x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

US should not stop allies’ Syria policy

If America no longer wishes to police the Middle East, that is welcome. But it cannot demand its allies police themselves according to America's policy

Since the end of the Cold War, right-wing analysts in the United States have sniped about Europe’s “peace dividend”. What they mean is that, as European countries cut back on defence spending after the collapse of the threat of the Soviet Union, the US continued to build up its military, essentially providing Europe with a shield of protection without paying for it. Such sniping has only increased as the economy in the US spluttered and Russia emerged as a threat.

Similar sniping has occasionally been heard about the Middle East, particularly in the last few years under Barack Obama, as the US seeks to pivot away from the region. In particular, one of the arguments deployed against US involvement in Syria has been that it should be for Middle East countries to solve the problems of the Middle East – America cannot police the world.

Fair enough. If the world’s policeman wishes to retreat from the region, that is understandable. The Middle East should be able to police itself. Yet what the US cannot expect is that the region will police itself according to America’s policy.

That is the thrust of what is happening now, over Syria. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two of the biggest purchasers of US arms. Couple that with other countries with robust militaries – such as Turkey, Qatar, Egypt – and it is clear the region does not lack the capacity to police. But, over Syria, the US has not only refused to act, but it has refused to allow its allies to pursue the policy they wish.

Take manpads, the shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles that the Syrian rebels have been requesting for years. The US has refused to supply them and has blocked regional allies from doing so, fearful that they could fall into the wrong hands. But regional countries have pointed out that the threat would fall against their own aircraft first and foremost and, secondly, that the bigger threat is that the conflict will burn out of control (as it is doing), dragging in foreign fighters (which has occurred) and strain neighbouring countries (which has happened).

If the US does not wish to be in charge of the security of its allies that is fine. But in that case, the region must be free to pursue the policies it feels would best protect it.