Iran, Russia, and Syria Anxious to Reap Their Rewards, as Hezbollah Faces New Choices

The announcement of the US withdrawal from Syria, albeit still lacking details, has, as mentioned previously, raised the specter of a country divided among the winners: Syria, Iran, Russia, and even Turkey, anxious to protect its flanks from the Kurds. While there is no agreement on how Syria’s massive reconstruction, estimated in excess of $400 billion, will be funded, it will be hard for the GCC to bear part of the burden, as hinted by the Trump administration, if Iran is seen to benefit from its presence in Syria.

That hasn’t prevented deals from being struck. Russia has already inked contracts for major infrastructure projects around Tartus naval port and the Khomeini Air Base it uses; and is rumored to be ready to build a nuclear power plant. It has also signed a 20-year contract with the Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon to rebuild and operate a 90 year old oil storage facility in Tripoli to upgrade and triple its capacity from 450,000 to 1.5 million metric tons.

Not to be late to the trough, reports from several sources indicate that Tehran has recently signed agreements in banking cooperation, the repair of power stations, a new power plant in Latakia, and long-term economic agreements in industry, trade, and agriculture. Memorandums of understanding were also signed to cover railways, investment, education, housing, public works, and other fields.

They were signed during a visit to Damascus by Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who noted that they contained legal and administrative facilities to benefit “Iranian companies wishing to invest in Syria that contribute effectively to reconstruction.”

“The new agreements come against the backdrop of fresh US sanctions against Iran, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and several Syrian business people and companies are already on US and European blacklists.” These sanctions will affect access to equipment, finances, international funding and exports from Syria. In addition, the inevitable role of Syrian business oligarchs anxious for rewards for supporting President Assad may cause issues after an initial honeymoon, à la Iraq, where the old guard played a role in increasing the costs of doing business with Baghdad.

And always in the background is how Israel will respond as it is committed to denying Iran a long-term military presence in Syria. The war has already claimed more than 360,000 lives and displaced several million people to neighboring countries, internally, and overseas.

Iran has invested economically in Syria and provided boots on the ground through its proxies, militias, and military, and it expects to gain from its efforts. Russia has provided air cover, weapons, missiles, air defense systems, and advisors, and is taking a more long-term and global view of its investments in Syria. According to an article on the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP) blog, “Putin has multiple goals in the Middle East, but fundamentally, his Syria intervention was about upending the US-led global order. Kremlin activities across the region share the same aim: to undermine the US and bolster Moscow’s position in the region by deterring the West and maintaining low-level conflict… Despite Moscow’s many difficulties, it has staying power in the region and its influence will not wither away on its own any time soon.”

It goes on to detail Putin’s pragmatic approach showing flexibility and adaptability, building relations with all major actors in the region, as far afield as Morocco. The author notes that “Moscow’s partnership with Iran shows no signs of abating, as their joint interest in opposition to the US continues to override the differences between them. Indeed, Moscow’s entire Syria strategy is predicated on a partnership with the Islamic Republic, which bears the bulk of the costs in Syria.”

Recognizing that Russia lacks resources to lead Syria’s reconstruction, Putin is using the refugees to leverage funding from the EU, which is unwilling to play Russia’s game. This is forcing Russia to engage a broader set of potential funders, including China, without losing its role as primary power in Syria and the region. The article concludes, “On balance, he has achieved many key objectives, largely due to the West’s limited engagement and his own commitment. Putin’s Syria adventure has yet to play itself out. But to date, Putin has managed to largely outmaneuver the United States.”

As the Syrian civil war winds down, there is increasing concern regarding returning foreign fighters. Imagine the disquiet in Lebanon where they are part and parcel of the domestic scene. Hezbollah will soon be at a crossroads, whether to continue to act as Iran’s proxy and a state-within-a-state in destabilizing Lebanon, or will it rely less on it arms and more on its political role to contribute to Lebanon’s recovery?

As an article in Haaretz put it, “Hezbollah is now caught between its desire to strengthen the status of Iran and Syria and the need to reinforce its domestic political power, which allows it to dictate the government’s position as it sees fit. But in the absence of a government, Hezbollah has no real leverage, and its insistence on dictating the government’s makeup also places it in the way of Lebanon overcoming its severe economic crisis.

