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The views expressed in the article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Would you rather be neighbors with ISIS or the Assad regime? These are the type of questions Americans aren’t used to asking themselves, but which our partners in the Middle East deal with routinely. In early April 2018, I was standing on the Golan Heights with a group of students and faculty from the U.S. Army War College. We were looking into southwestern Syria, an area of the country the Syrian regime, a coalition of moderate opposition groups, and an ISIS affiliate are fighting to control. The specific patch of ground we were observing is controlled by ISIS-affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin Waleed, and although shelling occurs there on a regular basis, all was quiet on this day.
Our Israeli Army guide then said something that surprised me. “Jaysh Khalid bin Waleed is a terrorist organization, but it has not targeted Israel. So while we are not comfortable with them on our border we prefer them to the Syrian regime because with the regime come the Iranians.” He concluded ominously, “We will not allow Iranians on our border.” Although the preference for a UN-designated terrorist organization over the Syrian regime as a neighbor surprised me at the time, it was not the most surprising thing I heard on our two-week trip to Jordan and Israel.
The longer the trip went on, the more I came to understand seemingly counter-intuitive statements of this type. In a Middle East roiled by the chronic instability of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the acute crisis of the Syrian Civil War, optimal solutions are not available. It became apparent as we met with senior Jordanian, Israeli, and U.S. officials that sometimes “good enough” was the best any of them dared hope for. This article examines the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the Syrian Civil War through the eyes of Jordanians and Israelis living and working in the region.
The View from Jordan
The Jordanian officials with whom we met expressed deep appreciation for U.S assistance to Jordan, recently set at no less than $1.25 billion per year for the next five years. They also expressed a desire for a more balanced and predictable U.S. policy towards the region’s main issues.
In Syria, Jordan is a strong U.S. partner. It hosts bases for U.S. and Coalition forces, flies combat sorties itself, and supports moderate opposition groups. It has played a key role in communication between the U.S. and Russia over Syria and hosts the monitoring center for the southwestern Syrian de-escalation zone, agreed to by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan in July 2017. Jordanian concerns over Syria revolve around three issues: managing the 650,000+ Syrian refugees it hosts, dealing with malign Iranian influence, and reacting to what it sees as an unpredictable U.S. policy toward the war there.
Syrian refugees represent a significant economic and social burden on Jordan, despite the best efforts of the UN, which administers processing centers and camps for them there. One senior Jordanian official described the combined effects of the Arab Spring and the Syrian War on Jordan as a “slow-moving tsunami.” He noted that some 16% of Jordan’s government budget now goes to support its refugee population, many of whom are unable to contribute to Jordan’s economy due to lack of education and skills. The UN assesses that some 81% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line, and 51% are children.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officials expressed support for the UN-backed Geneva peace process for Syria and skepticism about the Astana process, backed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. While Jordan is able to deal pragmatically with Russia, there is significant distrust of Iran and concern for its role in Syria and the region. One Jordanian official noted that Jordan had urged Russia to limit its support for Assad, since the more secure he feels, the closer he will be to Iran. Jordanians also believe that Iran benefits from the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and expressed hope that the U.S. and Israel would see this and make serious efforts to stabilize the situation, which they described as being at its worst point in recent memory.
Jordanian officials urged the U.S. to maintain its presence in At Tanf, Syria. The U.S. garrison here is critical to control of the tri-border region among Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, and also protects the 55,000+ internally-displaced persons (IDPs) at the Rukban Camp along Syria’s border with Jordan. Jordan harbors a fear that a premature abandonment of the U.S. garrison at At Tanf—or a complete withdrawal from Syria—would open the way for the presence of Iranian-backed militias in the border region. Jordan also fears an end to the U.S. presence in At Tanf would open the way for an attack on the Rukban Camp by regime, Russian, and Iranian forces, who claim it harbors terrorists. Such an attack would cause a massive influx of refugees into Jordan, which has already suffered an attack on its security forces by terrorists mixed in with refugees.
