A simple analogy vividly depicts the lesson lost on most in the Republican foreign policy establishment who believe we need American soldiers left precariously and indefinitely on the ground in tribal civil wars in order to keep us safe. When there are killer whales, sharks, snakes, and scorpions in a cesspool fighting each other, you don’t dive head-first into the tank to try to fight one of those dangers without understanding how you will survive the others or avoid tipping the balance of power to the other beasts. You stand outside from a position of strength, define your interests, and zap any one of the adversaries that comes out of the tank and inside your zone of interest.
President Trump is well on his way to learning the lesson of not diving head-first into the cesspool. He should follow up with strong action to protect our interests, using the right soft power tools to deter our enemies. That will go a long way toward framing his move out of Syria as a more effective means of deterring a complex web of multiple enemies – often at war with each other – and putting our interests first.
As I’ve noted many times, there is simply no reason for us to have a ground presence in Syria at this point. That is a position I’ve maintained since the beginning of the civil war, regardless of who was president.
The tangled web of alliances and enemies is dizzying just to articulate. There is the Sunni insurgency, representing the Sunni tribes in the east, that is constantly fighting the Shiite powers backing the Assad regime. Assad himself has outside help from Iran and Hezbollah, all supported by Russia, which makes the Sunnis resent Assad even more. Putin himself only backs Assad for his own strategic reasons and is not necessarily happy about the Iranian presence there.
Thus, in order to effectively advocate for intervention there, one needs to craft an ever-elusive solution to deal with all of the differently interested powers in the region. But people like Lindsey Graham who want our soldiers engaged in Syria don’t have a plan. The same people who demanded we be the ones to fight ISIS (the Sunni insurgency in its most recent, but certainly not final, iteration) are the ones who also complain about Iran and Assad. But nobody has explained how, since we fought the Sunni insurgency, we were not the ones who empowered Iranian hegemony in the region for free. With our troops out of the region, Russia and Iran would have to face the Sunni backlash without us keeping it in check for them.
Also, by entangling our troops in the unresolvable proxy war in Syria, we are harming our ability to directly confront Iran. Remember, one of the big reasons why this administration has not been more aggressive in countering Iran directly for its piracy in the Persian Gulf is because the same “military leaders” who want our troops in Iraq and Syria are the ones who say we can’t fight back against Iran because they will retaliate against our assets that are precariously flung around those two countries. But we are only in those countries because we are fighting the Sunni insurgency, to Iran’s benefit!
Trump is now essentially telling Iran and Russia to fight their own battles. In the long run, when whatever Sunni insurgent group that emerges rears its head against the Assad regime next, Iran and Russia will be left to deal with it without our help – together with the complication of Turkey cheering on the Sunnis. Why get in the way of our enemies fighting each other?
Yes, we have been allies with the Kurds, but many supporters are blurring the distinction between the Iraqi Kurds and the PKK folks in Syria who have not traditionally been our allies and were courted as part of Obama’s broader pro-Iran realignment. If this is all about showing compassion for the Kurds, then the same “Kurd-first” Republicans should be promoting Kurdish independence in Erbil, Iraq, not putting our soldiers in Syria to fight the Sunni insurgency for Iran.
However, like every chess move on the global board, one action cannot be taken in a vacuum. Obviously, we don’t want to empower Turkey’s Erdogan either. Erdogan is the undisputed global leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and is funding more terrorism and subversion in western countries than ISIS. Erdogan is a true threat. But remaining in Syria is not the best way to deter him.
Trump needs to couple the Syria pullout with a beefed-up diplomatic offensive against Erdogan and his allies. Trump should threaten all sorts of sanctions against Turkey and its terror-funding ally, Qatar. Here are some things we should have been doing anyway, which speak more to our strategic interests and the threat from Erdogan:
This mix of policies would put America’s security first, properly identify our interests and what threatens them, and marshal the proper tools to combat the defined threats.
Let Turkey, Russia, and Iran fight with each other over the tribal lands and then have the Sunni insurgency constantly attacking their forces. Now, Turkey’s and Russia’s interests will directly clash over the Sunnis and support for Assad. Meanwhile, let’s focus on our own immigration, the border, visas, and terror finance. It’s time to make our homeland the cornerstone of national security, while using foreign assets as a support role, not focus solely on the borders of other nations while inviting the mess from all sides of the cesspool into our own country.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.