Donald Trump kicked off his first international excursion as President of the United States with a visit to Saudi Arabia. Although the turbulent Middle East is defined by overlapping rivalries based on sectarian and tribal divisions, the region is strongly polarized between Shiite and Sunni factions. As a US ally and regional power, Saudi Arabia is a prime choice for a Presidential visit, yet Middle Eastern power politics make Trump’s visit a symbol of the issues that drive strife in the region and America’s perceived favoritism of Sunnis.
Where Shiite-dominated regional power Iran represents a sort of Shiite pole in the region, Sunni-dominated regional power Saudi Arabia represents a Sunni pole. Culturally, the Peoples of the Middle East are globalizing alongside the rest of the world, which means Muslims increasingly see Muslims of rival sects and tribes as Muslim brothers and sisters. The powers of the Middle East, however, continue to cling to the rivalries that spawned from the region’s ancient cultural divisions. For this reason, terrorism is never just an issue of good fighting evil in the Middle East as President Trump framed the issue in his speech to the Kingdom.
Regional security in the Middle East is always a question of whose side one is on. The complexity of the region’s rivalries makes it very difficult to support one group without inadvertently taking stances against others. Regrettably, terrorism is wide spread, because rivals seek to undermine each other by any means necessary and terrorism has been a useful tool for all sides. Rhetorically, all Middle Easterners are against terrorism, but a war on terrorism is a chance for rivals to weaken the other side. Iran, for example, has a compelling interest to crush the Islamic State, but it also has an interest in using ISIS to bog down the US in Syria.
The US campaign against the Islamic State has been the top US mission in the Middle East for more than three years, but America’s overall strategic objective in the region is to disarm all threats to the US and its allies. Because terrorism is used by rival governments to undermine each other, taking sides will do little to disarm the terrorist threat in the long run. Devoting too many finite military resources to suppressing the Islamic State will help regional powers prevent their perpetual proxy wars from spiraling out of control, yet new terrorist threats will continue to arise unless the governments of the region reject their preference for violent power struggles.
Regionally, the US has already recommitted military resources, i.e trainers and advisers, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan nearly bankrupted the US and crippled the military, particularly US Special Forces. For the majority of Americans, the Afghanistan War and Iraq War demonstrated the limits of US military might. For others who believe it is the duty of the US as a democracy and hegemonic power to police the world as the British Empire did before the World Wars bankrupted it, these failed nation-building experiments simply demonstrated a need to develop better strategies to accomplish their war agendas.
Like the British Empire, they now likely see a need to utilize America’s military assets for surgical strikes while developing domestic forces to handle peacekeeping and the bulk of security issues that arise. For war hawks inside the Pentagon and government, mission creep in places like Syria is always the goal. They will use any given emergency situation to justify entangling the US in the regional affairs of Middle Easterners. With that in mind, the Trump Administration has given the Pentagon greater control of war decisions when it comes to battling the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq.
On the surface, it is a logical decision, yet the Obama Administration’s supervision of the Pentagon offered the added benefit of limiting the ability of war hawks to pursue a a far more invasive US intervention. Middle Easterners must be the ones who retake their homelands from violent extremists and tyrannical governments. The US cannot impose peace in the Middle East. The US can play, and is playing, a support role to those who seek a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Middle East. Unfortunately, war hawks want to see the US fight every battle that can be fought.
In Syria, the encroachment of Assad regime forces nearing an area where US forces were operating has already resulted in US strikes against the Assad regime for the second time. For its part, the Assad regime can utilize a US strike on its forces to elicit greater Russian support, which the Assad regime needs to survive. The US response to the Ukraine Crisis against Russia makes the Syrian Civil War a proxy war for Russia, thus US attacks, whether offensive or defensive, are likely to increase Russian support for Assad. As such, the Assad regime has an interest in provoking the US.
Furthermore, Saudi-aligned forces want the US to fight their revivals; whereas, Iran-aligned forces want the US entangled in a proxy war in order to reduce the ability of the US to fight them. Clearly, situations like that in Syria can also be used by war hawks to drag the US into a fight it should not fight. Quite frankly, factions on all sides are pushing for greater US intervention and entanglement in Middle Eastern conflicts. If the Trump Administration does not oversee the US military’s management of the campaign against the Islamic State, it could very well be used to pull the US deeper into the Syrian Civil War and the broader chaos of the region.
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