Is the US doing more harm than good in Syria and Lebanon?

Is the US doing more harm than good in Syria and Lebanon?
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Quite simply, the situation in Syria is a mess, with no easy or predictable solutions.

It is likely that a year from now the situation will look worse, even if ISIS is totally defeated. There are Sunni Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda militias, all eager to fill the radical Sunni vacuum, and in it for the long haul.

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In the humanitarian disaster known as East Ghouta, the Sunni “rebels” consist of the Islam Army; Tahrir al-Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate; and Failaq al-Rahman and the Free Syrian Army who are affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood. To make your head spin, Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman are at each other’s throats.

 

Your choices in Syria are bad and worse, but figuring out what’s worse isn’t easy. Any wise strategist knows well enough that an American “friend” in the Levant, other than Israel, is only a temporary friend sharing for the moment a strategic interest. But choosing the wrong temporary friend can backfire — and abandoning “friends,” as we did various Kurdish allies in the region, also has turned out to be a poor choice and tainted us as an unreliable ally.

David Goldman wrote in Asia Times: “What is painfully clear is that Kurds have been abandoned by the United States. .... Washington's abandonment of the Kurds left them with no other choice but to turn to the Assad government and its Russian backers.”  

The area around Afrin in the northwest of Syria on the Turkish border is far from East Ghouta in the southeast, but both display the continued deterioration of American power and credibility in the Levant.

The result of the defeat of ISIS in Syria is certainly disappointing to anyone who thought there was light at the end of the tunnel. The decline of ISIS has simply meant the ascendency of Shiite Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad, while the United States has been marginalized with little influence or leverage for its own or its allies’ security interests.

The resulting power vacuum has only facilitated the achievement of an Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Back in September, the Syrians already had crossed into the supposed deconfliction zones in Deir el-Zour, a key strategic area for an Iranian land corridor through Syria into Lebanon.

Second, the American belief that millions of dollars of arms for the Lebanese army is a necessary path for stabilization is dangerously wrong. It actually supports Iran and destabilizes Lebanon. Though the Lebanese army asserts its independence, Israeli officials have warned the army is aligned with Hezbollah, an arm of Iran and an ally of Assad and Russia.

There are no shortcuts or even guideposts of what to do in the region, but some United States choices clearly were wrong from the get-go. The vacuums created by the Obama administration, and the Trump administration’s outsourcing of security by trusting Russia to enforce deconfliction zones in Syria, were two among many poor strategic choices.

Let’s be clear — in the short, medium and long term, American troops are more endangered by these choices, not less, as isolationists would have you believe.

When Israel’s northern Iranian border erupts, i.e. the Lebanese and Syrian border, Hezbollah could have at its disposal American-made Super Tucano attack planes, attack helicopters, and Bradley armored personnel carriers.

When Israel inevitably hits Lebanese forces aligned with Hezbollah, there will be clash of interests between America and Israel. The Trump administration, like previous American governments, suffers from the delusion that there is a real separation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military or government. Hezbollah — and therefore, Iran — controls Syria with Russian help. There will be an Iranian naval port on the Mediterranean in Syria.

Despite Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWhite House ousts Sessions Trump downplays potential turnover: 'Everybody wants to work in this White House' Trump says Cabinet changes likely after midterms MORE’s recent comment regarding Hezbollah’s malignant influence in Lebanon, he said Washington remains “committed to supporting the Lebanese army and the internal security forces.” The United States must get over the illusion that the Lebanese army is a force against terrorism, and perceive its alignment with Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

According to INSS Eldad Shavit, Russian media announced that the “Russian Ministry of Defense has been instructed to begin talks with its Lebanese counterpart, with the goal of signing a cooperative agreement between Russia and Lebanon. The agreement is supposed to include the opening of Lebanese seaports and airports to Russian military maritime vessels and planes. Russia is also reportedly interested in assisting the Lebanese army with training and military equipment.”

By extension, are we now helping Russian and Iranian interests in Lebanon?

Is the United States doing more harm than good in northwest Syria, near Manbij and Jarabulus, where Turkish forces attacked American Kurdish allies, threatening U.S. forces in the region? Turkey and America appear to be on a collision course, with Turkish President Erdogan demanding the United States stop aiding the Kurds. But according to CNN, Tillerson stopped short of demanding an end to Turkish provocations.

So, whose side is the United States choosing in Syria — the Kurdish YGP, which is the largest contingent of the U.S.-friendly Syrian Democratic Forces, or the Turks who are technically part of NATO but are more akin to a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated nation, on the march for new territory?

It is not too late for America to protect its interests in the region, but that will require a clear vision and coordination among those voicing its foreign policy.

Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.