In the last election, Hezbollah was challenged in several of its traditional strongholds, and its current blocking of the government formation is straining its ties with its Maronite and Shia constituents. The recent controversy over its tunnels into Israel brought little response from Hezbollah aside from the usual tit-for-tat speeches. The author believes that “It is clear that Hezbollah will have to restrain its response in order to avoid further complicating the formation of the government and the damage that an Israeli strike could cause Lebanon. It must also be very careful not to move Israeli military action from Syria to Lebanon.”

So the question continues: Will Hezbollah recognize that it can play a constructive role in rebuilding and reforming Lebanon, or will it bring down that fragile state through its undermining of the political balance in Lebanon?

No News is not Good News for Lebanon

Between the no-shows at the Arab Economic Summit, and the continued stalemate in forming a government, there is little news in Lebanon that provides comfort and assurances either to the Lebanese or to the international community. Despite a Qatari pledge of $500 million to be invested in the dollar denominated bonds of the Central Bank and similar support promised by Saudi Arabia, economic prospects continue to be tamped down. The US withdrawal from Syria reverberates regionally and globally as analysts wonder where the “America First” foreign policy hammer will land next.

The Economist noted that the withdrawal “portends big changes: an American exit, a triumph for Iran and Russia, the return of Syria and the repositioning of everybody else…To many in Washington, Mr. Trump is thus threatening to throw away America’s cards for no benefit. It controls the oil wells that produce 95% of Syria’s oil and much of its gas; the waters of the Euphrates; prime agricultural land; and five large military bases.” As the move pushes ahead, although conditioned by fits and starts as befitting a policy that lacks consensus in the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are maneuvering to fill in the territory once the Americans leave.

But as the article pointed out, “Mr. Erdogan’s priority will be to push away Kurdish fighters on Turkey’s border, not to fight IS, which still has thousands of fighters farther to the south. That may give the jihadists an opportunity to re-emerge, as they did after Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011…If nothing else, Arabs are dismayed that the fate of Arab Syria is being determined mainly by non-Arab powers—Russia, Iran, and Turkey.”

On the other hand, more and more voices are being raised in support of the withdrawal, countering that the US has no long-term interests in Syria and that Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey, will find their efforts to invest in stability and reconstruction to be beyond their individual or joint capabilities. Yet all of these statements are conditioned with caveats regarding the lack of a US strategy, the need to build a consensus among regional allies for replacing the US presence, and how the US must maintain critical ties to certain actors in the region, e.g. Gulf Arabs as a counter to Iran.

According to an article posted by The Arab Center DC, there is still much at stake for other power brokers in the conflict. “What is also possible is that Russia and Turkey could strike a deal by which they would share filling the vacuum in eastern and northeastern Syria as well as the Syrian desert. Russian companies are already preparing to extract Syrian gas from these areas, an indication that Russia and Turkey may be the biggest beneficiaries from inheriting the areas previously controlled by US forces.”

So the debate goes on with continuing instability along Syria’s borders the only clear outcome, along with unclear alternatives for American allies Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, who are increasing their outreach to Russia as an insurance policy, and with no clear options for resettlement or repatriation for the refugees. For the US, this latest episode of foreign policy mismanagement reverberates globally. Analyst Amanda Sloat wrote in an Al-Monitor blog, “These disjointed messages reflect the lack of a real policy process inside the government…Instead, we have decision-making by presidential tweet or pronouncement followed by advisers scrambling to implement Trump’s guidance in a more rational way. If nothing else, it makes it hard for local actors to trust what Trump’s envoys are telling them when they know it could be undermined by the president.”

This confusion is mirrored in the latest financial news from Lebanon when a Goldman-Sachs report drew attention to the declining capability of Lebanon to address its public debt and financial soundness, which is threatening further investment in the country’s finances. This was immediately countered by Lebanese officials who, due to lack of a formal government, are unable to take remedial action to address policy shortcomings.

Some of Lebanon’s key challenges in the report:

  • Economic growth averaged about 1.6% between 2011 and 2018, IMF data show, compared with 7% in the preceding seven years.

  • Political disputes between a pro-Saudi bloc and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah have prevented the formation of a government since May.

  • The temporary resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in 2017, widely blamed on Saudi Arabia, has further undermined investor confidence in the economy.

