Out of Syria

Wednesday afternoon Israel time I was outlining with my collaborator Yoav Kapshuk our paper on the meaning of the Syrian civil war and its resolution for the future of world order. As soon as I got off the phone with Dr. Kapshuk, I saw on my news feed that President Trump had declared victory against ISIS and ordered American troops out of Syria.

On Thursday afternoon, Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned over the president’s decision, choosing not to emulate General George Marshall who refused to resign when overruled by President Truman on the recognition of the Jewish State.

We are seeing a lot of criticism of the president’s decision to pull out of Syria from people who, until Wednesday, were unaware the United States had troops in Syria. We are also seeing a lot of talk about America betraying the Kurds to Assad from people who don’t know that Bashar al-Assad and the Kurds aren’t enemies, that they haven’t really been fighting, and that Assad for all his atrocities is a better strategist than to wind up a civil war he didn’t start by starting a new one for no reason at all. Assad has no reason to side with the Turks, who are hostile to his regime, against the Syrian Kurds, who are not, or to welcome Turkish intervention against the Kurds within Syria.

Whether we like it or not, Assad has won his war. True, he needed the help of the Iranians, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah from Lebanon, and the Russians. But it is also true that some of the Sunni Islamists who fought him were jihadis who are actually genocidal, who proudly rape and enslave, and who inspire copycat groups and lone wolves throughout the world.

A continued U.S. presence in northern Syria is obviously in the interest of the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds do not have a recognized state of their own but are, thanks to the settlement of World War I, divided among Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. The Kurds have fought so many battles that it is understandable they welcome the help of anybody willing to fight their battles for them. And here in Israel the defense and foreign policy establishments, the same people who have been wrong for a generation on the conflict with Palestinians and run to the media to undermine the elected Prime Minister at every opportunity, are sure that the United States has created a vacuum that will be filled by Putin and the Iranians to Israel’s detriment.

I see things playing out a bit differently. As Assad consolidates his rule, the role of foreign forces in his country will diminish, not increase. Hezbollah fighters are in Syria as mercenaries, and Assad is not going to pay them when he has no battles to fight. The Iranian ability to project power abroad is threatened by unrest and a crumbling economy at home—though it doesn’t help that the same people attacking President Trump for withdrawing in Syria were just a short while ago trying to undermine the war against Iran and her proxies in Yemen.

The Russian presence in Syria, viewed from a strictly Israeli lens, is basically a tripwire force: it does not menace Israel directly, but interferes with our ability to act in Syria because it is backed by Russia’s offshore nuclear might.

Apart from Israel, I cannot see how Russia’s presence in Syria threatens America’s interests or America’s allies. The Russians have and will continue to have bases in Syria, but they do not have the modern navy or air force to project power from those bases that has anything like the capacities of the United States and its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Declaring victory and getting out may not always be the right move. But perpetual war in Syria would be the way to go only as part of a strategy of containment. President Trump’s critics need to explain to Americans who engagement in Syria means to contain. They need to explain why those threats are of the magnitude to require a global strategy of containment. They need to explain why Syria is a good place to fight.

Mattis in his resignation cites the menace of China and Russia. China, which in the foreseeable future will overtake the United States as an economic power, is projecting power and influence into the Caribbean through its increasing entanglement with the collapsing Maduro regime in Venezuela, and is currently trying to cow the Canadians to do its bidding rather than that of the United States.

Russia, as wise man Paul Nitze used to say of the Soviet Union before it, is basically a third-world country with nuclear missiles. According to 2017 figures, Russia ranks 73rd, just behind the Seychelles, in per capita GDP. Would-be architects of a new new world order, those who want to show how America can continue to lead the world to greater peace and wider prosperity, need to to show how, when, and where a rising China, not a stagnating Russia and a collapsing Iran, need to be contained. Syrian Kurdistan is surely not the place.

Photo Credit: Ali Imran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).