One Year Ago, Pundits Welcomed a Turning Point in Syria. They Were Wrong.
U.S. policy in the Middle East is being guided by Trump's doctrine of incoherent chaos. And it's only getting worse.
A year ago, 59 U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles hit Syria’s Sharyrat airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This was supposed to usher in a new era of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. It didn’t.
From the moment the missiles flew, pundits and lawmakers across the political spectrum swooned at U.S. President Donald Trump’s decisiveness. They were giddy the United States was finally flexing its muscles after years of former President Barack Obama’s supposed fecklessness, and asserted that Trump would oversee a broader shift to a more vigorous U.S. military role in the Middle East. America’s regional partners, who had long wanted U.S. military action against Assad — and eventually, Iran — heaped praise on the new president. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke for many when he said, “this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.”
Well, so much for that. Instead of a message of resolve, let alone a cohesive strategy, what we have is an incoherent jumble. Trump’s approach to the Middle East is an unusual patchwork, combining Obama’s policies (especially the military’s fight against the Islamic State and reluctance to use force against Assad), Republican foreign policy shibboleths (such as undoing the Iran nuclear deal), standard campaign promises on which previous presidents were smart enough to not follow through (moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem), and political rants (such as claims that the United States has gotten “nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years”).
Where are all these contradictions and disjointed impulses leading? Nowhere good.
In Syria, Trump’s desire to withdraw troops and withhold stabilization support is a manifestly bad idea. The United States learned this the hard way when it left Iraq in 2011. If U.S. forces depart, Washington loses influence and creates a security vacuum.
The United States should not leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Syria. But a modest force of several thousand focused mainly on training, combined with a meaningful reconstruction and stabilization program, could make a difference. The U.S. military can resource and sustain such a mission with acceptable risk — and it wants to. Moreover, the administration could use its control of territory inside Syria as leverage against Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran in a diplomatic effort to end the Syrian civil war.
If the United States pulls the plug, don’t expect its partners to step into the breach (believe us, it’s been tried). In the short term, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime would all benefit. In the long term, expect a reconstituted and rebranded Islamic states that would only draw the United States back in.
Perhaps Trump will get talked out of withdrawal. After pushback from the military, he seems to have delayed his demand for leaving Syria, just as he acquiesced to his military commanders’ advice when it came to arming the Kurds and waging military campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa, executing plans put in place by the Obama administration.
But don’t bet on such deference to last.
For example, last December the president disregarded his team’s warnings and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — fulfilling a campaign promise that many presidential candidates have made but on which none had previously dared to follow through. This came on the heels of months of reasonable and balanced talks with all sides as the administration attempted to develop a peace plan. Jerusalem will certainly be Israel’s capital in any two-state agreement, but it will also be the capital of a Palestinian state. A much smarter approach would have been to recognize two capitals in Jerusalem and try to extract comitments from both sides for this major step. Instead, in the art of Trump’s deal, the United States got nothing.
The White House said that after a “cooling off period,” the Palestinians would be willing to negotiate, and that negotiations would be easier with Jerusalem “off the table.” But four months later there have still been no meetings between senior U.S. officials and Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership is saying that the United States is no longer a credible mediator in the conflict — and much of the world seems to agree.
And as major protests in Gaza continue, the administration is inexplicably throwing fuel on the fire by moving up the date of an initial symbolic embassy move to Jerusalem to next month, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence — a day that is known by Palestinians the Nakba — the catastrophe.
We see the same pattern with Iran. For months Trump heeded those who urged him to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, even if they believed the agreement was problematic and needed fixing. But last fall things began to change, and now, with newly named U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, both anti-deal hawks, ascendant, the United States will likely pull out as early as next month, with little sense of what will happen next.
The result won’t be increased pressure on Iran. It will be a weakened sanctions regime that will not achieve the same type of pressure that led Tehran to agree to significant restraints on its nuclear program. With a major split between the United States and the other parties to the agreement (Europe, Russia, and China), sanctions and diplomatic pressure won’t have the same punch. Most importantly, the United States will not be able to take half of Iran’s oil sales off of the international market as it did five years ago, because two major purchasers — China and India — are unlikely to cooperate as they did back then.
Iran may try to stay in the nuclear agreement for a while and negotiate with Europe, Russia, and China while isolating the United States. But political pressure in Tehran to walk away will prove overwhelming. So expect Tehran to violate the agreement by restricting access to international inspectors and restarting parts of its nuclear program.
Eventually, the United States and its partners will likely be left with a terrible choice — allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, or take military action against a country with the population three times the size of Iraq. How Trump squares his rants about taxpayer dollars being wasted in the Middle East and the tremendous costs of war with Iran is anybody’s guess.
There’s tremendous irony in all this. In the Middle East, more than anywhere else, U.S. partners are thrilled with Trump. Leaders in the Gulf states and Israel express relief that they have a true friend in the White House who understands what it takes to exercise power.
Yet like so much else with Trump, this is an illusion. So let’s stop pretending that the “adults” are in charge, or that there is a regional strategy, or that last year’s Syria strike was anything other than a one-off response. Trump is the one in charge, and U.S. policy in the Middle East is being guided by his doctrine of incoherent chaos.
Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He is currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
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