Goodbye to the Middle East

This day was always going to happen.

On October 7, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Soon after, Turkish forces began moving south across the border to strike Kurdish forces which had been until extremely recently under American protection. Two days later the partial American withdrawal was upgraded to a full evacuation of all forces.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth across the American political spectrum quickly erupted, with many condemning the tactical and political aspects of the president’s decision. I’m of mixed minds:

On the one hand, the Kurds – whether in Syria or Iraq – have been America’s only reliable regional allies since America’s first major confrontation with Iraq back in the early 1990s. When we have asked, they have answered. Every single time. In many cases U.S. forces didn’t even do the heavy lifting, but instead relegated themselves to providing intelligence and materiel support. Without the Kurds’ assistance the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would have been far nastier affair, post-Saddam Iraq would have been far less stable, the defanging of ISIS and the destruction of the ISIS caliphate would not have happened. In Syria in specific, the Kurds habitually provided at least five times the forces the Americans did.

On the other hand, the United States was always going to leave Syria. If the Americans were unwilling to commit 100,000 troops to the overthrow of Syria’s Assad government and its subsequent forcible reconstruction, then there was little reason to become involved in a decades-long, grinding multi-sided civil war.

The primary reason American forces remain in Syria at this point is to limit Iranian penetration. That battle was lost six years ago when then-President Obama allowed the Syrian government to cross Obama’s own red line on the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama made it crystal clear that any U.S. military action would be small scale, focused on Special Operations Forces, and largely dedicated to backing up the Syrian Kurds. Whether under Obama or Trump, an American withdrawal has always been inevitable. It’s just taken seven years of Syrian-Russian-Iranian victories on the battlefield and the large-scale dismemberment of the ISIS Caliphate to make it imminent.

Aside from the Iranian vector, American national and strategic interests in Syria are utterly nonexistent. Syria – even backed up by Iran – is a military pigmy that Israel could easily shatter. If Jerusalem really wanted to, it could roll into Damascus in a long weekend. (Sticking around, of course, would be a barrel of shiv-wielding monkeys.) American interests in Lebanon are less than American interests in Syria. Jordan has been a de facto Israeli client state for years. And that is quite literally all she wrote.

The far more important fact – comfortable or uncomfortable depending upon your view – is that the evolving American view of Syria is really little more than a microcosm of an evolving American view of the Middle East writ large. American troop deployments throughout the region have been plunging for a decade and are now down to about one-tenth of their peak. America now has more troops in Afghanistan than the rest of the region combined, and that deployment is well on its way to a complete phase out. CENTCOM HQ in Qatar will almost certainly be closed soon (you don’t need a forward command center if there’s nothing to command). The Iraq advisory force is leaving. Kuwait, once the launchpad for multiple wars, has been reduced to lilypad status. The Turks are certain to eject U.S. forces from the Incirlik base within a year.

Within two years the total regional deployment figure will be in the low-to-mid single digits of thousands, at most one-fifth of what is there today.

That sounds shocking and, considering it wasn’t that long ago that the Americans had a quarter-million troops in-region, it kind of is. But take a step back and look – really look – at the region, and it actually isn’t all that mind blowing.
Iraq is falling apart. Mass unrest is now entering its third week and if it continues along its current trajectory it risks bringing down the government. That isn’t “bring down the government” European-style which would mean new elections, but instead “bring down the government” in the post-Arab Spring style, which means an extended period of mass chaos, violence, and very likely a return to some degree of civil war. While it is true that Iraq has experienced cyclical public unrest since 2015, never has the regional climate been more tenuous, with Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia openly involved in regional conflicts – meaning the normal balancing act between Iraq’s Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis (and their foreign backers) is over. Stabilizing this mess would require the Americans (re)injecting 100,000 troops. Far more likely, the Americans will remove the five-ish thousand troops which remain, taking the last thin reed of stability with them.
Iran is the regional bugaboo that most Americans fear. Since the end of the Clinton Administration American policy has held quixotic goals: we want the Iranian government gone, but we don’t want to use U.S. forces to do it. Under Clinton that meant the dual containment. Under W Bush it meant a forward blocking position in Iraq. Under Obama it meant trying to set up a regional balance of power. Under Trump it means economic sanctions backed by exactly zero military force.
None of it has worked. None of it was ever going to work. The Shia clergy is the Iranian political elite, giving the Iranians the deepest bench of political leadership in the region. You’d literally have to kill 10,000 mullahs to induce a shift. Nor is Iran revolution-prone. The first task of the country’s infantry-heavy military is to occupy Iran to ensure domestic unity. There are solid reasons why Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution” was over in under a month.
Nor is knocking Iran off feasible. Iran is a mountain nation, granting it a defensibility which partially obviates the sort of air and tank warfare for which the Americans are renown. Moreover, Iran’s population in 2019 is over triple that of Iraq in 2003. Overthrowing the government would necessitate a force over twice as powerful as the one that took down Saddam’s Iraq, followed by an occupation force three times as large. No thank you. The U.S. military and public has exactly zero interest in putting 400,000 troops back into the Middle East to fight another grinding war of occupation.
What about America’s “allies”?

