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Donald Trump Can’t Get the Middle East Right

Over the span of just over a week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has changed his position on Syria twice and even reversed himself once, but he still can’t find the right answer.

On Meet the Press over the weekend, he said he thinks the Middle East would be better off if Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were still in charge of Iraq and Libya, and that Syria will be better off if Bashar al-Assad remains in power for the same reason.

“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it's a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it's a mess — it's [Syria] going to be same thing.”

He acknowledges, though, that Assad is “probably a bad guy.”

He uses the word “probably” because he doesn’t actually know. He’s just guessing. Winging it. 

The Assad family has been the chief villain of the Eastern Mediterranean for decades, but Trump isn’t sure because he’s spent most of that time working in real estate. Which is fine—my parents spent their careers in real estate, too—but it doesn’t exactly prepare a person for dealing with the likes of Assad and ISIS.

At least he guessed right. Syria has used terrorist armies to attack every single one of its neighbors, including Turkey and Jordan, but especially Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. Assad is Iran’s staunchest ally in the world, a co-sponsor of Hezbollah, supporter of Palestinian terrorist organizations, and one of the original backers of ISIS when it was slaughtering Americans in Iraq under its previous name.

Assad’s government is the most destructive and pernicious in the Arab world.

Yeah, he’s “probably” a bad guy.

Chaos may follow the removal of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, but they are not forces for stability in the Middle East and never have been. You want a force for stability? Try the king of Morocco. He’s a force for stability. So is the sultan of Oman. Oman is so stable that most people don’t even know where it is. (It’s on the Arabian Peninsula next to Yemen.) King Abdullah of Jordan is also a force for stability.

None of these guys were elected, but we’d be out of our minds to want them removed.

But Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, is a state sponsor of terrorism. All three brutally subjugated their citizens and poisoned the minds of the survivors with a vicious anti-Western ideology.

The day we decide that hostile state sponsors of terrorism are reliable firewalls against terrorists is the day we give up.

A week earlier, Trump seemed to have a clearer idea that Assad was a bad guy, but he thought it might be a good idea if we let ISIS take him out.

“We go in to fight ISIS,” he said. “Why aren't we letting ISIS go and fight Assad and then we pick up the remnants? Why are we doing this?”

He sounds like a random guy in a bar who’s thinking out loud after reading a couple of newspaper articles that are fuzzy on the details. We all run into people like that once a while, people who don’t really know anything about the Middle East but think they’ve got it all figured out anyway.  

He realizes it’s hard, though, and figures, hey, let the Russians deal with it instead.

“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS,” he said. “We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”

Here’s why we should care: The most powerful hostile bloc in the Middle East is the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. That faction has been murdering Americans for decades, long before Al Qaeda and ISIS even existed. Now that Vladimir Putin is aggressively on side with Assad, we’re dealing with the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. It’s like the Cold War all over again in the Middle East, except that it’s hot.

Russia isn’t interested in defeating ISIS anyway. Neither is Assad. Moscow and Damascus are fighting the other anti-Assad factions—the Nusra Front, what’s left of the Free Syrian Army, and the largely useless factions backed by the United States.

It is a quagmire, though, so it’s not hard to see why Trump would rather see Russians get sucked into it than Americans. Phrased that way, it’s a no-brainer. But the Middle East is a lot more complicated than figuring out which foreign power should get bruised and bloodied trying to deal with it. 

When looking at ISIS and Assad, a lot of us echo Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq war—it’s too bad they can’t both lose. But the operative word in that sentence is can’t.

ISIS and Assad are not both going to lose. They are not going to cancel each other out. Wars don’t turn out that way. They end with a victor or in a stalemate. ISIS and Assad aren’t really fighting each other anyway. They’re both fighting the other armed factions and consolidating their respective territories.

We can argue all day about which side we’d rather see lose, but we’re heading toward the worst-case scenario, where Assad and ISIS both win. The nation once known as Syria is already de-facto divided in half. Iran and Hezbollah may keep their rump state on the Mediterranean now that Russia is backing Assad, while ISIS remains secure out in the desert.

Someone should ask Trump—and President Barack Obama, too, while we’re at it—what the US should do about that. 

 

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