By Ray Hanania
Syria is a mess, but it is not a mess for everyone. Russia is building a strong base through its alliance with President Bashar Assad. Turkey is establishing a justification for a long-term presence as it battles to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state along its border. Iran also has a strong presence in Syria. And Hezbollah has an armed presence in the country, expanding its base of militant violence.
Even Daesh has been able to use Syria as a base as the decade-long civil war has gone through various political mutations, allowing it to strike targets in Syria and in neighboring Iraq. And, in recent months, China has engaged in the Syrian conflict by joining Russia in demanding that the US “abide by international laws.”
The only nation not engaged in Syria in a meaningful way is the US, which is slowly but steadily finding out that the country is being used as an instrument of international political pressure.
If this were a teenager’s video game, one might conclude that the US was being squeezed into a corner, with diminished influence in the Levant and the wider Middle East. But Syria is not a video game, although the number of deaths there and the refugee surges are more like video game statistics. Certainly, human life does not seem to have much value in the Syria conflict.
Weeks after taking office, US President Joe Biden in February found himself forced to act militarily against Syria-based, Iran-backed militias that his administration blamed for attacks on American troops in neighboring Iraq. He ordered US military forces to target a small building complex, destroying it with several 500-pound bombs. In June, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said America would continue to strike any targets to “protect US personnel.”
The US began withdrawing troops from Syria in the fall of 2019 under a directive from former President Donald Trump. That withdrawal has been slow and erratic, but now only about 900, including a number of Green Berets, remain and they will stay in the country to advise the Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against Daesh. No US troops have accompanied rebel forces on military operations for more than a year. This troop level is the same as was first introduced to Syria and the agenda, which is to confront Daesh, has not changed since 2014.
Russia sees Syria as a key foundation of its long-term strategy to wedge itself into the Middle East, a region that had been under US dominance for many decades — since the Arab world broke its alliances with the old Soviet Union following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
Restricting its presence to a very narrow focus — fighting Daesh — poses many risks for the US. Several times, Syrian military actions have impacted American forces. Worse are the pressures on the international community caused by the refugee crisis and the migration of displaced civilians inside Syria, which has created a humanitarian crisis.
The bottom line is that all of the other countries involved in Syria are staking out and re-enforcing their positions, while the American strategy seems to be one of coasting in neutral, gearing up only for encounters with Daesh. This makes no real sense, considering that the US in August withdrew from Afghanistan, surrendering control of the country to its once sworn enemy, the Taliban. A weak American posture in Syria also invites other countries to take more military chances.
Biden really only has two choices: He can increase America’s military presence in an attempt to keep all of the other countries’ interests at bay, or he can order a complete withdrawal and regroup in Israel, Jordan and in the Gulf. What he cannot afford to do is maintain a negligible presence that can do little except exercise punitive actions against Daesh and the Iran-backed militias. That is a no-win strategy. And it could backfire and result in a situation where American forces find themselves suffering a terrible loss, which would further erode its perception as the world’s most powerful nation.
American prestige is at stake and the country cannot afford to allow anything, either intentional or accidental, to undermine its image as the top predator in the food chain.
All nations around the world are watching how America acts in Syria, and any signs of weakness could influence them to become more demanding or less accommodating in their dealings with Washington.
If the US loses its influence in Syria, especially by failing to take decisive, strong action, it could eventually lose its influence everywhere.
Clearly, the anti-Assad rebels that America backs are losing ground. This makes the US look weak — an image it cannot afford to portray.