parts of the country, once occupied by ISIS, have been totally destroyed. These cities are now being run by well-armed Shiite militias that engender a deep-seated resentment from the Sunnis. These militias can only fuel a resurgence of support for the Islamic State, even though they provide the only security for the Sunni minority against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
If the U.S. is ever to contain Iran, a secure and stable Iraq must be part of the equation. A massive economic development effort is vital to unite the various factions, coupled with an effective government in Baghdad that pays attention to the needs of all its citizens no matter their ethnic or religious background. That is an extremely tall order in the best of circumstances.
The time has come for a comprehensive geopolitical strategy for the Middle East that focuses on a realistic approach utilizing all elements of U.S. national power; it must not be just a military way forward. The United States must understand the region and assess how we want it to be while focusing on current realities.