Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2018

President Trump's national security team (NSC) faces a major dilemma on Syria policy. After the fall of Raqqa, the ISIS capital, what reason is there to keep a small U.S. military force in Syria?

Critics claim Trump risks getting the U.S. involved in another quagmire similar to one in Vietnam in the 1960s and another in Iraq in the 2000s, military operations that proved to be unwinnable. Human rights activists argue that America has a moral responsibility to end the slaughter of civilians in Syria's seven-year civil war. Complicating NSC deliberations is the reality that five outside powers believe they have vital national interests in Syria. They are Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

The central question for President Trump and the NSC is this: How essential is Syria to overall U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East? While this is a different time and place, the Syria question today is not unlike the one President John Kennedy faced in Vietnam in 1961: Should the U.S. avoid a land war in Southeast Asia? President George W. Bush dealt with a similar dilemma in Iraq in 2002: Should America be involved in a land war in the Middle East? In each case, the president had to decide whether either Vietnam or Iraq was a vital U.S. interest that necessitated military intervention.

Three countries that have used military force in Syria--Russia, Turkey, and Israel—assert their vital interests there.

Russia has a military alliance with Syria that dates back forty years. It supplies Syria's army and air force with the weapons used to crush the rebellion with appalling civilian casualties. The civil war's toll is half a million deaths and a massive flight of refugees to Turkey, Jordan, and Europe. Russia apparently is unable to stop Syrian air operations for a month to enable humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns.

Turkey's long border with Syria conditions its concerns for national security, from both the Assad regime and a Kurdish minority living in that area. Turkey could not persuade the Obama administration to help it oust Assad and install a government friendly to Ankara and Washington. Last month it sent troops into northern Syria to counter what it says is a serious threat from Kurdish fighters allied to the U.S. But Ankara risks a confrontation with Russia if it pushes further into Syria. It also alienates Washington which opposes its invasion.

Israel views Iran's military involvement in Syria as a vital threat to its security and it recently bombed Syrian facilities it claims are used by Tehran's Special Forces and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to threaten Israel, It also threatens to attack Iran if these attacks continue. Although Israel accepts Moscow's arms for Assad's military, it's conditioned on not posing a threat to Israeli territory.

Iran and Saudi Arabia profess to have vital interests in Syria, but they support opposite sides. The Saudi government considers Iran a dangerous threat, not only in the Persian Gulf but also to Arab regimes that don't share its Shii version of Islam. The Saudis condemn Assad as complicit in Tehran's designs across the Middle East, and they provide major funding and arms to anti-Assad forces, including the Kurds. Iran's objective is to turn Syria into a base of operations to overthrow Arab regimes and replace them with ones friendly to Tehran. It also intends to isolate Israel and persuade the United States to withdraw from Iraq and the Persian Gulf. War between Iran and Saudi Arabia may result.

Trump's NSC must soon decide whether to retain small Special Forces units in eastern Syria and try to prevent a large Middle East war that would draw in Turkey, Iran and Israel. Two large questions now emerge: First, can the U.S. accomplish this objective without the introduction of larger forces, including combat units? Second, does Moscow plan to expand its influence in the Arab countries, and also resist Iran's objective to be the region's smajor power?

The United States has, in my view, two potential vital interests in Syria. The first is to prevent Iran from subverting governments in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf States and establishing Tehran as the leading Middle East power. A second priority is Israel's security. Whether these two interests rise to the vital level and require larger military forces is a crucial test for Donald Trump. It's a decision not unlike those that John Kennedy and George Bush had to make in an earlier time.

File last modified on Monday, 7-MAR-2018 02:42 PM EST

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