Having destroyed three Syrian chemical weapons sites with cruise missiles in mid-April, President Trump is receiving no end of advice as to what to do next.
The columnist Patrick Buchanan wants him to stop listening to his generals and bring our troops home. Michael O’Hanlon, from the Brookings Institution, wants to at least keep U.S. forces “off shore” as a counterweight to the Russians and Iranians. The Wall Street Journal calls for Washington to create a “safe zone” in Eastern Syria to protect our Kurdish allies and to block the formation of an Iranian “land bridge” for military supplies from Iran across Syria to the vehemently anti-Israeli Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
In the two ongoing fights in Syria — one against the ISIS insurgency and the other against the murderous Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad — Trump has been decisive against the former and ambivalent against the latter.
Against ISIS, he permitted U.S. ground forces to participate in combat and direct air strikes against the enemy. This lethal combination enabled local forces to recapture the ISIS strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — the two cities in which ISIS had hoped to inaugurate its global Islamic caliphate. Trump deserves much credit for securing these victories.
However, regarding the second struggle to topple the Assad regime, Trump has stated that his instincts are to pass the task on to others so that America can extricate itself from these “disastrous Middle Eastern wars,” and concentrate on rebuilding our own country. (In the Obama era, this strategy was known as “leading from behind.” The anarchic chaos in Libya today is its fruit.)
Trump’s instincts are wrong — and on two grounds.
The first is geopolitical. A U.S. withdrawal from Syria in 2018 will leave the same power vacuum that President Obama left in Iraq in 2011. The vacuum arises from the fact that, in both cases, there were, and are, no credible and capable substitutes for American military power in the region.
Many countries can fight with the United States as allies, but none in the Middle East can fight without it. In 2011, ISIS arose out of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and nearly overran both Iraq and Syria in a swath of butchery that finally triggered the American military reintervention that now has virtually destroyed ISIS.
In 2018, should we pull out of Syria, no one doubts that, with Russian and Iranian help, Bashar al-Assad will regain control over his national territory, wreaking a terrible retribution against the Kurdish minority that fought alongside the departed Americans.
Strategically, this consolidation will permit creating the land bridge that will enable Hezbollah to rain down a limitless supply of rockets against the Israeli homeland. Israel, to be sure, will intervene massively to prevent this. Since its inception in 1948, Israel has won all of its many wars in the Middle East, but this time the Israelis might find themselves in real trouble. Essentially, the price of an American withdrawal today will be the cost in blood and treasure of a major war tomorrow — since Israel, effectively, is America’s 51st state.
The second ground is the moral one of failing to stand up to the Baathist and genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad. What Trump is missing is the Baathism common to Iraq and Syria. Under the guise of “Arab nationalism,” Baathism is a pernicious ideology married to a control machine of violence that is a lethal combination of fascism and communism.
It was Baathism that became the vehicle for implanting Stalinist tyrannies around Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad family in Syria. During the Cold War, both countries enjoyed “friendship treaties” with the Soviet Union.
Historically, the Iraqi and Syrian regimes have produced more domestic bloodshed than all other Middle Eastern countries combined. In his heyday, Saddam Hussein slaughtered 800,000 of his fellow Iraqis, mostly in genocides against the Kurds in the north and Shi’ite Marsh Arabs in the south. So far in Syria, 400,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011. Beyond this large river of blood, Baathist Iraq and Syria are the only countries in the world since the Holocaust of World War II to employ chemical weapons against their own citizens.
In confronting this Baathist barbarism, it was not wrong for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. And any American withdrawal from Syria that perpetuates the Baathist tyranny of Bashar al-Assad will have an epitaph of one word: shame.