The United States is no longer the sole superpower in the world. Of course, it is the most dominant force on the planet, but that dominance—relative to the capabilities of other countries—has declined. Revanchist states, such as Russia, China, or Iran—even “friendly” states that have become disenchanted by the West, such as Turkey—are now arising to complicate U.S. foreign policy in ways not experienced since the nineteenth century. This is particularly true in the vital region of the Middle East.
If the world has entered a multipolar age in which many, variegated powers compete with one another in an endless game of dominance over limited territory and resources, then the Mideast is the definitive example of the trend. All of the problems the United States is facing today are playing themselves out with terminal intensity in the land between Europe and Asia, also known as the Middle East.
Riven by ethno-religious, tribal, and historical tensions, the Middle East is experiencing harrowing changes. In many respects, the same kind of turmoil that drove Europe mad during their religious feuds several centuries ago are now driving politics in the Middle East today; the only difference being more advanced weaponry. Today, a potentially nuclear-armed Iran is gobbling up the region, as are the Russians.
Meanwhile, the increasingly Islamist and autocratic Turkey—a NATO member—is distancing itself from the West. The Russians and Iranians (as well as the Chinese) have happily embraced the troubled Turkey, as it seeks new allies to replace its old Western ones.
It is true that this is an alliance of convenience, but the United States can still act to divide that alliance in its infancy. I believe this is precisely what Trump is doing by pulling out of Syria.
Pearl-Clutching Is a Washington Sport
Everyone in Washington is screaming that Trump is handing Syria (and the wider Middle East) over to Russia, Iran, and their newfound allies in Turkey, while at the same time selling out America’s erstwhile Kurdish friends to be annihilated by the Turks over long-standing religious, political, and historical differences.
The experts, once again, are wrong. Their appraisal of American military power and reach undercuts the fact that the United States still will be capable of striking back against enemy targets that may appear in Syria after American forces pull out.
By pulling out U.S. forces, Trump is likely giving Turkey time to recognize that neither the Iranians nor the Russians will prove receptive to their goal of reconstituting the Ottoman Empire in the region. Israel will not be too keen on the idea, either.
Trump isn’t “handing” Syria over to anyone. The president is merely recognizing that geopolitics is about leverage. Compared to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Russians, Iranians, and Turks, the United States has little leverage there. Keeping 2,000 Americans on the ground in Syria, with big targets painted on their backs, will not “stabilize” the region. It will likely compel Russia, Iran, and others to take harsher action against perceived U.S. interests in the region.
Those in Washington lamenting the drawdown believe that American troops are “stabilizers.” They are not. They give false hope to people who could never achieve a workable independence on their own without risking a major war. Neither is the American force operating in Syria large enough truly to bring about a peace that would better comport with U.S. national security preferences.
Even as those 2,000 U.S. troops have come to occupy nearly two-thirds of Syria, their hold is tenuous at best. The Russians, Iranians, and Syrian Arab Army (the forces loyal to Syria’s besieged strongman leader Assad) intend to keep Syria together and devoid both of jihadist “rebels” as well as the United States.
Yes, American forces have performed admirably under harsh conditions and they have managed to do great physical damage not only to ISIS in Syria, but also to significant amounts of Russian, Syrian Arab Army, and Iranian forces. Yet the Assad regime, operating alongside Turkey, Russia, and Iran, have actually formed a political solution to the Syrian civil war. The United States has no workable political resolution to the conflict. The most our “best and brightest” in Washington can achieve is to keep a constabulary force in Syria indefinitely, as they’ve done in Afghanistan, while that small force is hit on all sides by multiple enemies.
That’s not a strategy!
Great Power Politics Returns
If the world has entered a multipolar age, then America must embrace the classical geopolitical concept of realism. This means a degree of retrenchment and restraint is needed. Trump has rightly identified both a nuclear-armed Iran and the various, mostly Sunni Muslim jihadist terror organizations as direct threats to the United States. Trump understands that repeating the excess George W. Bush or exhibiting the weakness of Barack Obama will not yield the kind of results in the Middle East that America needs. Such actions will merely weaken the United States at a critical time.
Balancing against Iran by creating a Sunni Arab alliance (led by Saudi Arabia) aligned with Israel is vital, but not enough. The previous balance-of-power that existed in the region was backed up not only by the Sunni Arab autocrats and democratic Israel, but Turkey in the north as well. Today, however, because of deteriorating relations between the West and Turkey (over Turkey’s increasing preference for Islamic autocracy and their continued hostility toward the Kurds), Turkey has been compelled to move closer toward the budding Chinese-Russian-Iranian alliance.
Those who worry that the Syria pullout will create a vacuum in the region that the Russians and Iranians will exploit simply don’t understand: the vacuum was created in 2013, when the Obama Administration refused to intervene to stop the Syrian civil war from spilling out the way it did. The Russians and Iranians stepped in almost immediately and backstopped the flailing Assad Regime. Since then, no vacuum has existed: the Russians, Iranians, and even the Turks have steadfastly controlled the political situation on the ground.
Short of a war, there will be no way that America’s relatively small force will make a lick of difference in Syria. The other powers simply want Assad to remain in charge much more than the United States wants to depose him (and, thereby hand over the country to the head-chopping jihadists arrayed against Assad).
Taking Turkey Back
If Iran is the threat that many in the Trump Administration believe it to be, and if American military power is no longer as effective in the region as everyone previously thought, then why not step back, reserve the right to attack any foe that may arise in Syria at a later date, and seek to make nice with the weaker members of this new Russo-Iranian-Turkish alliance?
Turkey, despite its many problems, still needs the United States. It continues to be a NATO member and has, until recently, been a longtime rival to the Russians. Moreover, while it is in league with Iran now, Turkey paradoxically needs to weaken Iran in order to accomplish its goal of reestablishing the Ottoman Empire. To say that Turkey is an erstwhile member of the Russo-Iranian alliance is and always will be an overstatement.
Instead, Turkey is likely waiting to be enticed to return to the West, if only to check against Iran and Russia. In essence, Turkey wants to be a middle-man in the region. The United States should let Ankara take on this role. Besides, the United States needs a northern defensive perimeter to contain Iran.
Of course, this is a gamble. Maybe Turkey does not want to work with the United States right now. Unfortunately, the alternatives are too costly to imagine. Thus Trump is right to try a diplomatic balancing strategy whereas those who disagree with him—even those like James Mattis—are wrong. The Syria pullout is about breaking the budding Russian-Iranian alliance by giving Turkey some breathing space.
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