The Persian Gulf

Qatar is the perfect example of a friends-like-these ally. In per capita terms it is almost certainly the top financial supporter of Islamic terror groups in the world (I say almost certainly since Qatar doesn’t disclose their terror accounting). On the nicer end Qatar fundees include the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, ramping up to more knifey groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Doha also has a nuanced-to-positive relationship with Iran for various reasons, not the least of which is its gas wealth stems from the shared North Dome/South Pars gas field. Qatar has hosted the operational headquarters for most U.S. warfighting in the region for the past two decades despite being a place that is in part responsible for the Americans needing to do the warfighting in the first place.
That’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia. A half century from now when today’s headlines are parsed for the history books, the world will remember Saudi Arabia’s current de facto leader – Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) – as one of the evilest individuals in modern history.
The sheer volume of public support, money, arms and ideological cover given to religiously-tinted fighters – that’s jihadis or terrorists based on your politics – by various Saudi citizens and royals alike has boomed in step with the Kingdom’s regional ambitions. (Qataris have been implicated in plenty of terrorist financing schemes, but fewer than a relative handful have taken up arms themselves; 9/11 shows that the same cannot be said for Saudis.) Saudi Arabia habitually backs the most extreme, violent interpretation of Islam and regularly exports it far and wide at the end of a gun or leading wave of an explosion.
MBS has taken things further. Once he realized the Americans were serious about leaving the region, he shifted tact and instead of simply seeking destabilization of his enemies, he now seeks to burn down the pillars of civilization across the entire field of competition. Much of the Sunni Islamic extremism in Syria can be laid at his feet, as can much of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are MBS’ actions limited to the battlefield. About a year ago on MBS’ orders, a hit squad suffocated and dismembered a Washington Post columnist in Istanbul, transported his remains to the Saudi consul general’s house where they were incinerated in a custom-built “barbeque pit” just before the consul hosted a massive party that utilized the same pit to help degrade any lingering forensic evidence.
MBS is not a friend, nor is Saudi Arabia an ally. America used to have to put up with this sort of activity from the Saudis during the Cold War because without Saudi oil, the global trading system would have collapsed and taken the American alliance network with it. Courtesy of America’s shale revolution, those days are over.
Rhetoric aside, even President Trump doesn’t see the bilateral relationship as all that close. Last month the Iranians launched a drone and missile attack on Saudi energy facilities, taking some 5 million barrels of daily output offline. Under normal circumstances that would have prompted massive American military retaliation. Instead, Trump’s response to MBS’ call for assistance was something along the lines of, “sorry, I have a fundraiser.” For those of you who think oil is a globalized commodity and so the U.S. remains vulnerable to price swings, think again. The president has preexisting authority to limit U.S. crude exports. Should global prices get too crazy, an executive order can keep U.S. shale output at home, splitting the North American energy market off from the global market. The Saudi headache is now optional.
Even Israel isn’t what it once was. Within the next decade the country’s mostly-Palestinian Muslim population will become the majority, although about 90 percent of them have no political rights in the Israeli system. The two-state process that sought to generate a country for the Palestinians has been dead for years and we have already seen the Israelis implement a very successful separation plan more than a bit reminiscent of South Africa’s Apartheid.
In fact, Israeli ultranationalists in private conversations even welcome the comparison to Apartheid, because they think Apartheid was gentler than what modern Israel has achieved. Under Apartheid, the black South Africans could travel to white-controlled zones for work. Under the Israeli program the Palestinians languish behind 35-foot-tall concrete walls in what are little more than open air prisons with the Israelis controlling Palestinian access to power, food and water. As the thinking goes, who cares if this radicalizes the Palestinians if they are radicalized on the other side of a wall. Arguably, places like Tunisia or Pakistan are now “more equal” democracies than Israel. (Ugh, I’m going to get so much hate mail for these last two paragraphs.)
Turkey and the United States have been pulling apart for three decades. In a world where Soviet containment is the end-all be-all, the alliance was everything. Remove the Soviet threat, however, and the Turks have interests in the Balkans, Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia and the Levant that have next to nothing to do with American interests. Turkey is reasserting itself as a major regional power, and since the American military position in places like northern Iraq and Syria are largely dependent upon supply routes through Turkey, there is no long-term American strategic position in these regions without express Turkish assistance. That assistance has been removed, so the Americans – regardless of domestic policy preferences – have no choice but to leave.
That just leaves the Kurds, a mostly mountain people. That makes them a fractious bunch whose fractured leadership has traditionally been willing to fight to the last Kurd to determine who is in command, while enabling more homogenous ethno-sectarian groups on all sides to easily demonize them, oppress them, and play them off one another. They are the largest ethno-sectarian group in the world without a country, and their entire land-locked population is split among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. For those familiar with West Virginia, Switzerland or Chechnya, squabbling oppressed mountain people make great fighters, and since they lack a country they have little to lose by allying with, well, anyone. No wonder the Americans depended on them so much.
But the Kurdish dream of independence was never going to be more than a dream. Landlocked and partitioned, the only way a real Kurdistan could emerge would be if one of the four countries which house Kurds actively sponsor it. That’s just not in the cards. The Kurds are a lost cause; They were never more than an ally of the moment.
They are hardly the only ally of the moment the Americans have abandoned. At the end of the Vietnam War the Americans left the Hmong – another fractious mountain people who allied with the Americans – in the lurch. Their massacre at the hands of the Vietnamese is the stuff of legend. Something similar is about to happen to the Syrian Kurds at the hands of the Turks. The biggest difference between the two groups is there are too many Kurds to resettle them to Minnesota.