  • Deposit growth, key for local banks to buy government debt, has slowed.

The disquiet began in advance of the report when remarks made by the acting Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil appeared in a local newspaper “about debt restructuring [which] sparked a heavy sell-off in Lebanon’s dollar-denominated debt.” This was followed by a number of corrective statements from the Central Bank and other authorities. In reporting on the conflicting statements, Reuters noted that “Fitch and Moody’s both…revised the outlook on Lebanon to negative from stable.”

The Finance Minister “said a report by Moody’s Investors Service that downgraded the country’s long-term investment ratings reflects the need for quickly forming a new government and implementing reforms, the Associated Press (AP) reported.” Moody’s said its decision reflects the heightened risk that the government’s response to increased liquidity and financial stability risks will include “a debt rescheduling or other liability management exercise that may constitute a default under Moody’s definition.”

How Does Lebanon Rate on the Democracy Index?

Local activists have signaled a resumption of demonstrations and protests on January 12 although analysts are not sure that there will be much public appetite for a large-scale turnout. According to Karim Bitar, Director of Research at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, “People know perfectly that a new government will not bring about genuine change. The Lebanese are angry, but they are not naive. It is understood that a new government — if or when it is formed — will be a close replica of the current government of oligarchs.” According to Bitar, this general sentiment will also lead to the ultimate die-out of future demonstrations.

That comment reinforces the assessments of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2018 that looked at the state of democracy for 165 independent states and two territories. “The Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: ‘full democracy,’ ‘flawed democracy,’ ‘hybrid regime,’ and ‘authoritarian regime.’” This is the 11th edition of the report.

The report noted that “Only the Middle East and North Africa registered a decline in political participation in 2018, and Lebanon is no exception. What has changed, it pointed out, is that there was an increase in “the proportion of the population willing to engage in lawful demonstrations…Even in the Middle East and North Africa, where the population is increasingly disillusioned with electoral politics (in the countries in the region where elections are at least somewhat meaningful), there has been a noticeable increase over the past year in public willingness to engage in public protest, both through traditional means and, increasingly, using social media and other tools.”

Overall, the MENA region had the lowest scores globally for political participation as “confidence in democracy is on the wane. In fact, in 2018 the score for perceptions of democracy suffered its biggest fall in the index since 2010.” Reflecting the reactive impulse of governments to treat any opposition as a security threat, “In the past decade, in fact, no scores in the Democracy Index have deteriorated more than those related to freedom of expression and the presence of free print and electronic media. These trends continued into 2018 and were compounded by a disturbing deterioration in scores related to the use of torture by the state, and to the perception that human rights are well protected.”

The report notes that Lebanon is still awaiting “significant progress” in the formation of its new government “with intense sectarian rivalries overlaid by sharply contrasting regional loyalties that continue to hamper politics severely.” Civil society has responded with growing yet sporadic attempts to challenge the existing power elite which has not advanced the country’s infrastructure, is riddled with corruption, and is inadequate in meeting the needs of citizens.

Without a vibrant and inclusive political culture, there is little commitment of Lebanese to their government. Despite a nine-year hiatus between parliamentary voting, turnout in 2018 fell below 50% with little “space for civil society and other groups without a specific confessional basis to progress, and this has led the public to engage politically through other means.” This level of participation is tied directly to another weakness exhibited by the Lebanese data, that is ‘confidence in government,’ as more and more people indicate their lack of trust in their leaders.

In terms of its year on year rating, Lebanon had its best overall score in 2008, which had dropped since 2006, with big drops from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015, periods related to upswings in public demonstrations. It has always been categorized as a “hybrid regime,” which exhibit weakness in political culture, government functioning, and level of political participation. “Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak.”

Another critical indicator of the health of a democracy is the inclusive and consistent performance of the economy. With the recent Goldman-Sachs report on how Lebanon’s public debt may lead to disastrous consequences for investors, the dysfunctional nature of the financial system tied to the economy’s performance was once again highlighted. While the threat of debt restructuring was quickly denied by Lebanese authorities, “The contradictory statements by Lebanese officials reflect deeper divisions among the country’s major parties over how to tackle Lebanon’s fiscal and economic woes particularly when it comes to its soaring debt, increasingly negative balance of payment, and mounting pressure to maintain the Lira peg against the dollar.”

