The Middle East Crisis: Trump, Syria, Russia, Iran, Israel and More By Drew Kinney
When Donald Trump announced last Tuesday that he wants American troops out of Syria by next fall, he might have turned a potential success story into a quagmire. His administration could have completed a victory lap over the Islamic State, but it instead emboldened (an already triumphant) Bashar al-Assad to use the one type of weapon that could lead to greater American involvement in the war.
By remaining vague on the specifics, Trump seemed intent on avoiding Barack Obama’s mistake in Afghanistan, in which the former president announced a timeline for the Afghan Taliban on how long the revisionist insurgency needed to wait before it could renew its assault on the Afghan government. If that was Trump’s aim then it was a low bar.
The timing of Trump’s announcement could not have been worse. It happened while US policy-makers debated long-term US objectives on Damascus—beyond defeating the Islamic State. The content of the debate centered on whether or not the US should continue on in Syria in order to oust Assad, a task which would disrupt the Assad-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance that runs from Tehran to Beirut and wedges between NATO-ally Turkey and several other key US allies, namely Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The content of that policy debate, followed by Trump’s decision to drawdown troops in Syria, likely signaled to Assad that the Syrian leader had the freedom to prosecute the war with increasing intensity. Assad’s troop defections left him without the necessary manpower to occupy and hold regained territory.
As a result, he has relied on airpower and heavy artillery. While those two military assets do most of the work, the chemical attacks signal to the Syrian population that he is willing to stop at nothing to re-secure his regime. This was his father’s Hama strategy in 1982, an event which taught Syrians the Assad family is willing to kill up to 40,000 people to secure its regime.
Assad only ever needed the Americans to stay on the sidelines, but he received added support from the Russian air force and Iranian and Hezbollah ground troops. With this coalition, Assad seems poised to retake all of Syria (eventually). He could not have asked for a better gift than an American troop withdrawal.
The US’ shiny gift for Assad was more like a lump of coal for Israeli policymakers. This likely signaled to Knesset leaders that they would be abandoned with a strengthened Hezbollah-Iran-Syria axis on its northern border. This might explain why Israel just attacked Iranian targets in Homs.
A weakened (since 2003) and Iran-aligned Iraq cannot balance Iran, which has been able to strengthen Hezbollah by supplying the group weapons and supplies through Iraq and Syria. Moreover, Assad will likely need to take aggressive action against Israel—at least in tone—to regain some status and legitimacy after pummeling population-dense urban centers with barrel bombs since 2011. This situation won’t help Israelis sleep well at night.
This may fit in with the Trump administration’s decision to issue sanctions against members of Vladimir Putin’s network of cronies. It is possible that, in the context of the current American political climate, Trump could not have afforded to give Syria over to Putin, Assad, and Khamanei without taking some action against the Kremlin.
Escalation by all parties, however, is an equally worrying possibility and a more likely connection to Trump’s Russia sanctions. If those sanctions were the result of genuinely recognizing Putin’s aggressive foreign policy objectives, then the Trump administration might view the chemical attack—which the Trump administration blamed on Assad, but also on Iranian and Russian backing—as an extension of Putin’s hostility.
That prospect could converge with Israeli pressure to confront Iran in Syria at a time when (Iran hawk) Mike Pompeo awaits confirmation to start his new job at Foggy Bottom and (Iran hawk and neo-con) John Bolton takes the helm as National Security Advisor. Add to this that Israel probably does not want a resurgent Putin to drag them to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. The potential is high for this crisis to escalate into a regional, possibly global, conflagration with stepped-up American and Israeli involvement.
There are probably too many ironies and contradictions to clearly decipher. Here are just a few:
1. Assad has ruthlessly murdered Syrians since protests first erupted in 2011 in Dera’a, where his loyal Defense Companies closed off the city’s exits and sniped demonstrators from rooftops. Donald Trump has made it a cornerstone of both his presidential campaign and presidency to refuse entry of refugees fleeing such violence, yet Assad’s chemical weapons attacks have consistently moved him.
2. The US could be pushed toward greater involvement in a regional conflict that Barack Obama avoided like the plague precisely because George W. Bush—who Trump often criticized—eroded American credibility there and disrupted the regional power balance by flattening two of Iran’s neighbors.
3. Barack Obama was criticized for avoiding Syria while innocent people were being slaughtered, but the potential for full-scale US involvement against Assad has never been higher after Assad seems to have regained his footing.
4. Donald Trump criticized George W. Bush over Iraq and criticized Barack Obama for eroding US credibility over his redline on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Trump cannot really have it both ways. Another symbolic missile strike against Assad will be meaningless.
The Middle East is not a vital American security priority, and should be offshore balanced, but Trump’s foreign policy has aimed at defeating a relatively weak non-state actor, which was used at least in part to justify Putin’s ruthless intervention (especially the bombardment of Aleppo) to secure Assad’s path toward victory.
China is a foreign policy priority, yet Trump’s seeming willingness to escalate tensions with China through trade war brinksmanship is somehow being overshadowed by crisis in a region that perennially challenges American administrations.
Trump’s genuinely successful (unsuccessful if you prefer offshore balancing) battle against the Islamic State might—if it turns into 2003—turn out to be the most unsuccessful foreign policy decision of his tenure. This is especially true considering his harsh words for G. W. Bush.