So why all the noise back in the United States? Aren’t the Americans exhausted with the Middle East? Shouldn’t they be celebrating?
In part it is because the extreme unpopularity of Donald Trump means any decision he makes is going to be parsed for negative sound bites, and there is no end of hypocrisy in play. My personal favorite are the former Obama team talking heads hitting the airwaves who only now find Syria’s murder and mayhem worthy of American military action.
In part it is because abandoning an ally is bad form, particularly if you think the U.S. should play a role in preventing genocide, promoting human rights, stymieing traditional rivals, or keeping a hand on the throat of the global economy. Even if you think none of this is the U.S.’ business, you’ve got to admit a lot of stuff happens in the region, and having a finger in the pot does prove useful from time to time. In the grand scheme of things, 2000 troops in Syria isn’t that big of a deal.
A deeper (and IMO far more substantive) issue is the fate of America’s national security professionals. Trump initially liked the generals because of their “yes sir” and “can do” attitudes. After all, civilian supremacy means the president is in charge, you do what you are told and if you have a problem with the president’s policy you don’t undermine him, you leave. Well, two years on, pretty much all of them have left.
The break has become so extreme that Trump now considers national security-minded Republicans to be greater ideological foes than the Democrats. One of the big outcomes of the 2018 mid-term elections was the wholesale ejection of that faction from Congress as well as from the Republican Party leadership itself. For many of this group, Syria is the prefect example of poor leadership: Trump’s policy not only betrays a loyal ally, it abdicates an American role throughout an entire region. We can debate the pros and cons of that abdication, but for folks in the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities this is a step that unwinds a half-century of painstaking military, intelligence and diplomatic efforts paid for with untold resources and blood. You don’t have to view the world their way to understand why they’re pissed.
That doesn’t change the simple fact that if not for the seemingly bottomless volume of TrumpDrama in America these days, most Americans would probably be sighing in relief right now. If the Americans really don’t have an interest in maintaining a global Order, then the Middle East is barren of American national interests and it can now firmly be someone else’s problem. It isn’t nice. It isn’t responsible. It won’t be pretty. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Of course the road from here to there is neither straight nor level. There are still plenty of land-mines to dodge:

