Syria is a far-away land about which we know little. But we do know this: Over the past seven years, more than a half million people have been slaughtered there, with an estimated 150 murdered by chemical weapons just last weekend in a town outside Damascus.
We also know who’s committing these crimes: Dictator Bashar Assad and those who have propped him up for their own purposes, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s neo-czar, and Ali Khamenei, “supreme leader” for life of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When Mr. Assad used the nerve agent sarin to kill no fewer than 1,400 of his subjects in 2013, President Obama drew a red line — and then abruptly erased it, apparently in deference to the Iranian theocrats with whom he was negotiating a deal he intended to be his major foreign policy legacy.
Led by Russia, Mr. Obama soon negotiated an agreement under which Syria was to surrender all its stockpiles of chemical weapons and dismantle its capabilities to make new ones. Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced: “We got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” He was badly misinformed.
After Mr. Assad carried out another chemical weapons attack a year ago, President Trump ordered U.S warships to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at al Shayrat airbase north of Damascus. He said it was in the “vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He was not misinformed.
Did Mr. Assad and his patrons decide to use chemical weapons again now because they thought it might encourage Mr. Trump to withdraw U.S. forces? “I want to get out,” Mr. Trump publicly mused last week. “It’s time.” He also recently said of Syria: “Let the other people take care of it now.”
No decisions have yet been made and, I’d wager, the president is now deep in discussions with John Bolton, his new national security adviser, Mike Pompeo, his incoming secretary of State, and James Mattis, his secretary of Defense, on what to do about the gaping wound that Syria has become.
The point I believe they will emphasize: Syria is one piece, albeit an important one, in a strategic puzzle. The question I hope Mr. Trump will ask is not “What’s the exit strategy?” but “What’s the theory of victory? What should Americans want to achieve and what will be required to achieve it?”
I suspect they will advise that a small contingent of U.S. forces needs to remain in eastern Syria. One mission: To prevent the resurrection of the Islamic State which, thanks largely to Mr. Trump, has been deprived of the territories it had conquered. A second mission: Frustrate the hegemonic ambitions of what my colleague, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow, Thomas Joscelyn, calls “the Assad-Putin-Khamenei axis.”
In an essay written almost a year ago, Mr. Bolton warned Mr. Trump to avoid “reflexively repeating President Obama’s errors,” in particular his decision to cut and run from Iraq in 2011 which led to the rise of the Islamic State (from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq) and the opening of Iraq to Iranian influence — which, if we’re not careful, soon will become Iranian domination.
A more distant echo: At the end of World War II, the U.S. and its allies liberated Europe from totalitarians of the Nazi variety — then watched as many of those nations were subjugated by totalitarians of the Communist variety. Decades of Cold War followed.
The cost of remaining in the Middle East will be high — but not as high as it would be should we leave and later realize we need to return. Whether Mr. Trump’s national security team can persuasively make this case, I can’t say. About this, however, I am confident: The president’s top advisers understand that Shia jihadism is no less a threat to the United States and its allies than Sunni jihadism.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations will need to meaningfully contribute to a continuing American-led mission in Syria. So, too, must NATO members. This is their fight, too. If they don’t get that, it should be explained to them.
Anthony Cordesman, the distinguished scholar and strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, last week succinctly ticked off other ways leaving Syria prematurely would harm American interests. It would, he wrote, deprive the U.S. of diplomatic leverage, abandon “the last vestiges of moderate Arab forces in Syria, and expose the Kurdish forces that did much to defeat ISIS to defeat by Assad and Turkey.”
In addition, it would “fundamentally undermine the already fading trust of our other Arab strategic partners, be seen as a major defeat of the United States by Russia and Iran, and as a further opening to intervention by an increasingly authoritarian Turkey in the Arab world.”
Syria may be “a far-away land about which we know little.” But more than Syria is at stake — just as more than Czechoslovakia was at stake when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used that phrase in 1938 to describe the small nation he intended to sacrifice to Hitler.
Chamberlain believed he had “opened the way to that general appeasement which alone can save the world from chaos.” We now know how wrong he was. To fail to act on that knowledge would be a tragedy and a blunder.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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