Henry Palmerston, a 19th century British statesmen, probably best articulated the concept behind Grand Strategy: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
One of the challenges of Trump’s national security team is going to be to put aside our way of thinking, of reflexively choosing sides based previous allegiances and enmities, and start pursuing our national interests. (Full disclosure, even though the term is in bad odor since it has been associated with Trump, I am a nationalist and I believe nationalism should guide our foreign policy.)
Case in point: Syria.
We are probably the only people involved in the fighting in Syria right now that do not have a strategic goal for being there. We are there reflexively. ISIS is bad — we don’t know how it is worse than Assad’s regime or Lebanese Hezbollah or al Qaeda or the Iranian regime but we KNOW it is. Judging by atrocities committed or human right violated, ISIS is indistinguishable from any of the other parties in this conflict.
For instance, just this week:
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is alarmed by reports of atrocities against “a large number” of civilians, including women and children, in recent hours in the Syrian city of Aleppo, his spokesman said Monday.
Syrian rebels retreated from former strongholds in eastern Aleppo in a “terrifying” collapse Monday, holding onto a small sliver of territory packed with fighters and thousands of civilians as government troops pressed on with their rapid advance.
The Syrian military said it had gained control of 99 percent of the former opposition enclave in eastern Aleppo, signaling an impending end to the rebels’ four-year hold over parts of the city as the final hours of battle played out.
If you don’t have a playbill, this is what has happened. The “Syrian resistance” (that is, the hodgepodge of fighters, including al Qaeda affiliated fighters, that we support) is collapsing in Aleppo and, in slow motion, in the rest of the country. You would be right to ask how we came to be subsidizing basically the same guys who flew planes into the Twin Towers. Allegedly, these fighters are also fighting ISIS but the evidence indicates that they are basically allied with ISIS. Assad is fighting ISIS, with Russian aid, and with the aid of Iranian militias. Not Iranian-funded militias, Iranian militias. Iran, as you might recall is our partner in peace in the Middle East. They are the good guys who sacked our embassy in 1979, blew up the USMC barracks in Beirut, are reputed to be behind the Lockerbie bombing, who we fought a brief naval war with in the Persian Gulf and who illegally held a couple of dozen of our sailors… and whom we are helping acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is aided by Lebanese Hezbollah. They are the guys who have been raiding into northern Israel for years and kidnapped and killed several Americans and provided the driver than drove the Iranian bomb into the Marine barracks in Beirut.
The larger point is that every side in this war that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton unleashed on the region is odious. They are brutal. They are barely Paleolithic in their culture and actions (no offense intended to you cavemen). There are no good guys in this struggle. Just terrorists and a clutch of innocent victims.
To a great extent we have been acting as an Iranian proxy army in the region. The Iranians are trying to keep Assad in power and we are directing most of our combat power on attacking ISIS which is allowing the Iranians and Assad to wipe out our “Free Syrian Army” proxies.
Do we seriously want to be allied with Iran? I mean under Obama the answer was “yes” but does this acting as Janissaries for the mullahs meet Palmerston’s dicta of acting in our interests. Perhaps if you are Obama you think so. Sane people would probably disagree.
What Iran is trying to do is to establish a land bridge, if you will, to give them an outlet to the Mediterranean. The Persian Gulf is easily monitored and more easily blockaded. Reducing Syria to a client state, alongside Iraq (thanks Obama), makes Iran the dominant power in the Middle East, and a power that will be a nuclear one within five years.
Securing Aleppo would be an important leg in the corridor, which would run past two villages to the north that have historically been in Shia hands. From there, a senior Syrian official, and Iraqi officials in Baghdad, said it would run towards the outskirts of Syria’s fourth city, Homs, then move north through the Alawite heartland of Syria, which a year of Russian airpower has again made safe for Assad. Iran’s hard-won road ends at the port of Latakia, which has remained firmly in regime hands throughout the war.
Ali Khedery, who advised all US ambassadors to Iraq and four commanders of Centcom in 2003-11 said securing a Mediterranean link would be seen as a strategic triumph in Iran. “It signifies the consolidation of Iran’s control over Iraq and the Levant, which in turn confirms their hegemonic regional ambitions,” he said. “That should trouble every western leader and our regional allies because this will further embolden Iran to continue expanding, likely into the Gulf countries next, a goal they have explicitly and repeatedly articulated. Why should we expect them to stop if they’ve been at the casino, doubling their money over and over again, for a decade?”
And next on the menu are the Saudis who have a large, disloyal and restive Shia population that the Iranians are already stirring up.
Alternatively, we can bleed Iran and Hezbollah (and, to an extent Russia) white.
When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, remarked “it is a shame they both can’t lose,” and then he set out to try to make sure they both did. Reagan continued this policy by providing an overmatched Iraqi army with satellite reconnaissance photos and by allowing leaks in arms embargoes to both sides. This is how Oliver North ended up selling US TOW missiles to Iran while we were surreptitiously keeping the war with Iraq going.
We should put aside our enmity to ISIS and try to keep this war going for as long as Iranians are getting killed. American troops need to be withdrawn from the region, not only for their safety — because they are accomplishing nothing — but because we don’t want our troops to appear to be losing to ISIS. The Iraqis have decided their political allegiance lies with Iran, they should get to experience all that decision entails. Our efforts should be focused on intelligence gathering and building HUMINT networks inside the Iranian and the ISIS organizations that we can use to our own advantage.
Cruel? Sure. But more cruel than what we are doing? Hardly. It would be cruelty with a purpose (like Sherman’s March to the Sea or Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley) rather than cruelty with no purpose whatsoever.