  • The evacuation of U.S. forces has been ordered, but it has not been completed. That evacuation has to proceed through the Turkish advance and through Turkey. Things are already looking dicey. Shortly after the initial withdrawal order some Turkish forces apparently (intentionally) dropped some artillery near remaining American outposts, forcing the remaining Americans to scramble lest they find themselves in a shooting war with the Turks. The U.S.-Turkish alliance is over, but based on how events unfold in the next couple of weeks a U.S.-Turkish hostility may emerge.
  • The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are both armed and trained and experienced and on the edge of statehood. Just because they (especially the Syrian Kurds) are doomed to fail does not mean they are doomed to fail today. How they fight back and/or seek alignment with Syria and/or Iran and/or Russia will determine the region’s next set of battle lines. This matters the most for the Turks. The Turks are out of practice, having not fought a meaningful military campaign since World War I. If they perform badly it will reshape their regional ambitions. If they perform well there are lots of regional players – Armenia, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind – who will be extremely worried.
  • Of those, by far the most important one is Russia. Like American forces, Russian forces can really only operate in Syria with Turkish acquiescence. With the Americans gone and the Turks ramping up, it’s probably the Russians’ turn to GTFO of the region. If they don’t, a direct Turkish-Russian clash that leaves the Russians on the wrong side of all their backup will ensue. The climbdown and/or massacre would be globally humiliating.
  • One smallish bit of good news is that the ISIS Caliphate is definitely gone, and the ISIS militant movement is broken and on the run. Many have opined that without the American-Kurdish alliance ISIS in any form would have never been defeated. That is true. But that’s not the same as saying that ISIS is doomed to rebound. Historically, the territory that comprises eastern Syria and western Iraq – the ISIS heartland – has been on the bleeding edge of useless. Rain doesn’t happen and the only crops grown are those in the Euphrates floodplain. In most places that band is less than 20 miles across. Civilizing this region is wildly expensive, and so the powers of the region tend to ignore it…until some wackadoo group like ISIS starts causing problems. Then one of the region’s powers invades and burns everything to the ground. From 2003 until 2018 the region’s powers were non-functional: Iraq and Syria had civil wars, while Turkey was gun-shy. The fact that the ISIS Caliphate lasted as long as it did was testament to how abnormal the region had become. Well, Turkey is now invading. It will burn everything to the ground. The atrocities the world is about to pin on the Turks mean we are returning to something a lot more normal.
  • Europe is… screwed. It is one thing to have to deal with a prickly Turkey who stays at home. It is quite another to have Europe’s largest land army deploying in force in a way that most Europeans have publicly condemned. With the exception of the French, no European power has the capacity of independent power projection to the region. And now Turkey is publicly threatening to herd millions of Syrian refugees to Europe’s doorstep unless the Europeans shut up about Turkey’s new military campaign. After the United States, Turkey ties with Russia for being Europe’s most important partner. Expect those ties to burn in the months to come.
  • Finally, there’s Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, the Saudis have paid the Americans to deploy 3,000 troops to the Kingdom. Two things from this: First, sooner or later the Americans will internalize just how messed up the Saudis are and will evacuate everything at once, precipitating a whole new regional crisis. Second, the Americans going pseudo-mercenary is about to be the new normal. If you cannot provide something shiny to bait the Americans into your region (cash is shiny), then you are on your own. That development will reverberate far beyond the Persian Gulf region.

The Syrian War, 2.0

The Israeli Air Force announced April 21 that it would scale back participation in the Red Flag exercises in Alaska. The joint Red Flag drills are regular events hosted by the United States, with the upcoming April 26-May 11 exercises allowing the Israelis to train in an environment they rarely experience (non-coincidentally, Alaskan terrain is somewhat similar to the Persian highlands). IDF spokespersons attributed the decision to keep Israeli F-15s at home due to the changing situation assessment of tensions along its northern border that have left everyone holding their breath.

We weren’t kept waiting long. In the early morning hours of April 30, the Israelis launched a series of significant strikes throughout western Syria, targeting infrastructure that supports weapons development and distribution. A rocket factory made for some particularly impressive fireballs.

