Posts Tagged Syria

Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?

Over at Mosaic Magazine, Michael Doran published a long essay on the preferred American strategy in the Middle East, a piece that’s been popular among supporters of Donald Trump’s plan for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Elliott Abrams offered the first response, and I’ve offered the second, below. (Original title: “Is the American Withdrawal from Syria a Disaster, or an Opportunity, or Something Else?”) Be sure to return to Mosaic Magazine for additional responses, and for Doran’s “last-word” rejoinder.

I have immense respect for the judgment of Michael Doran. So it’s significant that he thoroughly opposes Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Wait a moment, you say. Doran doesn’t write that in “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” If anything, in his latest essay for Mosaic, he acquiesces in Trump’s Syria decision, and indeed regards it as “inescapable.”

To which I’d answer yes—but, before Trump announced his decision, Doran was all against it. And since he was just as persuasive then as he is now, what’s a sworn Doran fan like me supposed to conclude?

Consider, for example, Doran’s earlier Mosaic essay on U.S. strategy (co-authored with Peter Rough), dated September 2017. There the authors argued that Syria should be turned into a theater of direct U.S. confrontation with Iran. They urged that Trump seek “an authorization [from Congress] for the use of military force in Syria against Iran and its proxies.” They also proposed that the president “consider building and maintaining a forward operating base” even deeper in Syria along the middle Euphrates River Valley. And they called for “increasing troop levels in that country” (my emphasis). These moves would show that the United States “is every bit as intent on making its influence felt in the region as are the Iranians and the Russians.”

Nine months ago, following an earlier Trump announcement that the United States would leave Syria “very soon,” Doran wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. There, once again, he insisted that this would play into the hands of Iran. The United States had to show Iran that “America is resolute in its determination to pare down the Iranian nuclear program. Retreating from Syria,” he asserted, “will foster the opposite impression.”

To this rationale, he then added a Turkish one: “The moment American troops leave Syria,” he predicted, the Kurds would “inevitably turn to Moscow,” and Vladimir Putin would use this leverage to pull Turkey away from the West. (Russia’s purpose, he later said, was “to turn Turkey into a Trojan horse inside NATO.”) Policy recommendation: Trump “should reconsider his intention to withdraw.”

In light of these writings, Doran’s current essay, hailing Trump’s strategy as “the only one worth pursuing,” is a bit baffling. In his previous Mosaic essay, not only had he favored an alternative strategy; he thought Israel should be a partner to it, calling on the United States and Israel to “develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria.” Reading that earlier essay, I thought that was bold of him, since I couldn’t remember the United States and Israel ever having had a “joint military plan” to accomplish anything.

Last July, to an audience at the Tikvah Fund where I was present, Doran complained that his proposal for a confrontational U.S. policy in Syria wasn’t making any headway:

Both the Israelis and the Americans now notionally have a policy of driving the Iranians out [of Syria], but I go back to the gap between ways and means, between aspirations and tools. I don’t see the two sides putting together the tools to do it. I think they could if they put their mind to it, and I keep writing things suggesting that they should, but unfortunately nobody is listening to what I say.

In fact, plenty of people were listening, and he wasn’t alone. But if by “nobody” he meant Trump, he was right. Today, says Trump, we are at a point where “now” is the “time to come home.” Although the conditions and time frame of this withdrawal seem to change from one day to the next, it’s certain that America won’t be adding troops, bases, or plans. It will only be subtracting them.

What does Doran think this means for Israel? “If the Israelis have any hope of preventing Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian military base, they must act alone.” But, he reassures us, fear not: in any confrontation to come, Trump will have Israel’s back. He’ll keep the region safe by supporting U.S. allies to the hilt against America’s adversaries. And if Israel gets into a big scrape along the way, “Trump and his foreign-policy advisers, led by [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will likely be eager to provide Israel with any weapons and intelligence it may lack to do the job.” Moreover, if Russia gets in Israel’s way, the United States will serve “as a deterrent to Russian military action.”

