By Paul Wolfowitz
Nov. 21, 2019
According to a report released on Tuesday by the Department of Defence inspector general, President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria has allowed ISIS to “reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.
By abandoning Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syria who led the fight to eject ISIS from the “capital” of its so-called caliphate, Mr. Trump appears to be following President Barack Obama’s pivot away from the greater Middle East, responding, as his predecessor did, to a desire among the American people to disengage from that region, with its “endless wars.”
But to paraphrase Trotsky’s aphorism about war, you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. Walking away from that region has a way of sucking America back in. American strategy needs to protect our critical interests but at sustainable costs. By opening the door for Turkey to capture northern Syria, Mr. Trump committed what retired Gen. Jack Keane called both a “betrayal” and a “strategic blunder.”
Americans want no part in long wars, like those of the past two decades in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But the way to limit American involvement in this still critical region is not to walk away and leave behind vacuums, but to empower allies who are prepared to fight for interests that we share.
The United States enjoyed a highly favourable position in the fight against ISIS, because our Kurdish and Arab allies bore the bulk of the burden. They suffered over 11,000 killed and wounded. While six brave Americans were also killed, without those allies, the victory over ISIS would have been impossible, and with much heavier American losses.
Mark Twain once wisely remarked that “we should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove … She will never sit down on a hot stove … again … but also she will never sit down on a cold one either.”
If we abandon the allies who made possible the victory over ISIS, and perhaps now also abandon the Afghan allies who enabled us to drive Al Qaeda out of their country in 2001, the United States will make the same mistake as Mark Twain’s cat, viewing everything in the greater Middle East through the prism of the painful experiences of the “hot stoves” — the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Abandoning allies who have advanced American interests while fighting courageously for their own, is not a formula for avoiding another large-scale United States military engagement in the Middle East, but rather for ending up in another one. Next time, however, will be without the local allies we need.
The way to protect our critical interests in the Middle East while minimizing costs and risks for the United States is by supporting people who, while fighting for their own interests, also protect America’s.
That is what we achieved in 1991 with our intervention to support Iraq’s Kurds. After Saddam Hussein’s defeat in Kuwait, the Kurds of northern Iraq rebelled. When Mr. Hussein dispatched his tanks to suppress them, a very light NATO ground force, code-named Operation Provide Comfort, was able to drive back Iraqi heavy tanks while suffering no casualties, thanks to the intimidating American air power overhead.
As a result, the Iraqi Kurds created an autonomous zone in the northern part of the country, which has provided a valuable element of stability for more than two decades and was indispensable in driving ISIS out of Iraq and Syria. As Provide Comfort approached the end of its three‑month authorization, American military commanders proposed removing the NATO ground force. As under secretary of defence at the time, I objected — that could have opened the door for Iraqi tanks to return and resume massacring the Kurds. So I was sent to Iraq to see how the operation was working. There, I saw how that light NATO ground force had liberated a large portion of northern Iraq from Mr. Hussein’s grasp, thanks to overpowering air support. Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney then authorized the withdrawal of the ground component but retained the American air cover over the Kurdish fighters.
In contrast, the American failure to support a Shiite uprising the previous month in southern Iraq is a mistake that we still suffer from today.
In March of 1991, following Mr. Hussein’s defeat in Kuwait, the Shiites of southern Iraq rose up against the dictator. Although the United States originally encouraged an uprising, it then abandoned the rebels to the savagery of Mr. Hussein’s tanks and chemical weapons. At no risk to American lives, and without moving even one yard closer to Baghdad, the United States could have stopped those tanks from moving to crush the rebellion and stopped the helicopters from flying and dropping chemical weapons.
That American inaction enabled Saddam Hussein to slaughter tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites, whose bodies were discovered in mass graves 12 years later, and led to a much costlier, longer second war. We would never again have such a good opportunity to remove Mr. Hussein from power without risking American lives and without going to Baghdad.
Similarly, President Obama’s failure 20 years later to support the Syrian opposition, when that support might have toppled the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with little risk to Americans, had both moral and strategic consequences. The eight blood-soaked years that the Assad regime has remained in power may have cost more than half a million Syrian lives and has created hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people. That humanitarian disaster also produced the strategic vacuum from which ISIS emerged in northern Syria to invade and destabilize Iraq, forcing Mr. Obama to return the troops he had withdrawn just a few years earlier. Now with President Trump building on that earlier failure, Russia and Iran may gain effective control of Syria.
Mr. Trump should have told President Erdogan that Turkey had helped to create the ISIS problem in Syria, that it should now “back off” and let negotiations continue and that sending in the Turkish Army would be something Mr. Erdogan would regret. Instead of conceding that Syria’s Kurds are a threat to Turkey, he might have suggested using the considerable American influence over the Kurds to prevent that.
To Mr. Trump’s credit, he responded to General Keane’s criticism by inviting him to the White House. There, the general pointed out the strategic consequences of allowing Iran’s proxies to gain control of the oil resources of north-eastern Syria. This has given Mr. Trump an opportunity not to undo his decision — he has unfortunately already created a new and much more complicated situation — but to revise it and continue some support for our Kurdish and Arab allies so that they can achieve a reasonable negotiated settlement.
The goal of a revised operation should be made clear: It is not to seize Syria’s oil, as Mr. Trump has suggested, but rather to keep that strategic asset out of the hands of our enemies.
Mr. Wolfowitz served in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Original Headline: Undoing Trump’s Syria Blunder
Source: The New York Times