The Israelis normally hold their cards much closer to their chest than this – particularly when it involves possible actions in their close-in neighborhood. But these are not normal times. The open secret is that the United States sees almost no role for itself in Syria going forward (at least, compared to what American engagement in the Middle East typically looks like). The Americans’ primary goal in Syria has been the eradication of ISIS. With the terror group’s holdings nearly obliterated, so too goes a compelling case for extending American involvement in Syria. This is compounded by the fact that a country as broken as Syria needs the kind of costly, involved, long-term occupation and rebuilding efforts the Americans pursued in Germany and Japan after World War II – a cost the Americans were unwilling to pay in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The pending American withdrawal evolves the Syrian War in a much fiercer direction. Initially, the primary players in the fight were domestic: the Assad government, ISIS, the Syrian Kurds, and the various collections of anti-regime elements who seemed to occupy every spot on the spectrum from wonky democrats to those who felt ISIS would have been more successful if it had just been a bit more brutal. Foreign powers used these factions as proxies to meet their tactical and strategic needs in the country without committing significant troops. It also created plausible deniability in a very volatile situation with many major actors. In exchange, these factions received intelligence, money, weapons and on-site support far superior to anything they could hope for otherwise, not to mention promises for their role in the future in Syria that may or may not be fulfilled. While those foreign players could certainly make their presence felt, using proxies inherently means the foreigners were rarely present in sufficient strength to dictate events on the ground. (The sole exception might be Iran’s proxy militant group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which has apparently redirected nearly all its fighters into the Syrian theater to assist the Assad government. More on that exception in a moment.)

The presence of U.S. forces in Syria has limited what all the outside players could do, as well as the sorts of risks they were willing to take. The Americans may have never had more than a couple thousand troops in-country, but their vast array of naval firepower combined with the base at Incirlik, Turkey meant they could at a moment’s notice squeeze off missile and bomb barrages at any target they desired. There was no point in baiting the eagle (as Moscow discovered Feb 7 when the Americans obliterated a Russian probe attempt).

But take the Americans out of the equation, and the lid comes off the pot. And since everyone has different goals, Syria is about to get consistently lively:

Russia was an early participant in the Syrian conflict for a mix of reasons:

  • Syria is one of the few of Russia’s Cold War-era proxies that is still of some use, so propping up Assad holds some slight strategic value all its own.
  • Politically, being involved where the Americans were not helped burnish Russia’s credentials as a player, guaranteed it a seat at any table that discussed Syrian issues, and was an easy propaganda win back home.
  • Being in Syria annoyed the crap out of the Turks, forcing Ankara to rivet its gaze to its south rather than to the north where more core Russian interests were in play.
  • Being able to twist the Syrian fighting this or that way enabled the Russians to generate scads of refugees on demand. A mix of geographic, climatic and infrastructure patterns meant that most of those refugees could only go north to Turkey and Europe, enabling Moscow to scramble European politics with nothing more than a few dozen bombs.
  • More recently, the Russians have turned Syria into a vast testing and training range for its forces. Russia’s military may be huge, but it hasn’t seen 1% of the sort of expeditionary combat American forces have seen since 1992. Syria let’s the Russians play catch up.

What do all these reasons have in common? Russia has a vested interest in seeing the Syrian War never end.

Moscow, Russia

Iran is the closest to a strategic ally that the Assad regime has, and Syria has quite surprisingly – to Iran – become the lynchpin in Iran’s entire regional strategy. The most important tool Iran has is the militant group Hezbollah, which Iran uses not simply as a foothold in the Levant, but to threaten Israel and pressure the United States. When Saddam ran Iraq, the Iranians were able to shuttle support to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. Well, the Americans overthrew Saddam and now civil war threatens Syria. The Iranians didn’t just have no choice but to go all-in in Syria, but they are now the power seeking to maintain governments in the region rather than seeking overthrow them. That requires a degree of political, strategic, military and economic commitment that is downright… American.

Assad may have won the civil war, but now Iran has to hold the place together, and as the Americans learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the second phase is far more difficult. But unlike the Americans, the Iranians can’t just go home. An ongoing Assad victory is absolutely critical to maintaining Iran’s current sphere of influence from Mesopotamia to the eastern Mediterranean. In short, the Iranians can never go home.

Directly opposite the Iranians are a series of powers that seem to be somewhat confused about what’s going on in their neighborhood: the Gulf Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Their efforts in Syria are, in a word, messy.