As the Lebanese public continues to be on the periphery of these discussions, although the outcomes greatly impact their livelihoods, security, and stability, it is no surprise that their confidence in the system of governance continues to erode.

Parsing the “Withdrawal” of US Forces from Syria – Is There a Way Ahead?

In today’s current usage, ‘parsing’ is usually applied to data. As someone who acquired his vocabulary in the last century, I prefer to use ‘parsing’ to refer to the deconstruction of a sentence or expression to determine its meaning. I have been struggling to parse President Trump’s December 19th announcement regarding the imminent withdrawal of US forces from Syria, a statement that has been walked back by National Security Advisor John Bolton and the President’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

The torrent (there is no other adequate adjective – yet even ‘torrent’ has acquired a data definition) of commentaries and opinions unleashed by Trump’s statement and subsequent clarifications make it unlikely that any clarity will be forthcoming any time soon. The visits of Secretary Pompeo and Mr. Bolton to the region to assure allies and friends of what precisely is going on may make no difference. If Mr. Erdogan’s rejection of Mr. Bolton’s overtures is any indication, there is a long and winding road ahead.

Obfuscations aside, the visits of the US emissaries and the now growing body of commentaries from the region, do not offer more clarity on a policy that has implications beyond Syria and the Middle East. In fact, what was initially a chorus of disappointment and shock has been countered by a wave of argumentation in support of the President’s action largely because the US shouldn’t have been in Syria in the first place!

The debate continues about the short and long-term consequences. For example, an article in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) early on raised the specter of Turkey invading Syria to clean up what’s left of the US mission to defeat ISIS. “IS has not been sustainably defeated, Iran and its proxies remain active in Syria, and a political process to end the war has not yet taken root. If the administration truly aims to fulfill its stated objectives there, it should immediately implement an alternative course of action.” It notes its concerns in several areas: a premature attack by Turkish forces in the area might inadvertently harm US forces; a Turkish operation may not be adequate to defeat ISIS and it could derail efforts at establishing the proposed constitutional reform process, “and give Assad, Russia, and Iran excuses to reject talks intended to end Assad’s authoritarian grasp over time;” and finally, the withdrawal would undermine the growing rapprochement between Turkey and the US.

Yet it has become clear in recent weeks that in fact the withdrawal had been on the boards since March 2018 and only the timing and the lack of consultation internally and with allies was the surprising element. Far from being a spoiler, Turkey now has emerged as a partner willing to take up the crusade against ISIS and finish what America started, while also taming the Kurdish allies of the US. Its rejection of Bolton’s qualifiers demonstrated the lack of coordination and consultation that has bothered many analysts who expressed concern with the apparent void of an overall regional US strategy.

The impact on Syria’s neighbors raised alarms as neither Israel, Jordan, nor Lebanon were prepared for the shift in policy that has critical security implications. Although Erdogan’s conversation with Trump was supposed to be what lit the fuse, even Turkey was caught unprepared for next steps. A post in Al Monitor pointed out that “Damascus would be eager to re-establish its sovereignty over the area rather than see it overrun by Turkey. This would place the issue into the laps of Moscow and Tehran…some hard bargaining will take place between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran in the coming days and weeks. Moscow may try to facilitate a deal between the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and Damascus.”

The damage to the US role in the region was well expressed in an Al Jazeera post. “It is important to point out that US’ policy on Syria has been failing dramatically in the past seven years and Trump might just have put it out of its misery…Washington can neither make a deal nor confront Moscow in Syria nor does it seem invested in advancing a UN-led political process…Regardless of whether Trump’s decision will stand or not, the reputation of his administration will most likely suffer, as it is increasingly being seen by allies around the world as erratic and unreliable. The fact that the US is letting down its Kurdish allies will make it difficult for other forces in the Middle East to trust it. The US had no strategy of how to stay in Syria, now it is clear it has no strategy of how to leave.”