Indeed, there’s no doubt that in a pinch Trump would be more supportive of Israel than Barack Obama ever was. I’ll grant Doran that. Alas, however, there’s no guarantee that if and when the crisis comes, Trump will be in the White House, or Bolton and Pompeo won’t have become “distinguished fellows” in some Washington think tank. Someone other than Trump might be calling the shots in the Oval Office, and that someone won’t necessarily feel bound by Trump’s strategy, policy, or tweets (just as Trump hasn’t been bound by Obama’s). Indeed, the partisan packaging of this strategy, as presented by Pompeo in his recent speech in Cairo, may render it anathema to a successor administration.

So any assurances of what Trump is “likely” to do for Israel when push comes to shove are of no enduring value. The withdrawal from Syria is real and “now,” while any American “backing-to-the-hilt” is a vague promise with a current expiration date of January 20, 2021. This may be why a Who’s Who of Israel’s ill-wishers have had no problem welcoming Trump’s move. “Trump did the right thing,” wrote Harvard’s Stephen Walt. (He added: “In case any of you are wondering, I found it hard to type that sentence.”) Former CIA man Paul Pillar gave Trump a similar endorsement: “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And the decision about military withdrawal from Syria was the right one.” This has been echoed by the A-list of America’s most outspoken minimizers of the danger posed by Iran.

But let’s set aside the partisan posturing of Beltway pundits, and try to be objective. Is the Syria withdrawal a “disaster” for Israel? That was the word used by the Israeli columnist Caroline Glick in her own initial response. Trump, she tweeted, “is giving a huge victory to Iran, Russia, and Turkey and imperiling Israel, the Kurds, and Jordan.” (She later deleted the tweet.) Or is it an “opportunity”? A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was quoted as saying that his boss viewed it as just that.

In and of itself, it’s neither, and much depends on what follows it. In my view, Syria probably isn’t going to turn into an Iranian military base against Israel, or an Iranian-controlled “land bridge.” Iran is out on a limb in Syria, and Israel, for its part, hasn’t needed help to do what it’s been doing systematically and successfully for the past two years—that is, walloping Iran every time it raises its head. The contest is far from over, but Iran hasn’t found a way to counter Israel’s overwhelming superiority in the Syrian theater. So withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria doesn’t “imperil” Israel.

What about the risk to America’s reputation? Only 2,000 American troops presently dominate a third of Syria. Rarely have so few controlled so much at so little cost, a testament to the supremacy of the American military machine. In walking off the field in the fourth quarter, and leaving behind vulnerable allies (the Kurds) and vengeful enemies (the remnants of Islamic State), the United States gives up a huge lead. It’s quitting while ahead, but it’s still quitting. And even if you think Syria isn’t worth a candle, a reputation for staying-power is worth a great deal. Osama bin Laden used to recite a litany of U.S. retreats as incentives to attack it.

That said, the inconstancy of America’s role in the Middle East is really no secret, either to its allies or to its enemies. The United States isn’t part of the Middle East, and doesn’t border it. That’s probably why it’s never had a perfectly clear view of its interests there, producing manic-depressive bouts of intervention and withdrawal. In a 30-year cycle, the United States might dispatch a half-million troops to one Middle Eastern desert and agonize about keeping 2,000 in another.

And this volatility correlates with the rhythms of American domestic polarization, causing policy to swing like a weather vane in a gale. A U.S. president from the blue team comes to Cairo and proclaims that “fear and anger . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course.” Ten years later, a U.S. secretary of state, from the red team, comes to Cairo and declares in similar language, but to opposite effect, that “we’ve learned from our mistakes . . . [and] reversed our willful blindness.” All of these course changes and reversals are elements of pitched domestic battles. If you’re a savvy ally of the United States, you learn to ride out the cycles. But if you miss a cue, they can bring you down. (Think the shah of Iran and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.)

No one appreciates this more than Israel. It’s impossible to imagine a better ally of Israel than the United States, but one cannot be sure the United States will always do just the right thing at just the right time. Indeed, had Washington had its way, Israel might have missed its window for independence in 1948, its entry to the nuclear club in 1963, its chance for victory in 1967, and its blow to Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981. The list could be lengthened and brought up to the present.

