Pivot from the Middle East
Near the end of 2018, President Trump announced, via Twitter, that the United States would withdraw the roughly 2,000 troops it had deployed to Syria. It is believed that this apparent surprise announcement was a contributing factor in Secretary of Defense Mattis’s decision to resign. In addition to losing a Secretary of Defense, the decision to withdraw was almost universally condemned by prominent American political figures on both the right and the left. As a result, National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was in Israel on January 6, appeared to clarify that the announced withdrawal would only happen once the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been defeated and the Syrian Kurds are safe.
Regardless of how “spur of the moment” the decision to withdraw actually was, there are very good reasons for the United States to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, starting with Syria. Specifically, the United States’ national interests no longer lie primarily in the Middle East. With a reduced reliance on Middle Eastern oil, ISIL on the decline, and the Syrian Civil War nearing a bloody conclusion, the United States should redeploy its forces to better counterbalance against the rising powers of Russia and China.
The Syrian Civil War started as part of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, and continues to rage in Syria. What started as a conflict between the Assad government and a coalition of anti-Assad Syrian rebels soon metastasized into part of a larger conflict with the rise of ISIL. This new force made quick gains in both Syria and Iraq, overrunning Iraqi government forces and fighting against both the Assad government and the Syrian rebels.
ISIL’s rampage in Iraq and Syria needed to be dealt with. It was right of the United States to increase its presence in the region to fight and defeat ISIL. While there is still an ISIL presence in Syria and Iraq, the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces pushed the organization out of one of the last major cities it held in December 2018. ISIL’s defeat has also, unfortunately, coincided with a downturn in fortunes for the Syrian rebels. The loss of Aleppo and the confinement of the rebels to the Idlib province has put them in a precarious position; the loss of Idlib would spell defeat for the anti-Assad rebels.
However, the United States’ interests and objectives in the Middle East have changed since 2011. With very little chance of the rebels emerging victorious, the notion that “Assad must go” sounds incredibly naïve, regardless of how murderous the Assad government is. Short of a full invasion a lá Iraq in 2003, which the American people would not support, the only realistic way to remove Assad now is through his death. Rather than pursue this, the United States should aim for an agreement with Assad that grants increased autonomy and safety to the Kurds (preferably with international supervision) in exchange for regime security from Western strikes (unless he violates the guarantee for the Kurds). As for ISIL, the organization has been reduced to a mere nuisance, one that can be contained by regional actors backed up by the United States.
Outside of Syria, the United States has more reasons to reduce its footprint in the region. Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi are reason enough for the United States to distance itself from its regional partner. The falling demand for oil, in conjunction with the increased domestic production, has reduced the United States’ need for Middle Eastern oil. A physical, military presence in the Middle East is no longer as essential to American interests as it once was. Diplomacy and technical support will better serve the United States in the Middle East going forward.
The United States should be re-deploying its forces to better counter its next major competition: Russia and China. Both have become increasingly assertive in the past decade, often challenging the United States, its allies, and the world order. Russia has destabilized Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and may be responsible for online disinformation campaigns that undermine sources of information in both the United States and Europe, which has impacted recent elections. China continues to push into the South China Sea to claim its “Nine Dash Line” border, while at the same time expanding its global influence through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and loans to African governments. Both states are modernizing their militaries and nuclear arsenals while looking to expand their spheres of influence.
In order for the United States to adequately face its great power rivals, it must be smart about how it deploys its resources. There is little more the United States can accomplish militarily in Syria – good diplomacy will yield the best results for the United States in Syria now. Reducing its footprint in the Middle East would not only free up personnel and equipment, but would also allow the United States to better focus on keeping Russia and China in check without worrying about spreading American power too thin. Ultimately, the United States must conserve and better strategically deploy its military assets, while at the same time increasing its diplomatic activities and cooperation with its allies.