Syria: The Real Prizes are Iraq, the Gulf, and the Southern Flank of NATO, and the U.S. May Well Be Losing Them
October 15, 2019
It does not take much vision to predict that the Syrian crisis will be an enduring humanitarian tragedy, and will lead to growing ethnic and sectarian conflict, expand Russian influence, and expand Assad’s rule through dictatorship, repression, and state terrorism in Syria. It may well strengthen ISIS’s ability to recover from the loss of its Caliphate, help lead to Assad’s defeat of the last Arab resistance elements in Idlib, prompt more overt Iranian interference in Syria, and further strengthen the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanon. These are all important issues and they deserve the headlines they are getting.
At the same time, the sudden U.S. withdrawal that empowered the Turkish invasion of Syria, and the collapse of the Kurdish Democratic Republic, is part of a steady decline in American influence in the Middle East and a separation of Turkey from Europe and NATO that affects far more important U.S. strategic interests. America has been undermining its strategic position in the region ever since its invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has been undermining its credibility as a strategic partner ever since it failed to keep its forces in Iraq in 2011 — when it came under pressure from former Prime Minister Maliki.
The U.S. has won some important battles against ISIS in the years that followed, but its broader position in the Gulf has been one where it has failed to unite its Arab strategic partners, and has now sent mixed signals about staying the course in Iraq after its return to fight ISIS. It failed to show its Arab partners that it will react effectively to Iranian military action in the Gulf when tanker attacks took place in the Gulf, when it lost a high cost drone, and when major missile attacks took place on Saudi petroleum facilities. At the same time, the U.S. has been consistently outplayed by Putin and Russia, and now faces serious Chinese efforts to build up its own bases and security position in the region, such as its new naval base in Djibouti.
History has Consequences
History has consequences. The United States cannot suddenly abandon the Kurds in Syria without every Arab state remembering that the U.S. has already left Iraq once before. They cannot forget its recent history of bullying its Arab partners over arms buys — while using sanctions to retaliate against the use of force, instead of taking military action. They cannot forget that the U.S. may have recently sent missile defenses and added forces to Saudi Arabia, but that the United States already seems to be signaling that the they may not stay and that it may not keep a carrier in the region.
No one who travels regularly to the region, and who talks privately to Arab security experts and officials, can ignore the steady loss of confidence and trust in the U.S. that has built up over time. Few now trust the U.S. to stay, to act decisively, and to send clear signals to its Arab strategic partners. The U.S is seen as tolerating the growing divisions between the Arab Gulf states, and doing far too little to check either Turkey or Iran. There is still trust on a military-to-military basis but even this trust is being steadily undermined by constantly shifting positions at the White House level, actions like suddenly abandoning the Syrian Kurds, and issuing fogs of rhetoric that smack more of greed for arms sales and a desire to cut U.S. forces than any clear strategy.
This lack of confidence in the U.S. and the current turmoil in the region are having a major impact in Iraq, and Iraq is far more of a prize than Syria and Lebanon. Iraq is a key oil power, and its geography, wealth, and military forces play a critical role in either containing Iran or empowering it. Even before the sudden U.S. pull out from Syria, far too many Iraqis thought that the U.S. lacked a firm commitment to staying in Iraq if it came under pressure from Iran, and was failing to push for effective Iraqi reform, unity, and governance.
This absence of an effective U.S. commitment or leadership was also becoming steadily more critical to stability because of Iraq’s internal divisions. Iraq’s economic crisis was leading to major protests. There was little popular confidence at any level in the Iraqi government, and in its ability to govern effectively, create jobs, or reduce corruption. The failure to support the post-ISIS recovery of the Sunni areas in Western Iraq is now leading to new Sunni and Shi’ite tensions.
It now seems likely that the movement of Assad’s forces to take control of Eastern Syria will open up a much wider strategic corridor through Iraq between Syria and Iran, and that the fighting with Syria’s Kurds will inevitably lead to new tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds as well. And, Iraq was already under increasing pressure from ISIS before the Turkish attacks threatened to free many fighters captured over the least three years.
Losing the Other Arab Gulf States?
As for the rest of the Gulf, it hardly seems necessary to point out that the Arabian Gulf is the major source of the world’s oil exports and has far more strategic importance to the U.S. than Syria and the rest of the Levant combined. Yet, for the last few years, the U.S. focus on burdensharing has been coupled to U.S. passivity and inertia in trying to build-up coordinated and effective defenses and abilities to deter Iran.
Here again, U.S. bluster and empty threats against Iran – and the lack of tangible military action – have steadily undermined confidence in U.S. military support of its Arab partners. Iran already seems to have exploited this in dealing with Saudi Arabia after the U.S. failed to respond to Iranian missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
Equally important, the U.S. seems to have done little more than gesture in trying to bring Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE back together in creating effective regional defense forces. All of this again opens up the Arab Gulf to Iranian pressure and influence, and again empowers Russia and China.
Losing Turkey and the Southern Flank of NATO?
Finally, the most recent U.S. approaches to Turkey have combined military retreat with unfocused sanctions and exaggerated threats, along with efforts to gain European support in pressuring Turkey in NATO. This seems more likely to isolate Turkey and push it towards a hard line in pressuring Arab states, and closer ties to Russia, than make productive changes in Turkey’s behavior.
It also further weakens an already weak and divided NATO Southern Flank. This is a critical issue at a time when so many European states in NATO’s Southern Flank are failing to both properly modernize their forces and create a cohesive deterrent to Russia.
Lead Effectively or Lose
Put bluntly, the U.S. may now have to write off Syria and the Kurds. If it is to remain the major strategic power in the rest of the Middle East and revive NATO as an effective alliance, however, it cannot go on relying on sanctions, empty military threats, sudden force withdrawals, and bluster. It needs to show that it can still lead, do so consistently and effectively, and be trustworthy as a strategic partner. The U.S. needs to show it can make long-tern commitments, develop effective strategies, and actually implement them. So far, the United States has done far too little to demonstrate that it still has the capacity or resolve to do so.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.
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