President Donald J. Trump took a lot of heat after claiming that the troops would be coming home very soon, especially after Syria appeared to have engaged in another chemical weapon attack just days later. However, he was 100% correct in his insistence that we have been in the region long enough. That being said, there are three initiatives that would go totally against his grain that he needs to take in order to make leaving Syria work.
The first thing Trump must change is his tweeting. He made the same mistake Obama made in declaring a “red line.” Recall that Obama drew that red line impromptu, during an interview, not as part of a well-considered, well-written policy speech. He answered a question off of the top of his head – something politicians rarely ever do – and lived to regret it.
In a similar way, Trump may come to regret some of his impulsive tweets.
Decisions to stay or go, fight or sanction, balance or band-wagon, and contain or destroy must be made in the context of a foreign policy and not an ad hoc, improvised reaction to events. The objectives of this policy should drive the strategy and suggest a range of tactics. Objectives are generally stated in simple terms: keep the nation safe, support and safeguard our allies, prevent threats to American interests at home or abroad, fight tyranny, prevent would-be hegemons from unbalancing the strategic situation, and increase the wealth and well-being of the American people and our allies.
And so a strategy should be developed and implemented. A strategy is much more expansive than a mere equation of means and ends; it is a coherent and consistent vision designed to produce security around the world, driven by what our leadership defines as American interests, understanding especially that a peaceful world is above all an American interest. Strategy is not limited to military power. It also requires the use of our diplomatic power, our economic power and our moral power. These four pillars, when used together, can be a formidable weapon for all that is good in this world. By deploying them together we can overcome any obstacle and shape the direction of the entire world.
Trump is no student of history. If he was, he might look to how Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon dealt with the invasion of Jordan by Syria during September, 1970, often referred to as “Black” September. In some very significant ways that conflict resembles the current situation in Syria. The Jordanian crisis was a regional conflict that threatened to become a global conflict involving the US and Soviet Union. Indeed, September, 1970 was the closest we came to World War 3 since the Cuban Missile Crisis because embedded within the Syrian military were the hidden troops of the Soviet Union.
The crisis was initiated by the simultaneous hijacking of three airplanes by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) led by George Habash. A fourth airplane was hijacked later that week. The passengers were removed and became hostages; all the airplanes were dynamited.
It escalated when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan violently expelled the Palestinians and Syria threatened to invade Jordan to support the Fedayeen.
Disgusted by the hijackings, anxious to resolve the hostage negotiations, and determined to thwart Soviet influence in the region, Nixon’s instincts and rhetoric were immediately belligerent. He ordered the entire Sixth Fleet to the region and bolstered it with the USS John F Kennedy and the USS Guam and put European-based troops from the 82nd Airborne division on alert in Cyprus.
In what might be compared to an angry tweet from Trump today, Nixon told the Chicago Sun Times on September 17, 1970, “If the Syrians or Iraqis intervene in Jordan there are only two of us to stop them, the Israelis or us. The Russians are going to pay dearly for moving the missiles in…We are embarking on a tougher policy in the Middle East. The Sixth Fleet is going to be beefed up. We will intervene if the situation is such that our intervention will make a difference.”
Two days later, a Syrian tank column invaded Jordan.
Because Nixon viewed the world through the lens of the Cold War, he took an approach to the conflict designed to “underline our determination to maintain a U.S. presence and to strengthen our credibility with respect to the Soviets,” as he declared. Although officially assured by the Soviet diplomat Yuli Vorontsov that Soviet troops were not involved, Nixon made the assumption that the USSR was behind the invasion and prepared to escalate the conflict if necessary.
A range of military options involving US and Israeli intervention were relayed to Vorontsov, who urged against outside intervention. On the evening of September 20, Kissinger informed Vorontsov that it was his clients who started the conflict and it was up to him to get them to end it. If he failed to do so, Israeli tanks would invade Syria the following day.
On Tuesday, September 21, Hussein’s small but effective air force attacked the Syrian tanks. They immediately began to withdraw. By Wednesday a cease fire was in place. The crisis was over, although the consequences of that fateful month have been long-lasting and severe.
Nixon’s decision to bring in and augment the Sixth Fleet, his firm diplomatic posture toward Russia, and his public support for the Jordanian government proved to be effective. According to Bradley Pierson, “By publicly projecting a willingness to expand the conflict beyond Jordan, the United States was able to effectively communicate an unyielding commitment to the Middle East and, in effect, influence the outcome of events in the region.”
So why would this history matter to Trump?
First, we need to recognize that the United States has no specific interest in Syria beyond the general health and well-being of the Middle East in general.
This is why Trump was right to think that he would withdraw the 2000 US troops currently in Syria. However, he is missing a golden opportunity.
Russia does have important interests in Syria: including but not limited to oil and gas reserves and their naval base at Tartus. Before giving up about a third of Syria’s overall territory by withdrawing these troops, Trump should find some way to take advantage of this leverage.
For example, just as Nixon viewed a crisis between belligerent neighbors in the context of the greater Middle East, Trump can use the importance of Syria to Russia as a lever to help resolve other crises in the region. Israel and Iran have been clashing over Iranian air missions over Israeli air space. With US withdrawal from Syria as leverage, Russia could be induced to stop Iran. And Russia could be convinced to prevent Iran from transporting weapons through Syria to Hezbollah.
Trump could also insist to Russia that Assad be replaced by a different leader of their choosing: just getting rid of Assad would be a feather in his cap. The idea is that in and of itself, Syria does not matter much to us, but it matters greatly to Russia. That gives us leverage. Insisting that Assad only slaughter his people with conventional weapons is a poor use of this leverage. Trump the great deal maker should know better. We have an opportunity to accomplish things of material, not just symbolic, value. But in addition to this, Trump should undertake two more initiatives:
One, Trump should also agree to take in as many as one million Syrian refugees. This is another lost opportunity on his part. Trump’s xenophobia should not extend to Syrians, as he is from New York City and has likely seen for himself that Syrians do very well here in the States. By agreeing to take in more refugees, Trump is doing more than just being a humanitarian: Syrians make up about 12% of the overall Arab-American population here in the US and have developed a strong base of political power here. The median household income of Syrian families is higher than the national earning median; employed Syrian men earned an average $46,058 per year, compared with $37,057 for Americans In general. SyrianAmericans are good Americans; with a stronger voice, they would soon be more capable of effecting positive change in Syria than those who remain behind there. That is a threat to Russia and to Assad.
Last, Trump should take this opportunity to re-think his position on energy. The most effective way to improve US relations in the Middle East is to marginalize the region. Clean, green energy must be a part of this effort. Trump has shown recently that he can learn on the job: after vigorously opposing the TPP, Trump now seems to realize the strategic importance of a multilateral trade deal to isolate China. The same general principle holds true of the Middle East. The region has had an out-sized impact on the world since Churchill decided to convert the Royal Navy from coal power to oil. As renewable energy becomes more prominent world-wide thanks to US leadership and innovation, the world becomes a safer and more sustainable place.
Trump can make the most important strategic decision for global well-being in over one hundred years.
I think he would enjoy that.