President Donald Trump’s U.S.-led coalition in Syria to defeat ISIS — the noxious terror caliphate that sprang from the loins of the Obama administration’s irresolution — was brilliantly executed. He employed a lean and lethal U.S. force assisted by our allies fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Syrian Kurds, who are seeking to establish some semblance of normalcy for their ethnic group. In short order, the president’s efforts were a stunning success, killing or imprisoning legions of ISIS savages. His intervention was necessary.
Eager to fulfil his promise — sincerely made — to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the president has been frustrated with the difficulty he has encountered in extricating us from “foreign wars.” Moreover, he is under pressure from the libertarians in his party who assert that the Syrian intervention was “not our war.” In reality, ISIS was and remains inextricably part of the GWOT, having sprouted from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Indeed, AQI itself grew out of the irresolution to intervene effectively with the post-Iraq War insurgency. This compelled President George W. Bush to “surge” forces there in 2007 to successfully suppress AQI.
However, when President Barack Obama took the helm, he also demonstrated irresolution by precipitously withdrawing from Iraq in 2011. That was a profound blunder. Iraq wasn’t prepared to stabilize itself from emerging terror insurgencies and, in that environment, ISIS was born, resuming where AQI left off.
The non-interventionists who are advising the president on the nature of war seem to misunderstand the world this president faces as he attempts to end the conflicts that have cost us much blood and treasure. It is this. The multipolar world of today is multi-dangerous. It doesn’t resemble the bipolar one of yesteryear when superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — could tame the states over whom they had diplomatic, military and economic influence. Our multipolar world is filed with the likes of Iran, North Korea, Syria and terror organizations including ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban, all posing omnidirectional threats to world peace. It’s also populated with uncooperative nations and leaders, indeed even NATO allies like the recalcitrant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is unpredictable and untrustworthy.
Gone are the days when nations could view wars through the sterile lens of non-intervention, dismissing conflicts as “your war, not ours.” Multipolar realities have changed that. Witness the Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen to defeat Iranian-backed terror rebels in southern Arabia. That has now escalated and threatens war between Saudi Arabia and Iran following Iran’s attack of a major Saudi oil refinery last month. The GWOT — including the state sponsors of terror like Iran, Syria and North Korea — is a profound multipolar threat and can’t be dismissed. The president, unlike his predecessor, defeated ISIS. But the risk he now faces is whether ISIS will resurface in the wake of America’s rapid withdrawal, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Syria threatens to upend the situation. The specter of colliding Turkish, Syrian and Russian troops — all racing to occupy territory formerly controlled by the U.S.-led coalition that defeated ISIS — is ominous. President Trump’s decision to dispatch Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Turkey to secure a ceasefire has bought valuable time to stabilize the situation. Yet, this remains a multipolar challenge that requires more work.
First, the deteriorating 120-hour cessation in fighting needs reinforcement. A no-fly zone over northern Syria would be of value in deterring an escalation of violence between Turks and Kurds, but also meddlesome Syrian and Russian forces. The United States should also deter Iran’s efforts to expand its militia presence northward as it has throughout the southern regions of the Levant bordering our most reliable Middle Eastern ally, Israel.
Second, the Unied States and Turkey should implement a demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the 20-mile buffer Turkey seeks in northern Syria. It could be policed by the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) — as they currently do on the Golan Heights and in Southern Lebanon — or done by a similarly constituted international military coalition. Moreover, a DMZ would permit repatriation of Syrian refugees in Turkey and recently displaced Kurds, resolving a major humanitarian crisis.
Third, sustain a robust military presence in western Iraq to crush any ISIS resurgence in the region.
Fourth, President Trump should offer to personally broker peace talks between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, people the Turks consider terrorists. The mutual hostility between the combatants makes crafting a deal difficult, but that’s reality in a multipolar world.
Finally, the president should make clear to non-interventionists that they should not equate his withdrawal from Syria with hesitation to dispatch and position armed forces when situations require military intervention. After all, Iran, North Korea and the remnants of ISIS are lurking about in this multi-dangerous world.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army colonel, combat veteran and Middle East Foreign Area officer. He also served in the Virginia General Assembly.
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