The weakness of the US position in Syria made the American withdrawal inevitable according to a Foreign Policy Research Institute article. “With this terrorist threat much diminished, the legal and public rationale for a continued US military presence has evaporated. The mismatch of the vital Russian and Iranian interests engaged in Syria against a weakening rationale for a US military presence in Syria provides leaders in Moscow and Tehran with a tremendous advantage. They have every incentive to match or exceed any US investment or action taken in Syria to preserve what they perceive as their own vital interests there.” Moreover, the article sees a light of sorts in leaving the field to Iran and Russia. “For the foreseeable future, a needy Syria will remain a drain on Russian and Iranian coffers while being unable to contribute anything of significance in terms of concrete military, political, or economic power to the region or beyond.”

Looking for more light on the topic of who won what, a posting in Lobelaw went even further, noting that “A sober analysis shows that Iran has gained very little in exchange for all of its financial and human expenditures in the Middle East, including in Syria. It shows the limits of Iran’s influence over Arab politics. It also shows how self-defeating Iran’s foreign policy has been over the last forty years.”

This sentiment was not widely shared by analysts looking at the implications of the withdrawal for Israel, most likely the impetus for the fence-mending mission by Bolton. The American withdrawal gives Iran access to more terrain and control over Syria and may encourage its proxy Hezbollah into increasing its pressure on Israel, which is still pumping its fists over the tunnels under Lebanon’s southern border. “Regardless of what happens next, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops will embolden Iran. And if Israel escalates its campaign against both Iran and Hezbollah, war becomes much more likely,” said an article in Vox.

What will transpire from the Bolton and Pompeo visits will give the US more time to consider how to best recover from Trump’s initial tweet by extending the timeframe for withdrawal, listening to the concerns of allies and others in the region, and sorting out some formula for engaging Turkey and the Gulf Arabs to generate a coherent strategy for accepting the Assad regime and eliminating the ISIS threat. How this will support Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is very unclear.

What Lebanon Won’t Get in 2019 – Peace

Too bad the crystal ball on Lebanon’s future has darkened due to a lack of reliable data. There is simply too much conflicting information on what will transpire in 2019. What is clear, however, is that Lebanon will know no sustainable peace whether domestic or regional, unless the current order is dramatically restructured, a remote likelihood as the political culture of Lebanon mitigates against progress if it entails restructuring the political and economic souk that characterizes its norms.

For months we have watched as the competition among Lebanon’s internal players, abetted by their foreign patrons, has ensured that no government is formed that does not reflect Hezbollah’s dominance of the political process. This does not have to be the situation but Hezbollah’s alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) insulates it from any effective counterweight to its prominent role. It seems that President Aoun and the party are struggling for fresh air on this issue with continuing maneuvers that have yet to bring an end to the unyielding stalemate over the allocation of ministerial posts.

Taken together with ominous warnings from internal and external sources, including experts, foreign governments, and international agencies, regarding Lebanon’s economic malaise and the threats of losing pledges made for the country’s reconstruction in exchange for essential reforms, Lebanon’s future seems more dire than when it had a government of sorts in place a decade ago.

President Trump’s announcement of imminent US troop withdrawal from Syria further complicates Lebanon’s scenario as there does not seem to have been any consideration of the fallout to US friends in Jordan and Lebanon, especially minority communities of Christians and others who are caught between relying on existing regimes for their survival and an uncertain future. It would be an interesting statistic to see how many Lebanese have acquired foreign residences in the last year on a monthly basis as an indicator of public confidence.

What is the latest wisdom on the US withdrawal?

The torrent of information pro and con regarding the US withdrawal can yield useful perspectives while Israel rails about incursions on its northern border, Iran deliberates on its next moves in Syria, and the Syria-Russia axis moves against the remaining opposition, with the reluctant assistance of US-trained Kurds fighting ISIS remnants. Useful because the debate helps illuminate perceptions of what US strategic interests are in the region while defending or dismantling the decision. It appears that as we move in time away from the actual announcement, there are more expressions of “so what?” than continuing doomsday predictions.

Here are some of the more interesting assessments. Foreign Policy was one of the first ‘so what’ sources in noting that “Many observers have been quick to see the redeployment as a loss for the United States and a big win for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, or whomever, and to assume that some or all of these actors will quickly consolidate a lot of valuable influence in Syria. Maybe so, but Syria isn’t much of a prize at this point and may even be something of a liability. It was always a weak state, and its economy and infrastructure have been severely damaged by a punishing civil war. Instead of being a major strategic asset, Syria is more likely to turn into a costly quagmire for the supposed victors.”

