I will never forget the first time I realize that Barack Obama was clueless about the Middle East.
I was traveling in the US during the 2008 campaign. An Obama commercial stuck with me like a bone in my throat. In speaking about the Middle East he said something to the effect of ‘we will withdraw our troops and end the war in Iraq.’
Immediately I understood that he didn’t understand the Middle East, or was playing politics at the risk of losing a war. I wrote, then, that was like winning a game of Monopoly by turning the board upside-down. Wars are not ended by quitting. When combatting insidious ideologies of extremist Islam, such a strategy just creates a void and makes the enemy stronger.
When Obama was elected, I hoped the naïveté he displayed would be replaced by a more pragmatic policy. What I came to believe was less that Obama was naïve, but more that his rhetoric was rooted in a calculated political agenda that was the most Islamic oriented in any US administration, and during which he spent more time than ever trying to separate Islam from “violent extremism.” Among other things, this was a dangerous if not deliberate way to convince people that Islam in general, and Islamic extremism, were not enemies of America or democracy.
It seemed that other than being Commander in Chief, Obama was also Contortionist-in-Chief. At the end of two terms he is responsible for a period during which Islamic extremists took root in and permeated the Middle East, making the world much less safe.
One of the symptoms of Obama’s failed middle eastern policies is a horrendous civil war in Syria that’s left hundreds of thousands dead and many more refugees. Obama cannot get all the blame. However, had he adhered to the red lines he articulated, not added fuel to the raging fire of the “Arab Spring,” and had he asserted US influence in Syria with a pro-active policy, things would have come out differently.
Syria is now defined by Russia and Iran asserting their influence, and the world powers all but conceding their hegemony there. Until recently, one remaining hope was that the US would maintain its presence, balancing if not counter acting these anti-Western influences, one of which defines Islamic extremism, two words that Obama would not even utter together.
Now, its President Trump’s turn to fumble the Syrian ball.
Recently, he impulsively announced a unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Syria, drawing pushback from republican allies, challenges from military officials in the Pentagon, triggering the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and the ire of other western countries.
The ire from some western countries is somewhat laughable. If they were so concerned with the potential vacuum and resulting problems from a US withdrawal, perhaps they should have (or maybe would now) provided increased troops of their own to buttress the US presence. Reports are that some Arab countries may step up to provide troops.
The issue, however, is not so much about policing the Middle East for its residents (though there’s a legitimate reason to do so), as it is policing and asserting influence in the Middle East for the rest of the world. It’s also ironic considering so many of these western countries now critical of the US withdrawal have allowed virtually unrestricted immigration from Syria and other countries, bringing with it an influx of Islamic extremism that’s breached the European continent.
The concerns of Secretary Mattis and others in the Pentagon are valid. Russia is already entrenched. US withdrawal from Syria creates a vacuum, one that will be filled by Iran as they extend their influence across Iraq, through Syria and into Lebanon. Turkey is bad actor and has its eyes on the Kurdish region, and people.
Maintaining a presence in Syria is not just about being policemen for others, it’s a matter of asserting US interests. I don’t know if Trump Is just naïve, but an active presence throughout the Middle East is necessary, and is in the US’ interest. Unlike Obama whose policy emboldened the extremists, its unclear what Trump’s policy is, or if he even has one. What is clear is that the plan to withdraw from Syria is not in synch with US’ military leaders.
I don’t suspect that Trump would decide to pull troops from South Korea any time soon, even if he reaches some agreement with North Korea. I’m not sure how he thinks that leaving Syria to a Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis is in the US’ interests, or any less dangerous than the threat North Korea presents.
First, creating a void in Syria that will be filled by Russia, Iran and Turkey very much contradict US interests. Ceding that unilaterally is bad policy at best. It sends a message to US allies and terrorists that one should not trust the US’ long term commitment and that because of this, waiting out US resolve is a viable strategy. It’s ironic that Trump canceled a meeting with Russian President Putin over the seizure of a Ukrainian ship, but now is effectively ceding Syria to Russian (Iranian/Turkish) control.
Withdrawal from Syria is also against the interests of the Kurds who, as US allies, should be supported and not set up for an onslaught from within Syria, the Turks, or Iranians. If it’s true that part of the reason for Trump’s withdrawal is because of an anticipated attack by Turkey on the Kurds, this is an outrage because Turkey can hardly be considered a US ally.
The domination of Syria by an erratic Russia, and belligerent Iran and Turkey is bad and dangerous for US allies Israel, and relatively moderate Sunni Arab countries, Jordan, the Gulf Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
Regarding the Saudis, it’s ironic after all the world attention on the murder of a single Saudi writer and discrediting of and calls to bring down its Crown Prince, the Syrian butchering of hundreds of thousands of people does not offend the world’s sensibilities or make President Assad any less legitimate to remain in power.
Trump began restoring alliances with US middle eastern allies who had become disenfranchised in Obama’s wake. Now, Trump risks disenfranchising the same allies and raising a question again, whether the US is and can be a reliable partner.
Trump claims that ISIS has been defeated. If that were the case, there’d be no reason to leave others’ troops there to fill the void the US is leaving. His Iraq visit during Christmas highlighted that. ISIS may be weakened but its not been defeated. It is an insidious, deadly group that, regardless of how much territory they control, is an ideology that thrives and inspires others. ISIS is a cancer. No oncologist would suggest taking out most of a tumor, or ending chemo 80% of the way through its protocol.
Even if there was not a compelling reason to maintain a presence in order to counteract Russia, Iran and Turkey as Syria is slowly put back together, the US should remain steadfast combatting ISIS until it is legitimately destroyed.
Unless reversed, Trump’s Syrian fumble will become a win for Russia, Iran, and Turkey, hardly the kind of “winning” that he campaigned on, or that will make America anything other than at greater risk.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has been blessed by the calling to fellowship with Christian supporters of Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He writes a regular column for Standing With Israel at charismanews.com and other prominent Websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.