- - Sunday, March 18, 2018


Almost two weeks ago, after yet another incident of a chlorine gas attack by Syria’s Assad regime, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned both Syria and its Russian ally that using gas weapons against civilians or on the battlefield was very unwise. Last week, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was more blunt, warning that America is “prepared to act if we must” to stop indiscriminate bombings of civilians by the Assad regime.

Last April, President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base from which aircraft had carried out an earlier chemical weapons strike on civilians.

American troops, joined by our Kurdish allies, have been in Syria, fighting ISIS for more than a year. They have sustained casualties and inflicted enormous losses on our opponents, including the Russians.

Russian forces had built a bridge over the Euphrates River near the city of Deir Ezzour. On about Feb. 10, a Russian force comprised of about 500 men, supported by tanks and towed artillery, crossed it to attack Syrian rebel and Kurdish forces.

In a very one-sided battle. American artillery and aircraft, including Predator drones, F-22s, F-15s, an AC-130 gunship and Army attack helicopters, destroyed the Russian force, killing about 200 Russians.

The Russians were “military contractors,” i.e., Russian troops not fighting under the Russian flag like the “little green men” that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to conquer the Crimea and invade Ukraine. By nearly wiping them out, Mr. Trump put to rest the idea that he’s in Mr. Putin’s pocket. But that doesn’t solve the mystery of what we’re trying to accomplish in Syria.

Last year, the Trump administration announced that our strategy in Syria was that U.S. troops would remain in northeastern Syria until there was a settlement of the entire Syrian conflict that included the ouster of Bashar Assad’s regime.

In January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to define our goals in Syria in terms of what we’re not doing. Carrying on their long-standing enmity, Turkish ground and air forces have been fighting Kurdish troops in Syria. To placate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Tillerson assured him that we were not trying to create a Kurdish enclave in Syria and didn’t intend to establish the rumored 30,000-man strong border security force there to do so.

Mr. Tillerson’s assurances had no noticeable effect. The Turks had threatened the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin, held by the Kurds and where U.S. forces were also located. Last week, Turkish troops surrounded Afrin.

His words also didn’t slow Russian, Syrian or Iranian forces fighting the anti-Assad rebels. Together, they have been besieging the city of Ghouta, the last major rebel position outside Damascus. They may take Ghouta any day.

With their military forces dominating most of Syria, it’s entirely clear that Russia, Iran and Turkey control the outcome of the war. They will keep Mr. Assad in power, defeat the anti-Assad rebels and push out the Kurdish forces. It would be foolish for Mr. Trump to decide to go to war against all three to oust Mr. Assad, because Syria’s fate is essentially irrelevant to our national security.

This is not a case of “mission creep.” Rather, it’s an episode of “mission quandary.” Because our goal in the Syrian war is undecided, it needs to be recalculated in terms of the possible benefits to our national security.

There are several choices Mr. Trump can make. He could decide to continue our military efforts in Syria indefinitely, to no useful purpose.

Our recalculated mission should be focused on the several nations near Syria which are significant to our national security interests and are soon to suffer from the Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance. Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and a few others are among them, as is the Kurdish semi-autonomous area in northern Iraq. Let’s focus on the Kurds because they are probably the next target of the nascent Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis.

The president should make it clear that we will continue to protect and support the Kurds against the Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces, but not everywhere Kurdish populations are present.

Like many ethnic groups in the Middle East, there are large Kurdish populations in several countries, including Iraq, Turkey and Syria. The Turks, fearing Kurdish expansion into southeast Turkey, oppose independence of the Kurdish semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq. Turkey is using that as an excuse to attack Kurdish forces in Syria which have been very effective in helping us fight ISIS.

The Kurds deserve our protection but not unlimited support. Last September, Iraqi Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly for independence, but didn’t declare independence. They understand that they are unable to stand up against Iranian-dominated Iraq or Turkey and that while we should protect their homeland, we won’t go to war for their independence.

Politics and time usually vary the strength and usefulness of alliances but not our national security interests. When we measure our national security interests, our continued intervention in Syria is pointless. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian war, major alliances in the Middle East are shifting against us. The Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance is the greatest threat we and our allies in the region face. How we deal with it will determine the history of the Middle East for the next century.

Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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