On the other hand, The Atlantic represents those who see a net loss for the US both in the region and globally. “Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, concurrently with his intention to drastically reduce the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and the likely soon-to-be-announced further drawdown of U.S. personnel in Iraq, has made mincemeat of the administration’s efforts to contain Iran. If you add up who wins locally by this decision (the clerical regime in Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite radicals, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and who loses (Jordan, Israel, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs, everyone in Lebanon resisting Hezbollah, the vast majority of the Iraqi Shia, the Gulf States), it becomes clear that the interests of the United States have been routed.”

Yet others are a bit more sanguine, arguing that cutting our losses was better than an unsustainable, unclear policy. As the National Review put it, “There are always costs to abandoning a bad investment. And yet these costs are preferable to an endless, ever-evolving mission that has no popular support or mandate. What critics of withdrawal refuse to do is describe the actual sustainable ends they want to achieve with America’s military in Syria.”

This is a refrain that has gathered more steam in the past week as pundits moved beyond Trump’s statement to analyzing the actual impact on the US and US foreign policy, In the Washington Post, a contributor noted “But Trump’s decision didn’t cause the US to lose in Syria. For all practical purposes, Syria was already lost. Much like his predecessor, Trump’s decision is motivated by a calculation that the US can’t alter the military or political balance in Syria that has long favored Russia and Iran. To achieve their ends, Russia and Iran have been more willing to devote resources toward keeping Assad afloat than the US has been prepared to either remove him from power or stand behind the assorted elements in Syria who’ve tried and so far failed to overthrow him.”

In the context of the broader region, there are those who see a victory for Iran and others who see Syria as both a millstone around the mullahs’ collective necks and a not-so-great bargain for Russia. In looking at possible benefits to the US, The Hill pointed out that “While the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance has solidified Assad’s hold on power in Damascus, the American withdrawal establishes Iran as the major power in the Middle East. Nicholas Heras, the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East fellow, characterized the new balance of power as providing Iran with “solid control over the entire arc of the Levant from Baghdad to Beirut…President Trump wants regional powers to take America’s place in Syria, but he appears to have paved the road for Iran and Russia to fill the vacuum.”

The expected benefits to Iran and others are challenged in an article that appeared in “Arguably, the US should never have deployed troops to Syria. No vital American national interest was ever at stake in the outcome. What happens in Syria is far more vital to Turkey, next door; to Russia, with its long-standing strategic presence on the country; to Iraq, seeking a more stable and less violent neighbor; to Bashir al-Assad, whose regime survival depended on military action; to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which hoped to establish a caliphate based in eastern Syria; and to Iran, whose influence in the region continues to grow.”

The article maintains that “US troops made and continue to make almost no difference in Syria. They did not deter Turkey from intervention, nor would they deter Turkey from striking at the Kurds. The US troops were inconsequential to the Russians, who had a bigger stake in a military intervention and carried it out, undeterred by Washington. US forces never played a role in the outcome of the civil war, now virtually won by Bashar al-Assad with Russian and Iranian help. They played no role in deterring the Iranians from supporting Assad and extending Iranian influence. Arguably, only in arming, training, and supporting the Kurds against IS did US forces matter.”

Finally, but certainly not the last word, is the challenge to US foreign policy as to what’s next. Without a clear regional strategy except ‘let someone else do it,’ and ‘don’t send us the bill,’ there is no certainty of what matters to the US at this time, as some even question its commitment to Israel. It has been reported that Trump has given Netanyahu the go-ahead to punish Iran and its surrogates to protect its security but there has been no definitive word beyond statements after the Bibi-Pompeo meetings.

As an Arab News posting summarized it, “As the United States withdraws, Assad’s allies Russia and Iran have shown no sign of leaving. Russia sees longtime ally Syria as a strategic asset in its quest to restore a global role, while Iran’s Shiite clerical state sees a religious imperative in fighting Sunni hard-liners and protecting President Bashar Assad, a member of the heterodox Alawite sect.”

I will continue to monitor the collective reporting wisdom to glean a possible US strategy beyond an “America First “ policy that leaves our allies in the area and in Europe wondering how to protect their interests. With Russia now the paramount power-broker in the region and the increased vulnerability of long-time friends Jordan and Lebanon, the future is quite muddled and dangerous.