Our troops in Syria are hostages to Obama’s deal with Iran, which mandates a state of perpetual war between America and the region’s Sunni majority. Donald Trump wants to withdraw from both.
Tablet Magazine, by Lee Smith, April 23, 2018:
“Mission Accomplished,” Donald Trump tweeted triumphantly after the recent limited strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities. Critics were quick to portray the President’s boast as hot air, and pontificate about the need for a comprehensive White House strategy to deal with Syria and other long-term regional issues.
But Trump does have a strategy, which the strikes and the President’s tweets have made plain—a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. Washington has plenty of allies to work with and through in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both share an American interest in rolling back Iran. Further, the White House can work against Iran and its partners in Syria through proxy forces on the ground.
The peculiar fact is that neither the Iran deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, nor the U.S. troop presence in Syria was designed to push back on the clerical regime. Quite the opposite—they are part of a strategy purposed, perhaps unintentionally, to relieve Tehran. But now Trump intends to get out of both—while reserving the prerogative to use force, as the strikes made plain.
There is little evidence to suggest that Trump is a grand strategist in the classical mode, but his instincts are right. Contrary to the horror and scorn with which both ideas have been greeted by the Beltway foreign-policy consensus, Trump’s grand Middle Eastern strategy makes sense.
The irony is that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, sought to accomplish the same goal of withdrawing the United States from the mire of what Trump rightly describes as a “troubled” region. The difference is that Obama’s mechanism for extricating America from the Middle East was the nuclear deal with Iran, which has paradoxically entailed not only more bloodshed but also continuing U.S. military engagement on the ground. Obama’s big mistake was his naïve belief in Iranian PR, which transformed a militarily weak, economically backwards, and politically unstable country into a technological powerhouse fronted by the dashing revolutionary fashion-plate, Qassem Suleimani.
Obama’s grand strategy was to “balance” traditional U.S. allies against Iran to create a kind of stasis while the U.S. snuck out the back door. The problem with that strategy was that Iran was simply unable to fill the stabilizing role Obama had in mind. It’s too weak, and there are many, many more Sunnis in the Middle East than Shiites. Not even Vladimir Putin’s military escalation in September 2015 followed by massive infusions of U.S. cash to Iran and its clients could win a decisive victory for the Assad regime, which Russia and Iran support.
Why is this glaringly obvious failure in judgment still so difficult for D.C. pundits and think-tankers to understand? In part, because it would acknowledge that Obama wasn’t so smart, which means they aren’t so smart, either. It would also force the chattering classes to acknowledge years of U.S. complicity in the Syrian genocide. Americans, especially those on both the left and the right who see demonstrating American virtue as a main goal of U.S. foreign policy, still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that Obama didn’t simply stand idly by while the Iranians and their allies slaughtered and gassed Syrians, although that prospect would certainly be bad enough. Rather, America actively assisted in the slaughter.
The money that the Obama White House provided Iran—tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, the $1.7 billion ransom for American hostages—helped fund Iran’s Syrian campaign. The weapons and the soldiers who committed genocide inside Syria were partly paid for with U.S. dollars. American aid to the Iraqi army and Lebanese Armed Forces helped stabilized Iranian holdings while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its partners like Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, nearly all of whom were Sunnis, many of whose villages were then subjected to sectarian cleansing and replaced with Shia loyal to Iran. While D.C. partisans of “fighting ISIS” point to the prevention of a future terror attack on U.S. soil as the main rationale for their mission, it doesn’t take a genius to see how helping kill 500,000 Sunnis in Syria is more likely to produce future terror attacks than to prevent them.
Trump’s strategy is simple: Pull the plug. The Middle East is a “troubled place,” Trump said after the strikes. “We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place. The United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”
What this means in practice is that the President is almost certain to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement next month. He’s given Secretary of Defense James Mattis six months to beat ISIS and then we’re out.