After President Trump’s impulsive and abrupt decision to pull back U.S. forces from Syria—thus betraying Syrian Kurdish allies in the war against ISIS to a Turkish invasion—the American foreign policy elite has worked overtime to highlight its predicted catastrophic outcomes.
The establishment has bemoaned Russian, Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish gains at the expense of the United States. Also mentioned is an erosion of valuable intelligence on the ground from a reduced U.S. military presence, and a degradation of the alliance with the Syrian Kurds—the importance of which was illustrated by the prominent role Kurdish information played in locating and killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.
Yet the supposed dire threat, posited by U.S. foreign policy elites, from Russian, Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish gains in Syria has been vastly overstated. How has the strategic threat to the United States increased from a Syrian regime now in control of more of its own territory than before at the expense of ISIS and other militant Islamist opposition groups?
If Russia, Iran, and Turkey want to continue to get bogged down in the long-running civil war in the Syrian backwater, this preoccupation might actually work to America’s advantage. Despite Trump’s retaining some U.S. troops in Syria, and actually adding armored forces to guard the limited supplies of Syrian oil, control of that oil by the Syrian government or its allies should keep it out of the hands of ISIS. (During the war with ISIS, this oil was secured by Kurdish ground forces and U.S. airpower; America’s sending of tanks now might mean that we’re trying to keep out the Russians and Syrians instead of ISIS.)
As for diminished intelligence on ISIS post-withdrawal, that is a possibility. Yet let’s not lose sight of the hard fact that the U.S. would have no need to fight ISIS if our own military invasion of Iraq hadn’t thrown that country into chaos and motivated a radical Islamist resistance, which morphed into ISIS itself. American withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, once ISIS’s cradle, will make it much less likely that the central organization will attack U.S. targets. ISIS affiliates around the world are concerned mainly with local grievances, not attacking American assets. Similarly, al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. targets, including on 9/11, were motivated by revenge for American interventions in the Middle East.
If skepticism exists over whether Islamist attacks on the United States will abate after our interventions in the Middle East have ceased, examine Hezbollah’s gradual attenuation of its violence against Americans during the 1980s after the U.S. military involvement in Lebanon had ended. Terrorism is usually retaliation by the weak over a perceived grievance—whether justified or not.
Non-Muslim interference is a major irritant in the Islamic world, yet the U.S. government keeps making the same mistake over and over again. If our involvement in the Middle East was ever strategic, meant to protect our oil imports, then the fracking boom, which made America the number one oil producer in the world, should have put this argument to rest. In addition, recent increased oil production has come from stable, non-Middle Eastern nations, such as Canada, Brazil, Norway, and Guyana.
It’s time to execute the Pentagon’s plan to reduce America’s presence in the Middle East and instead concentrate on larger strategic issues among the great powers. Unfortunately our addiction to military intervention in that unfortunate corner of the world keeps diverting the resources and national attention needed to make such a switch.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty. His new book, War and the Rogue Presidency: Restoring the Republic After Congressional Failure, was released in May 2019.