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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
A mere six days after President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Israel initiated an air strike near Damascus that targeted Iranian and Hezbollah missile locations. Whether Trump’s announcement played any role in the Israeli decision to strike the missile storage site is unknown.
Although Israel has struck military targets in Syria before, it is hard to ignore the timing of this latest strike. U.S. allies were caught off guard by the President’s announcement that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and his declaration that the Islamic State was defeated. It is conceivable that Israel felt compelled to increase its operational tempo amid the potential loss of a U.S. presence.
But on December 31, Trump claimed that the U.S. withdrawal would occur more slowly than he had previously announced just two weeks earlier. The change in the timeline may be the result of Trump’s allies in Congress expressing concern over a potential resurgence of the Islamic State. Also, the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces would find themselves in Turkey’s crosshairs.
However, Trump made no mention of removing U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq, perhaps thinking he might have to send troops back into Syria if the situation warranted. This line of thinking is speculation, of course, but with the U.S. wanting to realign its strategic posture in the Middle East and elsewhere, Trump’s troop decisions make some sense.
US Interests in the Middle East Centered on Continuation of Oil Imports
U.S. interests in the Middle East once centered largely on the continuance of commerce, particularly oil. America’s large navy could keep the sea lanes open, but ground-based issues were another matter.
Governments in the region were prone to rapid change and an ally could become an enemy in short order, as happened when the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 and U.S.-Iranian ties all but ended. This uncertainty of allied leadership forced the U.S. to rely on a balance of power strategy, thus preventing any one nation or faction from becoming a regional overlord.
American Dependence on Middle East’s Oil Has Declined
Today, the same issues exist, but the motivation behind them has changed. Now that the U.S. is the world’s largest oil producer and is even exporting energy products. As a result, its dependence on Middle East petroleum has declined. However, it benefits the U.S. to maintain the same strategy to ensure that world oil prices remain low.
Many of Washington’s foes depend on energy exports to maintain their economic well-being. Oil-exporters Iran, Russia, Venezuela and others need higher oil prices to balance their budgets and to maintain social stability via government subsidies to their citizens.
When the U.S. was heavily dependent on these foreign sources of oil, energy prices were much higher than they are today. The U.S. energy glut has changed how the United States interacts with the Middle East, even though the strategic methodology hasn’t much changed.
The U.S. had an interest in defeating the Islamic State because it threatened how the U.S. operated in the region. Now that the threat has diminished, Washington is keen to pull back militarily. However, U.S. allies in the region feel much differently because they remain exposed by nothing more than their proximity to their neighbors’ threats.
US Approach to Regional Outliers Begins with Israel
The first outlier worthy of mention is Israel. The Israeli national identity, government, military and economy all function quite differently than those of its neighbors.
This is a nice way of saying the Israeli government actually works. As a result, the U.S. can back this small nation against its much larger regional foes in pursuit of a regional balance of power because Israel will never become the strongman in the Middle East and will not threaten overall U.S. interests. Consequently, the U.S. can minimize its footprint in the Middle East and know that in Israel it has a capable regional ally with interests that are aligned with those of the U.S.
A good analogy would be the new U.S. relationship with Colombia. Whether this special relationship with Bogota will last is hard to say. Latin American nations are prone to rapid and sometimes violent political change. But for the time being, U.S.-Colombia ties serve as a potent lever in South America.
Kurds Have No Nation of Their Own, but Work with US on Security Issues
The other outlier with whom the U.S. partners are the Kurds. They do not have a nation of their own, being a minority in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. But they do have a common identity and language. The Kurdish forces are not homogeneous, but many of them work with the U.S. on any number of security issues.
Although this arrangement strains U.S. ties with Turkey, a formal ally and NATO member, it gives the U.S. flexibility by working with a large population spread across those three countries. The Kurds may not be united, but they do give the U.S. a capable partner across the Middle East, even when Kurdish interests are difficult to define.
One key point of divergence is the aforementioned lack of a Kurdish state. Many Kurds want an independent homeland, but that is not exactly in U.S. interests at the moment. Despite a lack of support from Washington for a unified Kurdistan, many Kurds still welcome the U.S. presence in the region.
Trump’s Somewhat Realist Position in the Middle East
Whether or not Trump recognizes that U.S. interests have changed, or even that he is trying to redefine those interests, the end result is the same. China, Iran and Russia have taken the bulk of Washington’s attention. Trump would much rather focus on China, thus making the U.S. presence in Syria and elsewhere untenable.
The high number of civilians killed in the air war with the Islamic State demonstrates the dangers of humanitarian intervention in pursuit of idealistic foreign policy. But a hands-off approach would have resulted in a brutal Islamic State expanding throughout the Middle East.
It wasn’t an easy choice for President Obama and his successor to engage in such an action following the war in Iraq. The U.S. has shunned dealing with its peer competitors in pursuit of the War on Terror.
The Trump administration has been consistent in calling for an end to U.S.-led police actions. Despite the uncertainty of a timeline, the withdrawal from Syria will indeed occur.
That’s because Trump feels the need to focus on China’s economic and security challenges. Whether the Islamic State is defeated, eradicated or lives to fight another day is secondary to a much more potent threat coming from the East.