  • Part of this is due to geography: large swathes of desert terrain separate the Gulf Arabs and Syria.
  • Partly it’s a lack of experience: the Gulfies are among the most dependent countries on earth when it comes to relying on the American security blanket.
  • Partly it’s ineptitude: Saudi and Emirati and Qatari-backed groups spend as much time fighting each other in Syria as they do Assad or anyone else.
  • Partly it’s an issue of distraction: these same powers are also fighting a war in Yemen.

It all adds up to a lot of ammunition backed by a lot of money that’s causing a lot of deaths. And that just might be the point. For decades the Americans’ took on the mantle of preserving countries in their current form; If your job is to maintain the global system, then you want stability. But with the Americans leaving, the only power that really wants a stable Syria is… Iran. And if there is one thing the Saudis do not want, it is an Iranian-dominated anything. Better to burn the whole place down than allow the dust to settle in an arrangement that doesn’t suit Saudi preferences.

Which puts Israel and Saudi Arabia more or less on the same side, with Israel in the perfect strategic and political position. The regional powers with which the Israelis have passably good relations – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt – are fighting against Assad and Iranian influence, which means Israel is free to strike targets according to its own national security prerogatives with little risk of even angry tweets from regional stakeholders.

The Syrian War has quietly ushered in a new era of Israeli security relations with its neighbors: rather than relying on the Americans, Israel is aggressively, proactively and decisively pursuing its national security interests and intervening in Muslim conflicts… and no one except Syria and Iran has anything to say about it. The Israeli Air Force has attacked over 100 targets within Syrian territory since 2012, from suspected missile and arms deliveries en route to southern Lebanon to high value Hezbollah and Iranian targets. With the Iranians now the force for order in the country, the Israelis will gleefully expand their target list to anything that will cost the Iranians lives, equipment or money.

It’ll be a long list.

Tehran, Iran

The role of Turkey in Syria has been… unmoored for a reinforcing pair of reasons.

  • First, Turkey’s World War One defeat was so total and humiliating that Turkey in essence took a vacation from the world that lasted a century. The Turks are out of practice using the political, diplomatic, economic and military tools that are standard for pretty much everyone else. The learning curve is fairly steep, but it is still there and the Turks are starting from almost zero.
  • Second is that the political situation within Turkey is flattening that learning curve. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has largely completed the process of purging the country of, well, everyone who opposes him. That has left this very Trumpian personality with zero competent allies, which means he is running Turkey’s $900 billion economy, 80-million citizens, and 900,000-strong military all by himself. Such concentration of power makes for erratic decision-making, with Erdogan highly vulnerable to bad intelligence, fake news, Russian manipulations, personal mental blocks, and a host of other issues that would routinely be filtered out in a more decentralized system.

At the end of the day the Turks’ primary concern in Syria is the military capacity and de facto independence of the Syrian Kurds. Ankara/Erdogan fear – with significant reason – that a Syrian Kurdish statelet will provide a template that could be reproduced within Turkey’s own Kurdish regions. To that end and despite Erdogan’s best efforts, the Turkish military/intelligence apparatus is steadily constructing effective networks of military groups throughout northern Syria. When the Turks do decide to move in force, they’ll be able to.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Unlike the United States, Russia, Iran or Israel, Turkey can put troops on the ground in Syria in the hundreds of thousands if it wants to and the Turks have the motivation and staying power to see their strategy through in what will be a complex and bloody new stage in the war. It is ultimately Turkey that will decide what Syria will look like, and years from now we’ll all be looking back at the 2018 American withdrawal as the event that unleashed Turkish power in the region.

I’d like to end with one particularly dark thought. The primary reason the Americans were in Syria at all was because a militant group called ISIS was stupid enough to post the beheadings of a few American co-eds on social media. Expunging ISIS is pretty much done and so the Americans are now leaving. But look at what enabled ISIS to exist in the first place: local sectarian divisions, multiple competing power centers, an arid geography that complicates regional consolidation, meddling outside powers, and a metric butt-ton of easily attainable military-grade weapons. None of these factors have gone or are going to go away. Every power playing in the Syrian sandbox is creating, sponsoring and supporting their own constellations of mutually-antagonistic militias. It isn’t so much a petri dish from which will emerge the next ISIS as it is an ISIS factory.

Happy Monday.