By Willis Krumholz
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it is withholding $230 million of American foreign aid meant for Syria. Instead, the State Department said that international money would fill the void. Saudi Arabia has just pledged $100 million, and the United Arab Emirates pledged $50 million.
Overall, the State Department has raised around $300 million from allies for Syrian aid since April. This came after President Trump froze America’s proposed aid in March, after reading about the pledge in a newspaper article. Ending the aid furthers Trump’s goal of allowing the U.S. to exit Syria.
The Wall Street Journal notes that humanitarian assistance will not be affected.
The Trump administration’s move is not just “America First,” and in America’s best-interest. It is also a welcome development for the region, and for the Syrian people.
First off, it must be said that this aid is just a drop in the bucket. Syria is in shambles. Half a million have died, and six million are refugees outside of Syria. Another six million people are internally displaced. The money in question—$300 million—would primarily be used to remove mines and restore essential services, not to rebuild towns. When all is said and done, Syria’s reconstruction could cost an astonishing $250 billion. The Assad regime and Russia cannot foot this bill and have asked America and it’s allies to step in.
However, the countries with the greatest interest in stabilizing Syria are its neighbors. This includes Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It also includes Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. If America were to foot the bill—acting as a stabilizing force—the differences and disputes between these countries would be accentuated. Instead of adding to the stabilizing force brought by America, many of Syria’s neighbors would fight amongst each other in order to have the upper hand after America eventually exited. They would snipe from the sidelines, without any real skin in the game. That would counterbalance the stability brought by America.
In other words, real peace and stability in Syria will come when neighbors patch over their differences and cease to escalate tensions in the country. If America is out of the picture, Syria’s neighbors have an incentive to de-escalate because they own whatever mess that results if they choose to continue a bloody proxy war.
The Syrian Civil War was, after all, chiefly a proxy-battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia can’t create a failed state so close to home, and the al-Sauds are bogged down in another bloody proxy war in Yemen. Iran, meanwhile, faces a domestic economy in shambles and growing resentment from its fellow Shias in Iraq. This is all happening before the hardest-hitting U.S. sanctions on Iran have even been implemented.
That brings us to the next reason why Syria’s neighbors, not America, should rebuild Syria: If you break it, you buy it.
Yes, America negligently armed jihadists in programs like the CIA’s billion-dollar-per-year boondoggle to find “moderate rebels.” But the Saudis and the Turks indiscriminately armed radical Sunni jihadists, including al-Qaeda and quite possibly the early stages of ISIS. Turkey is still aiding and arming radical Sunni rebels, and using these jihadists to take on the moderate Kurds—America’s strongest allies in the conflict—in Syria’s north.
Sunni Saudi Arabia would say that it was doing what it took to take on the Alawite-Shia Assad regime that is backed by Shia Iran. But why on earth should America have played any part in what is essentially the latest round in a 1,400 year-old religious-struggle between the two main branches of Islam?
President Trump should not allow or encourage American men and women to risk life and limb to clean up the mess. A clear message that Syria is not America’s problem would spur Syria’s neighbors into defending the region from terrorists, not tearing it apart. If Syria’s neighbors fail to do this, those bad actors that they used to arm and fund could soon be threatening Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. That’s a strong incentive to do the right thing.
Most important, America not spending millions in Syria means that there is one less excuse for American troops to remain in that country indefinitely. Trump is exactly right to think that ending the aid program brings America one step closer to exiting Syria.
Critics say that leaving Syria emboldens Iran, which backed its fellow-Shia Assad regime. But short of sending thousands of troops to topple the regime, the Assad regime has already won. And critics have yet to even make an honest case as to why toppling the Assad regime would be in America’s interest, would lead to a better humanitarian outcome, or would lead to a better government in Syria—instead of a secular Shia regime, we would likely get a radical Sunni regime.
If American troops are sent into combat, it needs to be in America’s interest. Policy makers need to have a concrete objective and a viable exit-strategy. They need to critically assess whether the region will be better off after America leaves. And politicians should ask whether they would send their sons or daughters to fight in the conflict. Is it worth the cost?
Syria’s civil war does not, nor has it ever, come close to meeting these thresholds.
Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.
This piece was originally published by The Federalist on August 26, 2018. Read more HERE.