When will the politicians, some conservatives included, finally learn from the endless mistakes in the Middle East? For how much longer will we send our soldiers to die on the sword of Islam, refereeing untenable Islamic civil wars, with no outcome for our side other than casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, arming more Islamists, and feeling the responsibility to take in refugees and “interpreters” from all sides of the civil war?
Nobody wants to see the terrible photos streaming from the media of the civilian casualties in the Syrian Islamic civil war. But nobody in the media engaging in yellow journalism or in the political class can articulate a vision of what our involvement would look like. They just use pictures of children as an undefined policy punch line.
They say we must destroy ISIS.
Then they say we must get Russia and Iran out of Syria.
They now say we must go after Assad for using chemical weapons.
Are there no serious policy-makers willing to point out that these goals are mutually exclusive, are not in our strategic interests, will result in no good outcome for us, and will not end the violence?
Why there is no good move in Syria
This administration has already doubled down on our re-involvement in Iraq and sent troops to “fight ISIS” in Syria. Now the president is hinting at going after Assad — with no understanding of what that looks like in terms of fighting ISIS. Do we send half our troops to fight ISIS and half to fight Assad the same way Obama had the CIA and the Pentagon back a proxy war against each other by supporting rival Islamic factions?
If by a plan of action, Trump means to bomb Assad’s palace like Reagan did to Gadhafi, or level Raqqa on the ISIS front just to send a message, I’m all for it. But to get sucked into an endless ground war that is not even a war is untenable.
The only thing worse than not having a broad strategic understanding and strategy for the Middle East is to send our troops into harm’s way without such a strategic plan.
At this point, it would be a colossal mistake to get further entrenched in this fight. And I say that as a foreign policy hawk. Refereeing civil wars, as Lindsey Graham and John McCain want to do, is actually the dovish position.
Here is how I described the insufferable civil war back when the media was flashing endless photos of Aleppo last fall:
The international media is engaging in yellow journalism showing sensational pictures from the civil war in Aleppo, essentially goading America into further involving our military in the insufferable conflict. Even Republican leaders direct their criticism at Obama for not involving us enough in the civil war. They want more troops on the ground. But for what? To fight for whom? For which outcome? The same people who used disturbing images depicting the rule of terror from the Islamic State to declare a vacuous policy of “we must destroy ISIS” are now using the scene from Aleppo to demand that we destroy Assad and his Russian backers. Which one is it? How about we let Allah sort it out?
Undoubtedly, there are a lot of innocent people who get killed in any civil war, certainly Islamic civil wars. There is so much misery in this world and we pray for God’s salvation. But what is our military supposed to do? The political class in both parties would have you believe we could identify a group of Thomas Jefferson Democrats in the country, vanquish ISIS, vanquish all of the Al Qaeda affiliates and splinter groups, defeat Assad and the Russians … and then have those mythical characters hold the entire ungovernable array of Islamic tribes together. Obama has already abused our special operators and resources by having them fund and train Al Qaeda splinter groups that are calling for the beheading of those troops already there!
The enduring lesson of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Middle East conflict over the past few decades, a lesson we must heed in Syria, is that even if the case for intervention in Islamic civil wars can be reasonably articulated — a tenuous assumption to begin with — there must be specific ground that we can hold for a specific entity that will serve our interests and hold the country together in a way that doesn’t completely erase our investment within a few years.
What is that ground we will be holding here, and for whom? Why would we first send our troops into a meat-grinder and ask these questions later? We already have troops in Syria for the purpose of fighting ISIS — why in the world would we overwrite that already dubious mission by sending troops to battle Assad? The only thing worse than not having a broad strategic understanding and strategy for the Middle East is to send our troops into harm’s way without such a strategic plan.
The reality of the Middle East must never be viewed in a vacuum focused on any one particular enemy. There must be an understanding of the interlocking and moving pieces, as well as the cause and effect of each action and how it serves or harms our strategic interests.
In the past, I’ve compared Syria to a septic tank full of snakes, scorpions, sharks, and piranhas. How would you react to someone frenetically declaring, “We must jump in to get rid of the head of the sharks?” Then switching focus to declare, equally emphatically, “We must instead jump in get rid of the snakes?”
Anyone with a modicum of common sense would respond, “Well, yes, the head of the sharks should go. In fact all the sharks should go. Heck, all the snakes, scorpions, and piranhas need to go too. But why should we jump into the septic tank and risk life and limb to try for an impossible outcome?”
Likewise, we often hear the canard “Assad needs to go.” Nobody disagrees with that. He does need to go. Putin needs to go. ISIS needs to go. Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda affiliates need to go. Hezbollah needs to go. The Muslim Brotherhood rebels we are arming need to go. And frankly, the people who support them all need to go. But therein lies the problem.
What Trump should do
Now that all our enemies are fighting each other, rather than jump into an insufferable situation from a position of weakness, we must stand outside the tank and contain it from a position of strength. We must ensure that Egypt and Jordan remain stable. We must protect our commerce and shipping routes. And where we can work with individual groups such as the Kurds to help them hold definitive and sustainable ground for a safe zone, that is something that can be explored.
This is essentially the strategy of Israel. Rather than get fully involved in the civil war, from time to time Israel will bomb anyone who steps outside the septic tank and threatens its border — be it Hezbollah, Assad’s forces, or the Sunni Islamist factions. If it’s good enough for Israel, which shares a border with Syria in the Golan, it’s good enough for us.
This is a philosophy that Trump clearly understood during the campaign, when he boldly declared that the Iraq war was a mistake and promised not to get involved in the quicksand of nation-building and refereeing Islamic civil wars.
Rather than rush into action and impetuously react to specific Middle East tragedies, often in ways that conflict with previous actions, the president needs to step back and take a holistic approach. With few good options in most of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. would be best positioned to focus on homeland security, protecting stable allies, and the use of decisive soft power against all of our Islamic enemies and those who are funding them. This, in conjunction with an effective carrot-and-stick approach with other actors in the Middle East, will help contain and isolate the terror elements. It will allow us to control the situation from a position of strength and possibly open up opportunities for action in Iraq and Syria at a later date, when strategic interests are identified and a path towards achieving those missions and holding the gains becomes apparent.
And if the president feels compelled to act against Assad, a strategy to abrogate the Iran deal and get tough on Iran’s Russian backers would be more effective than involving our military in direct ground combat. He’d also be wise to phone Benjamin Netnayahu and solicit his advice on Syria rather than pester him about settlements like Obama did.
The pull to reflexively react to images being used by the media to goad us into action that will not help anyone is undoubtedly strong. But the president must return to his common-sense instincts and refuse to create his own Iraq. The support for involvement in civil wars is always strong before our troops get killed, and then that same president who lived by public opinion must die by public opinion. Remember, Iraq wasn’t only a foreign policy disaster and a tragedy for our military and budget. It destroyed Bush’s entire political capital and almost wiped out the party. Arguably, Iraq is what got us Obamacare. There’s no way to calculate the damage of an open-ended involvement in the Syrian civil war.