Sunday, April 22, 2018

Trump's Syria Dilemma - Pete Cohon

by Pete Cohon

President Donald Trump, who only days ago promised to remove the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, now sits on the horns of a dilemma.

American president Donald Trump, who only days ago promised to remove the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, now sits on the horns of a dilemma. Media reports on the advice he is getting from his new secretary of state designee and national security adviser indicate that they feel that it would be extremely dangerous to cede Syria to Iran and Russia, whose intentions are far from benign. They believe that there are strategic, economic, and political reasons that would make it far wiser for the U.S. to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Strategically, Syria's importance stems from its geographical location, extending halfway across the Middle East from the eastern Mediterranean to the border of Iraq. Since Shiite Muslim-ruled Iraq is now dominated by Iran (also Shiite), Syria finds itself in between expansionist Iran in the east and expansionist Sunni Muslim Turkey, which longs to return to its imperial Ottoman glory, in the north. Both states would like control of Syria in their efforts to create a great Islamic caliphate as predicted by Islamic scriptures. If Syria remains little more than a province of Iran, there will be an Iranian military port and airfield in the eastern Mediterranean from which Iran, a country that considers itself locked in an existential religious war with the U.S., can extend its power over the eastern Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Arabian (also called Persian) Gulf. During wartime, that would mean that Iran, with the support of its friend Russia (which already has a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast), could effectively freeze much of worldwide commerce and make it extremely difficult for the U.S. and her allies to acquire the supplies necessary to win a war – a war that we in the West don't want but may come to us anyway.

When one power retreats from stresses caused by other powers, it is only a matter of time before other powers fill the vacuum that the retreating power has left. Thus, there is no question that Iran and Russia will fill the military vacuum should the U.S. pull its troops out of Syria. Leaving the area merely invites the kind of military actions by America's enemies that will guarantee a U.S. return to the area under far worse terms. (That's why President Obama needed a "surge" of American troops in Iraq after he had withdrawn U.S. troops too soon.) It guarantees a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East that will only encourage military adventurism by the one country on Earth totally dedicated to the extermination of America: Iran. To allow a religiously extreme nation, bent on developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for the purpose of destroying the U.S. in the name of Islam, to expand its power unopposed is a recipe for an American military disaster.

Economically, allowing Iran and Russia virtually complete control of Syria would mean that Iran and Russia will expand their economies considerably, as they benefit from sales to their Syrian proxy of expensive weapons systems. Syria would also be a reliable customer for Iranian and Russian consumer products. Since an effective defense is expensive and must be built on the foundation of a solid economy, the more wealth Iran and Russia have, the more they can spend on weapons to threaten the U.S.

Politically, an American retreat from Syria would also put Iran and Russia in a position to intimidate nearby countries into using their United Nations votes and other diplomatic means to support both Iranian and Russian hegemony in the region and make the world far more dangerous for Western democracies. It's important to remember that both Russia and Iran are expansionist states. They are building empires in the names of nationalistic (in Russia's case) and religious (in Iran's case) extremism. It is old-fashioned imperialism in the 21st century, an imperialism that the political left, always on the lookout for imperialism to expose, chooses not to see.

As Russia and Iran grow stronger and more aggressive, America appears to grow weaker. Other nations sense this and see an America that lacks the will to defend itself and its interests, an America in decline while Russia and Iran are ascendant. Why should those countries trust America when America betrays its allies, like the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and flips back and forth on its support for Israel depending on which party rules the White House? Why should any nation trust an America that has constantly proven itself to be an undependable ally?

There's a war coming. A big war. It is not a war that we in the West have chosen, but we cannot avoid it with appeasement. Tyrants like Russia's Putin and Iran's Khamenei cannot be appeased. And so this is one war that we must either deter or fight to win. Either deterrence or victory will require us to do some things we find distasteful, like backing some unsavory national leaders who share our national interests but not our values and inserting the U.S. military into dangerous situations to show the world that America is still a nation that does not allow itself to be bullied by foreign predators and thugs. As long as there is no better way to deter aggression by predatory nations and faiths, then the credible threat of the use of American military force is the only effective way to preserve international order and prevent pure evil from conquering us all. 

Leaving U.S. troops in Syria and using them to prevent Iran from exploiting the Shiite Crescent to Lebanon that it is building, from the Arabian Gulf through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea, is the best and, probably, only way to slow down Iran's quest for dominance of the Middle East and Mediterranean before it develops nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them. 

Preventing that, ultimately, must be the focus of American foreign policy in an age when Iranian religious tyrants are betting the keys to their Islamic heaven on the destruction of America. Leaving American troops in Syria is the first step in the defense of the West in the war that is to come. 

Pete Cohon is a retired attorney living in Tel Aviv, Israel.


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