The lesson is that there’s no substitute for Israel’s own ability to defend itself, and its independence to decide when and how to do so. Hence, as rival Washington “blobs” clash and leak over the U.S. posture in the Middle East, and the foreign-policy tribes shake their fists and point fingers, Israel is thinking hard about how best to fill the space left by a shrinking America. It is taking advantage of the consternation of America’s Arab allies in order to deepen regional ties. It is seeking understandings with Russia, over both Syria and Iran. And it’s working to identify every possible benefit of Trump’s own “back-our-friends” strategy, while he’s still in a position to make good.

This does not amount to kowtowing to all the wrong people, as some (liberal) critics of Israel would have it. It’s making the most of shifts in America’s posture, over which Israel has no say at all.

America may bounce back in the Middle East, or it may not. The weather vane may spin yet again. But even if it does, long experience also has taught the Jews not to presume the consistent and timely support of any other polity. That’s why there is a state of Israel, and why it can’t ever be too strong.

President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo

Image: President Trump swearing in Secretary of State Pompeo, May 2, 2018, Department of State via Wikimedia.

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Political Islam in Syria

This is an excerpt of the section on Syria from my 1980 monograph Political Islam (pp. 66-70).

24517931800_011db22af8_nSyria, once an example of post-colonial instability, has now known nearly a decade of continuous rule by President Hafiz al-Asad and his Baath Party. It is a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in the modern history of Syria. And yet few regimes are so vulnerable to the Muslim appeal; the foundation of Asad’s rule is constant vigilance.

Asad and many of his lieutenants hail from a religious minority. The Alawis, centered in Latakia in western Syria, are an underdeveloped community that constitutes roughly 11 percent of Syria’s population. Like many other provincial Syrian minorities after World War I, the Alawis had been encouraged by the French to press for separate statehood, and at several points Alawis did resist integration into the Syrian state. Eventually they gave up any separatist ambitions, but they were not to be ruled by others. Their rise to disproportionate power in the united Syrian state is a result of their primacy in the armed forces, to which they flocked (earlier with French encouragement) in order to escape the dead end of a depressed and static community. As Syrian politics increasingly fell within the military domain, the Alawi quest for upward mobility was richly rewarded: Alawis stand at the summit of the Syrian political structure.

This sudden and unanticipated rise bred resentment. For at the forefront of the struggle for independence had been the Sunni Muslims populating the major cities of Syria’s heartland. They had enjoyed the preference accorded Sunnis under Sunni Ottoman rule; they had fought for greater privileges in the Arab Revolt; they resisted the French; they, along with Syrian Christian intellectuals, had developed the guiding principles of Arab nationalism; and they had stepped into positions of authority with the departure of the French. Then—following a series of coups d’etat—Sunnis found themselves on the political doorstep as the prime qualification for political leadership became military rank.

The injustice in Sunni eyes was compounded by the fact that Alawis had emerged on top after the bloodletting had ended. Syria’s Sunni ulama had considered the Alawis heretical, beyond the Muslim pale; Alawi beliefs and doctrines were ridiculed, and were no more than tolerated under Ottoman rule. This should not have mattered: Sunni Arab nationalists had long avowed their secularism. That avowal, however, was at least partially a device to reconcile others to Sunni rule, while now it was being used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of others. Enough Sunnis had identified their nationalist aspirations with their Islam and confused Syrian independence with the rule of their own community to leave a bitter taste of disappointment with this ironic turn of events.

These are the sorts of prejudices with which Asad has had to cope. His predecessors in power faced Sunni disturbances during the 1960s, but Asad hoped to avoid the same problems by adhering to a judicious Muslim policy. Despite his own secularist disposition, Asad made public displays of piety: he prayed at a major Sunni mosque in Latakia, where he kissed the Quran; his portrait was inserted in a government edition of the Quran (the famous “Asad Quran”); he trekked to the Lahore Islamic Summit in 1974 where he publicly prayed alongside the other Muslim heads-of-state; and he made the pilgrimage. The Alawis, too, were rehabilitated. The regime circulated theological tracts which declared that Alawis constituted an integral segment of the Islamic community. Since the more ecumenical Sunni ulama recognize Shi‘is to be Muslims, the regime went to the trouble of having a notable Shi‘i dignitary in Lebanon declare that the Alawi faith was, in fact, a branch of the Shi‘a. Finally, Asad took pains to assure Sunnis of ministerial portfolios and positions in the civil bureaucracy.

