The conflict in Syria has been a long and terrible war of attrition, a brutal civil war exacerbated by a ruthless ISIS insurgency, all stirred mercilessly by Iranian and Russian intervention. Now all this misery is concentrating itself in the Syrian city of Idlib, one of those hitherto faceless locales you have to check a map to find.
Sadly, Idlib may be about to witness its moment of infamy as the unlucky place where most of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed enemies appear to have hunkered down for a fateful last stand. Humanitarian groups predict a potential civilian catastrophe if the Syrian-Iranian-Russia axis unleashes its combined military force. Imagine the worst of urban warfare, with indiscriminate Russian-Syrian airstrikes on both military and civilian targets, followed by a Syrian-Iranian ground invasion that will level what’s left of the doomed city. In a word, think genocide.
Caught in this web of danger are both the U.S. and Israel, our one and only true ally in the entire Middle East. Our two countries’ interests in Syria converge in the imperative of finally rooting out the last virulent vestiges of ISIS and thwarting the spread of destabilizing Iranian aggression in the region.
But the U.S. also added another element to this Rubik’s Cube by siding with the armed Syrian opposition that has been trying to topple the Assad regime. The administrations of both Presidents Obama and Trump provided significant military support to Assad’s opponents, and had to walk a very narrow line to avoid being dragged into deeper conflict in Syria.
Remember Obama’s faded “red line” against Assad? Or the showy but largely ineffectual missile strikes that both he and President Trump launched after Syrian government gas attacks on civilians? Neither wanted to risk a wider war, particularly one that might engulf Israel and the U.S. in a conflict with Iran.
In this entire sorry matter, it’s useful to remember that for all its savagery against its own people, Assad’s government has for decades maintained a fragile peace with Israel. Maybe that’s because the last time Syria misjudged Israeli resolve and military capability, it lost the strategic Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War.
In the decades that followed, Syria made no serious attempts to retake the Golan Heights from Israel, and Israel made no serious efforts to undermine the Assad regime. This mutual live-and-let-live policy held until it unraveled with the onset of the Syrian civil war and the ISIS insurgency.
Ever at the ready to advance his own strategic interests and keep the U.S. off balance, Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped into the Syrian fray on Assad’s side. But Russia — which has fought its own Islamist insurgencies at home — has also cooperated with U.S. forces to help destroy ISIS. This has required a very delicate balancing act, with American fighter jets coordinating with Russian forces in airstrikes against ISIS while at the same time providing air support to Syrian opposition forces fighting the Assad regime.
That this dangerous game of Russian-American roulette hasn’t resulted in a violent tangling of our air forces in Syria is a miracle. That’s not to say, however, that we haven’t come precariously close to direct U.S.-Russian conflict. The U.S. recently launched an attack on Syrian government forces that reportedly killed scores of Russian fighters. And just last week, a Russian reconnaissance plane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian government air defense forces in a classic “friendly fire” episode that may have also involved Israeli fighter planes.
All of this should make U.S. policymakers very wary. Not only may we be one mistake away from a violent confrontation with Russia, but we also risk having the U.S. sucked into another seemingly endless war, like the one President George W. Bush tragically stumbled into in Iraq. Suppose Assad were overthrown. Does anyone really believe Syria would be more stable? Were Iraq or Libya when their dictators were overthrown? No, it’s much more likely Syria would sink into the very same kind of anarchy and instability that befell these other “liberated” countries.
Syria is one of those places where Trump should follow his original instincts about U.S. intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. He was right when he called the Iraq war a mistake, and he should avoid falling into another quagmire that will cost precious American lives and drain our military. When it comes to Syria, let’s not invite another Iraq. Let’s avoid it.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.