Few would benefit from US escalation in Syria

Few would benefit from US escalation in Syria
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The United States has a rare opportunity to avoid another conflict in the Middle East and the financial penalty future generations will have to bear.

In response to Saturday’s nerve or chemical agent attack against Syrian civilians, maybe done by Syrian government forces as they press their offensive against the last rebel strongholds near Damascus, the White House has announced “major decisions” were imminent in the next 48 hours, even though the U.S. isn’t sure who did it.

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Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus New polls show tight races for Graham, McConnell Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing MORE (R-S.C.), who never met a war he didn’t like, declared this “a defining moment in his [Trump’s] presidency” as he tries to push President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE and all of America further into the Middle East morass.

 

Instead, Trump must stay focused on eliminating the surviving remnants of ISIS and not be distracted by the suffering of Syrians at the hand of their regime, bad as it is.

The first thing Trump should ask the generals and the members of the war party is, “Who pays?” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been no net benefit to the U.S., have cost $1.6 trillion per a 2014 accounting, though some estimates put the cost as high as $3 trillion. And the Chinese have stopped buying U.S. Treasury Bills in recent weeks, so we may have to finally spend our own money on our own wars.

Why ignore the suffering in Syria? Because there are more critical issues at play in the region, and the U.S. must decide if it will work harder for its preferred outcome than the belligerents who have local and particular interests.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is trying to reform his economy and society. He recently declared “Bashar [Assad] is staying” but indicated that Assad’s interests lie in not doing Iran’s bidding. The House of Saud knows the Assads very well — they have been enemies for a long time — and the Saudis don’t need the distraction of dealing with a new government made of resistance leaders who fight each other more than Assad’s regime, and whose first official act will be to ask the rest of the world for money.

Turkey is furious at the West’s support of the Syrian Kurdish forces, who it considers allies of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey, under strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hasn’t acted the part of a NATO ally lately, but a NATO ally it is and so is more important than the Syrian Kurds, who need to do a deal with Damascus to blunt the Turkish incursion into Syria and to create leverage for the political jockeying in post-war Syria.

Russia has plenty to show for its Syria venture. It is back in the Middle East in a big way, after the humiliation of having its military advisors ejected by Egypt in 1973. Moscow has a naval facility and air base in Syria and, most satisfyingly, has agreed with Cairo to operate combat aircraft from bases in Egypt. It has disagreements about Syria with Turkey but the leaders understand they will benefit if they mute their differences.

Russia used Syria as a demonstration of its new weapons and tactics and reaped record arms sales and made the point that it stands by its friends, no matter how odious they may be.

Iran is also using the Syria conflict to show it stands with its friends. It has invested heavily in propping up the Assad regime, reportedly providing billions of dollars a year in cash and in-kind support, even providing credit lines so Syria can buy oil and other goods from Iran.

Iran has deployed the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian Army to Syria and has lost more than 2,100 troops and three general officers.

What has it achieved? It has kept Assad in power, established air and land bridges to Syria, and ensured the terrorists of Hezbollah can continue to menace Israel and control Lebanon.

Against this our military sees an unfinished job in Syria and is resisting the president’s wish to evacuate the area soonest and leave the stabilization and reconstruction mission to the neighbors. Our military leaders will want to avoid answering the president’s “who pays” question, but if the U.S. deepens its involvement in Syria, it will be expected to fund a large part of the reconstruction that is estimated to cost $100 billion to $350 billion.

What to do? First, complete the mission against ISIS and avoid escalating conflict with Turkey and Russia. Then, continue to support Israel against Iranian forces and Hezbollah. Last, help Syria’s neighbors deal with the over five million refugees they are hosting, in particular Jordan (over 600,000) and Lebanon (over 900,000).

The U.S. shouldn’t lose the chance to do the right thing in Syria by doing less.

James Durso (@James_Durso) served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance, retiring with the rank of commander. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is presently managing director of Corsair LLC, a consulting firm specializing in project management and marketing support in the Middle East and Central Asia.