This did not, however, prevent a recurrence of the violence that plagued Asad’s predecessors. The Sunni merchants in the bazaars of Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, and Homs were being made to feel the pinch of socialist policies they found spokesmen in those Sunni ulama who remained independent of state control, in an alliance not unlike that in Iran. Their resentment was touched off in January 1973 when the government released the text of a new draft constitution that omitted the customary article prescribing Islam as the religion of state—almost certainly a triumph for secularist ideologues in inner-Baathist circles. A group of Sunni ulama proclaimed, however, that the new constitution wiped out fourteen centuries during which Syria had been the pride of Islam, a theme that they repeated in the mosques. Asad could not retreat—he might have caused too much ill-feeling within the Party—but he did attempt to reach a compromise by proposing that the new constitution require a president of the Muslim faith. In accord with this decision, a public referendum was scheduled on the proposed amendment. But the situation actually deteriorated after Asad’s offer: at issue was not the constitution, but Alawi primacy.

The parallels with Iran’s violence are striking. The uprising—“a crisis that shook the regime almost to its foundations,” according to Abbas Kelidar—began in the urban mosques with sermons by ulama. The congregations moved from the mosques to the streets. Clashes with police led to exchanges of gunfire, leaving casualties in both ranks. Baath offices (like those of the official Rastakhiz party in Iran) became the target of attacks. The merchants shut their shops in general strikes that affected Hamah, Homs, and Aleppo. In Damascus, a general strike was averted only by last-minute intervention of ulama. The principal shari‘a court judge was arrested for advocating a boycott of the referendum the Shari‘a Judicial Council went on strike in protest. Aleppo College went on strike; Syrian soldiers took the campus and, evoking a charge that later often reverberated in Iran, were rumored to have shaved the beards of arrested theology students before sending them to prison. Slogans proliferated on public buildings: “Islam is the road to victory,” “religion to God is Islam,” and “Islam is our constitution.” The uprising ended only with the despatch of armored units into the cities.

In subsequent years, Asad was far more cautious, and his opponents were driven underground. They began a campaign of assassination directed against Alawi officials and officers, in streets and homes. In June 1979 this campaign reached new heights: a Muslim group engineered an attack on a military school in Aleppo, killing over 60 officers, the great majority of whom were almost certainly Alawis. Asad responded with a spate of executions—not of the perpetrators, but of those convicted of similarly-motivated offenses on earlier occasions. The shift to this kind of operation by Sunni recalcitrants is almost certainly a sign of weakness; it is difficult to imagine any Syrian regime being brought down by terrorism, but the Muslim opposition has managed to create an atmosphere of public insecurity that may embolden others better poised to act.

In any case, the Sunni-Alawi issue has already had a telling effect upon the government’s policy. Eager for wider acceptance, Asad has sought consensus through the Arab nationalist war with Israel. The military ability of the Alawis is their political mandate, and in moments of crisis the regime issues appropriate reminders. In 1967, before Asad’s rise to power, his Alawi predecessor (Salah Jadid) had distracted Syrians from a similar spate of internal violence by aerial duels with Israel which charged the atmosphere for the subsequent June war. In 1973, semi-official Syrian sources announced that the Sunni riots were coming at a time when the Israelis were planning a “new aggression.” In 1979, the attack on the Aleppo school was quickly followed by the Syrian air force’s unsuccessful intervention in an Israeli air raid over Lebanon. The need for this sort of outlet and the pursuit of legitimacy through military achievement have sustained Asad, but have kept Syria out of the “peace process.” Without the conflict with Israel, Asad would be forced to emphasize even further a secular Arab nationalism that remains compelling for many Syrians but leaves a permanent pocket of violent dissent. In Syria, for an Alawi amid Sunnis, Islam remains a rigid constraint, a source of legitimacy upon which Asad cannot draw. He must continue to turn elsewhere.

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Temple of Bel, Palmyra, no more

This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

The Temple of Bel, Palmyra, no more

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President Bashar will see you now!

This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

President Bashar will see you now!

The Shiite crescent eclipsed

This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

The Shiite crescent eclipsed

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