The Skeptics

Trump Can Only Make the Syrian Disaster Worse

Turkey could become a somewhat reluctant partner of Moscow and Iran. The three countries view the Assad regime very differently, but they share a desire to prevent the United States from creating a Kurdish statelet allied with Washington. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan already attacked Kurdish forces near Afrin and threatened to march east on Manbij, where American forces are located along with Kurdish fighters. Russia could offer air support; indeed, the Turkish government already plans to purchase the S-400 air defense system.

Iran might try to build the oft-predicted “land bridge” between Tehran and Damascus. Washington imagines its Kurdish allies can prevent that, but they have been diverted by Turkey’s invasion, and Americans are spread thin, not deployed for direct combat. Turkish acquiescence and Russian support would make it more difficult for Washington to stop Iranian activities. A proxy battle could turn into a major-power confrontation.

In recent years the United States has been the most destructive, destabilizing force in the Middle East. In Iraq, Libya and Syria, succeeding U.S. administrations wrecked the established order, fueled sectarian violence and encouraged regional chaos. In Syria, Washington is even risking confrontation with other regional powers and nuclear-armed Russia.

President Trump’s tweets reflect Washington’s overweening hubris, the assumption that the United States could brush aside any Russian response. However, though the American military is stronger than Russia’s armed forces, Washington is acting from a position of weakness in Syria.

The Obama years were marked by a hopelessly inconsistent, overambitious, ridiculously complicated and internally inconsistent strategy. The Islamic State was defeated, but every other U.S. objective fell short. Washington’s Persian Gulf friends decided they had other priorities. America’s Turkish ally proved most interested in destroying America’s Kurdish proxy, which the United States ruthlessly abandoned. The Assad government successively vanquished its enemies. A few thousand troops on station and handful of airstrikes on the Damascus regime won’t retrieve Syria for the Trump administration.

No one can quite imagine Washington and Moscow coming to blows. But the broader and more extensive any American attack on Syria, the greater the chance of sparking a shooting war between America and Russia. It is hard to imagine what objective short of defending America would be worth that cost. Certainly not Syria. President Trump should remember his tweet from September 2013: “Don’t attack Syria—an attack that will bring nothing but trouble for the U.S. Focus on making our country strong and great again.”

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Image: A Syrian soldier loyal to President Bashar al-Assad  outside eastern Ghouta, Syria. Reuters/Omar Sanadiki.