It’s time to be strategic and deliberate in what we do in the Middle East, not fly on autopilot because we’ve been doing things a certain way. The only thing worse than not having an “America first” strategic plan in the Middle East is sending our troops into a tribal war meat grinder, flung out in precarious, indefensible positions, all without a plan. Now, two more of our finest soldiers paid for this lack of vision with their lives. It’s time we finally define our mission and put the proper resources behind it or responsibly and carefully withdraw so that the Syria campaign, now on its fifth year, doesn’t become Afghanistan 2.0.
On Wednesday, two of our troops were killed and three more wounded in a suicide blast from ISIS “while conducting a routine patrol.” A Department of Defense civilian and a Pentagon contractor were also killed in the blast. The attack took place in Manbij, a northwestern province far from the Kurdish base of power. It sits right in the crosshairs of the battle lines between Assad’s forces, Russians, Sunnis, Turks, and Kurds. Now, rather than attacking the Iranians, ISIS (and the next inevitable iteration of the Sunni insurgency) attacks us because we are magnets.
The details of this attack are important to understanding the strategic mistake we have made there since the Obama administration and why it’s the worst of all worlds – both for the safety of our troops and for any hope of a positive outcome. According to NBC, “Forces were on foot in the city when they were approached at around 1 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) by a man wearing civilian clothing with explosives hidden underneath.” What was the environment? “The blast happened in a market area of small alleys that is crowded with shops and street vendors.”
We can have the strongest military in the world, but there is no way we can send isolated units into these types of cities on foot patrol and leave them there indefinitely without any defensive lines or strategic offensive vision, while any suicide bomber dressed as a civilian can attack them. This isn’t a war; this is a social work operation in a war zone – the worst combination of all. Why are we sending troops to die in this Islamic civil war, just like we are doing in Afghanistan, Somalia, and across northern Africa?
Our military does well when it is advancing, striking, and maneuvering. What our troops can’t do is sit in a precarious situation where lines between civilians and militants are blurred, patrolling ground between multiple tribal factions in small isolated units. This is the lesson of Afghanistan as well. Our troops are not operating behind well-protected forward bases, surrounded by strategic outposts and backed by field artillery (as opposed to just air cover). They are isolated and far-flung while embedded with Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. Our strategic planning for refereeing a multipronged civil war has been so bad that our soldiers are now confronted with the very weapons we handed out and got into the hands of our enemies.
Even if some strategic outcome could be articulated, of holding specific territory such that we will not continue the seesaw and rubber-band effect of empowering Iran or further fueling the Sunni blowback, all sides must agree that this cannot be accomplished with 2,000 soldiers and these tactics. It’s a big enough force to make our soldiers a magnet for all sides, but not strong enough to properly accomplish any goals or provide adequate defensive lines for the troops themselves. Moreover, our small presence is also just enough to tactically complicate Israel’s efforts to bomb IRGC targets while not being enough to deter a full-scale Hezbollah invasion of Israel, as Caroline Glick has observed. Finally, the little we are doing there is focused on holding down the Sunni insurgency, which allows Russia and Iran to rely on us to bail them out of what would be their problem, further paving the road for Hezbollah to start up with Israel.
As Glick deftly explains, “The most problematic aspect of the withdrawal is the one least discussed.” And that is Trump’s inexplicable alliance with Turkey’s jihadist President Recep Erdogan. If he pulls out to deliver the Kurds into the hands of Erdogan, that is a problem. But a phased pullout while simultaneously threatening Erdogan with expulsion from NATO, divestment of business and military alliances, and downright sanctions, while also ramping up sanctions on Iran, that will allow us to benefit from the upsides of a pullout while mitigating any downsides with policies that we should be doing anyway. Israel has also expressed concerns about our continued policy of arming the Lebanese Armed Forces, which quite literally is like arming Hezbollah. It’s these problems with Trump’s broader strategy that concern Israel when coupled with the withdrawal, not the pullout itself in a vacuum. On the other hand, with or without those other policies that need to be reversed, simply refereeing a proxy war in Syria with 2,000 troops primarily focused on the Sunnis is not exactly the way to counter Iran effectively.
When was the last time Israel lost troops in a foreign country? Israel is right on the doorstep of these wars, with all sides seeking its annihilation. If one believes we should divert our resources from our own border and hemisphere to be in the Middle East, then, by a factor of 10,000, Israel should be doing the same thing. But they don’t commit their troops long-term. They seek and destroy, strike and maneuver. When any side of a war gets to close for comfort, particularly the Iranians, Israel strikes quickly and then leaves. Then they allow the enemies to continue killing each other. Israeli troops don’t do endless foot patrols and get attacked by the very people for whom they are providing food, electricity, and water.
Obviously, we should project a strong deterrent in the region to keep our strategic interests, such as shipping lanes in key waterways, open, but we must first identify those strategic interests. This is why we should keep our strong naval presence in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, so we can strike and maneuver as needed. But indefinitely placing an unserious number of ground troops precariously between the shark and alligator teeth of competing sides of civil wars is counterproductive on every level, and in my view, immoral to our soldiers. This is the biggest lesson of the past 17 years in Afghanistan.
Top Republicans are instead using the attack as an excuse to double down and advocate for staying in this morass indefinitely without any vision. But they will not paint a picture of what this looks like and how it won’t become another Afghanistan.
Why can’t our interests in this region be accomplished through effective soft power, sanctions on Iran and Turkey, leveraging soft power against Qatar (which is helping both Iran and Sunni terrorists), a standing deterrent of strike-and-maneuver, and most importantly, focusing on our own homeland – border, visas, and domestic counterterror against the terrorists we already stupidly let in our own country?
We’ve increased immigration dramatically from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan precisely because we got involved in these wars in the first place and then felt guilty enough to let them in. In the exact opposite of “fighting them there so they don’t come here,” we actually fight on their behalf there and then bring them here where they’d otherwise have no way of reaching us.
Overall, we’ve admitted 2.2 million immigrants from 47 predominantly Muslim countries from 2001 through March 31, 2018. In addition, we also bring in over 150,000 foreign students per year from these same countries. Since 2013, we’ve admitted over 21,000 refugees from Syria. Astoundingly, 98.4 percent have been Muslim. Thankfully, Trump has shut off the flow this past year, but what’s the bigger danger – not having a few thousand troops in the jaws of the Syrian civil war or bringing 21,000 Syrians to our shores?
As we’ve noted before, the only way Sunni terrorists in particular can hurt us is if we let them into our country. Most Sunni governments are now allies against terror, so the problem is not with statecraft. The problem is with immigration. As Sunni governments, such as Egypt and the UAE, clamp down on radical Sharia, we are at risk to incur a “reverse refugee” phenomenon, where we are inundated with those “persecuted” by Muslim governments for being too radical!
These considerations are all greater threat than anything on the ground in the Syrian tribal warfare. I lay out some of these policy changes in this podcast. In fact, our broken immigration and subpar domestic counterterror coordination among the government agencies is actually what is funding many of these wars. How can we ask more soldiers to die in the Middle East when we have a sustainable mission for them here at home that would have the same strategic objective?
This is what Trump is confronted with after years of failure in the Middle East by the past two administrations. He needs to take a holistic approach and change multiple policies, and he must get tougher on our enemies using soft power. The status quo should not be an option.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.