Iraq and Syria have perplexed a succession of American leaders
President Donald Trump's confused foreign policy has reinforced the idea that the US is an unreliable and faithless ally
For the past 15 years, a pervasive sense has grown, both at home and abroad, that US foreign policy has been lacking a clear direction, consensus and will. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Iraq and Syria, not coincidentally the epicentre of ISIS's so-called caliphate. And never has it been clearer than in recent weeks.
The killing of ISIS leader and self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was, or should have been, a major victory for Washington. Al Baghdadi was one of the most vicious terrorists of all time and led a singularly dangerous mob. His extremist followers not only engaged in rampant murder, torture, sexual enslavement of women and numerous other crimes; they were also the first terror group to establish a de facto mini-state.
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Al Baghdadi’s death ought to have been met with a sense of achievement and a determination to continue combating extremism. That wasn't what happened.
US President Donald Trump certainly claimed it as a victory. In contrast to the sombre announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden by his predecessor Barack Obama, Mr Trump even claimed Al Baghdadi was "screaming, crying and whimpering" before blowing himself up – although senior officials at the Pentagon have not corroborated his version of events.
Mr Trump's bluster notwithstanding, in tracking and finding Al Baghdadi, and defeating ISIS, the US relied on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which sacrificed 11,000 lives in the struggle against the terrorists.
Their reward came last month when Mr Trump announced, after a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that all US forces would be leaving Syria. That effectively abandoned the Syrian Kurds to their Turkish antagonists and forced them into a de facto surrender to the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship.
But within days, the US then announced that several hundred elite troops would remain at the Al Tanf garrison, which effectively blocks Iran from controlling the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. Mr Trump's security advisers appear to have eventually convinced him, under the rubric of seizing oilfields in Deir Ezzor province, to retain most US forces in Syria. It means the number of ground forces in Syria will be barely unchanged from the 1,000 soldiers he promised to withdraw.
The US, of course, cannot sell Syria’s oil and the fields are largely non-functional. The oil is plainly a ruse that Mr Trump's advisers used to get him to agree to keep a substantial number of US troops across different parts of eastern Syria, in language he understands – namely, that oil equals money.
But US forces strategically placed around oilfields could easily double as means of containing Iranian influence in crucial strategic areas, especially given the emerging de facto co-ordination with Turkey and Russia to achieve exactly that.
So now Washington plans to retain at least 900 troops in Syria, only slightly less than before, but with more tanks and armour.
In effect, the US has pointlessly reinforced the idea that it is an unreliable and faithless ally that has lost its will to fight. Mr Trump appears confused in his decision-making and easily manipulated by both foreign leaders and his own staff. Meanwhile whatever burdens and risk are attached to the Syria mission remain unchanged.
This is what Americans refer to as paying retail, or ticket price – and paying it twice.
Another unresolved question was what to do with the US forces that were supposed to leave Syria. The initial idea was to send them to Iraq. But this was publicly announced before Washington quietly secured an agreement with the Iraqis, thus ensuring that Baghdad could not agree to it.
It is the opposite of statecraft to announce the redeployment of troops from highly strategic areas and only then try to figure out where they can go.
Iraq and Syria seem to have the ability to provoke astounding blunders by American leaders. In 2003, the George W Bush administration charged into an invasion of Iraq that undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in US history. Mr Obama oversaw a weak, inconsistent and often inexplicable policy in Syria that demanded the removal of Mr Al Assad but refused to do anything serious to secure it. It frequently backfired.
Iraq and Syria seem to have the ability to provoke astounding blunders by American leaders
Now, for the fourth time in less than three years, Mr Trump has announced the removal of all US forces from Syria, only to be forced yet again to recant.
No power, no matter how mighty, can prevail or handle relatively manageable problems, even against far weaker antagonists, if it cannot agree – and therefore does not know – what it wants.
The fundamental disagreement in the Trump administration over Syria, with the president trying to get out and his senior officials manoeuvring to stay in, is a textbook example of policy confusion.
The never-ending fiasco of US Syria policy, unfortunately, is a synecdoche for a broader failure of American global policy and strategy.
Republicans are now deeply divided between isolationists like the president and internationalists like most of his senior officials. The same factions are at odds in the Democratic Party.
The political and foreign policy establishment in the US has strikingly failed, since the end of the Cold War, to convince ordinary Americans how and why they benefit from global engagement and leadership. A large and growing number agree with Mr Trump that, without the Soviet menace, the whole thing is an intolerable burden.
This disastrous misunderstanding was produced by epic blunders like the Iraq invasion, combined with pervasive stereotypes that cast the rest of the planet as feeding parasitically off a rich and altruistic US. Mr Trump’s rhetoric plays to this notion.
What the ongoing debacle in Syria demonstrates is that American internationalists, both Republicans and Democrats, must either make the case much more effectively to the public about the benefits and importance to them of US international engagement or accept that, no matter how misguided it is, Mr Trump’s neo-isolationism will continue to win by default.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: November 4, 2019 08:38 PM