Lindsey German: Bolton & Pompeo's tour of the Middle East will reassure US allies that it will remain heavily involved in the region
It's fair to say that Donald Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria – made in the weeks before Christmas – has caused much discontent from a range of different sources. We know that it was this decision which led to the resignation of his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, and caused much consternation from his hard-line national security adviser, John Bolton.
Hence the new year charm offensive by Bolton – in Israel and Turkey – and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who embarks on a Middle East tour this week, to try to shore up their allies and to convince them that the US will continue to back them and their policy interests in the Middle East.
Bolton has already made clear that US troops will not leave Syria until the Turkish government guarantees that it will not use the opportunity to attack the Kurdish YPG, who have fought against ISIS using US air cover. This has forced Trump to claim that the withdrawal will not be immediate – even though he said that it would be.
The Syria withdrawal, whenever it happens, raises huge questions about US strategy in the Middle East and the implications for its allies. Trump’s brusque announcement tacitly recognises the failure of that strategy over two decades.
The Middle East is in a considerably worse state in terms of instability, terrorism, and general breakdown of society in many parts, than it was 20 years ago. Afghanistan’s endless war continues with the pro-US government there beleaguered, faced with the rise of IS and the need to engage in negotiations with the Taliban, whose government was deposed 17 years ago. The war in Yemen is noted for its brutality and human destruction whilst Libya is also still mired in war.
Trump’s visit to Iraq at Christmas – made without notifying the Iraqi government and heralding two new unwanted US bases there – demonstrates the imperial relationship which the US has with its supposed allies in much of the region.
The problem for the US is that its military spending and capability are aimed at enemies in the form of other major military states, not the sort of asymmetrical warfare which has characterised the ‘war on terror’. Hence its failure to win the wars in which it becomes engaged. Hence too its increasing reliance on proxy troops of one sort or another, plus intensification of aerial bombardment.
Airwars reported the highest level of civilian death tolls in from Coalition actions in Syria since the fall of Raqqa in 2017. It reported: ‘Coalition actions rose by 32% on October with 634 strikes publicly reported in Syria throughout November. The increased ferocity of the assault had a disastrous impact on ordinary Syrians on the ground according to locals. Overall, at least 221 civilians – 65% of whom were women and children – likely died at the hands of the US-led alliance during November – more than double the already troublingly high toll seen in the previous month’.
So, the outcome of the intervention by the US and its allies has been the opposite of what was expected when it began 7 years ago. In particular, the strengthening of Assad in Syria, the outcome of the last year of the war there, was exactly the opposite of the US intention. Believing in the early phases of the war that Assad would be overthrown, US politicians were content to arm his opponents, certain that this would lead to his overthrow and a pro-western regime. It hasn’t. Instead, Assad’s allies, especially Russia and Iran, are now in a strong position, which is provoking alarm across the US’s Middle East allies – Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The point of Pompeo’s visit is to reassure these allies and to make clear that the US will remain involved in the Middle East, in particular in confronting Iran, which the above countries see as their greatest rival.
We can expect more reassurances in terms of arms provision, logistical support and political aid from the US. More of the same, with less and less likelihood that it will succeed.