Officials from the Ministry of Defense and the Jordanian Armed Forces echoed these concerns and added their own. They expressed concern about the stability of the southwestern Syrian de-escalation zone, noting that there are indications the regime is preparing to attack moderate opposition groups there. Renewed fighting in this region has the potential to cause flows of additional refugees into Jordan. Like their counterparts at the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli officer on the Golan Heights, Jordanian military officers relayed their suspicions about Iran’s role in the conflict and their strong opposition to Iranian forces or proxies along their border.
The key to preventing these outcomes, they claim, is a resolute U.S. policy toward the war. One Jordanian officer noted, “We need a clear U.S. policy toward Syria. This doesn’t exist. We hear one day from U.S. generals that you are staying in Syria until it is stable, and we read the next day in the media that you might be pulling out very soon.” Part of this policy, in the Jordanian view, should be continued U.S. support of moderate opposition groups, especially the Syrian Democratic Forces. Jordanian officials cautioned that a precipitous end to U.S. support will force these groups to choose between aligning themselves with the radical opposition or seeking accommodation with Russia, Iran, and the regime.
The View from Israel
The congruity between Israeli and Jordanian views on the Syrian Civil War is striking. Officials at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed deep suspicion about Iran’s motives there and provided a comprehensive overview of Iran’s involvement in the war. They noted that Iran has been involved since 2012 and that thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IGRC), militia, and Lebanese Hezbollah forces—all under Iranian control or sponsorship—are in Syria. These forces, according to Israeli officials, do much of the hard fighting due to a lack of capacity in the Syrian Arab Army. Echoing Jordanian calls for a clear U.S. policy and a resolute commitment to stabilizing Syria, Israeli officials at the MFA declared that the durability of the partnership in Syria among the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel will depend on U.S. actions in the next several months.
UN observation post in the Golan Heights
Officials in the Ministry of Defense and officers in the Israeli armed forces reiterated the call—heard so often during the course of our two-week trip—for an engaged United States. One senior official remarked that “the world needs America” and that the U.S. is so important it “doesn’t have the privilege not to be engaged.” Each time the U.S. steps back in the Middle East, the same official noted, Russia takes several steps forward, to the detriment of regional stability. Israeli policy in Syria follows the same general contours of U.S. and Jordanian policy: weaken Iranian terrorist organizations and proxies; defend against adversaries in southwestern Syria; defeat ISIS; and maintain pragmatic cooperation with the U.S. and Jordan.
Turning to the Palestinian issue, some Israeli officials expressed the often-heard frustration with the fractured nature and unstable future of the Palestinian political leadership and warned against what they considered attempts by Hamas to inflame the situation in Gaza. They noted that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is 82 years old, and there does not appear to be a plan for what comes after his departure from office. They also noted that, with Hamas ruling Gaza, there was not a unified Palestinian voice or policy. While pragmatic cooperation with the PA is possible in some areas, the Israeli view is that Hamas is not serious about solving common problems, but is instead intent on fomenting violence and instability.
Others Israelis had different concerns. One official who deals with Palestinian security forces routinely said that the perception that the U.S. administration is disengaging from the Palestinian leadership is unhelpful. He argued that Palestinians see U.S. policy moves such as the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem, the withholding of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), and threats to close the Palestinian Authority office in Washington, D.C. as part of a conspiracy to “give everything to the Israelis.”
This, in turn, inflames Palestinian opinion against the U.S. and Israel. The official concluded, “We need the U.S. as an interlocutor” with the Palestinians, and remarked, “I also think the Palestinians need America in the picture, because the U.S. can influence the Israelis.” An admonition from an Israeli military officer on the danger of a U.S. policy tilted too far in Israel’s direction was the most surprising statement I heard in either Jordan or Israel.
I took two main ideas away from this trip. The first is that the specter of a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Syria is the cause of significant concern in both Amman and Tel Aviv. Officials in both capitals argued that such a move would be a gift to Russia and—more importantly—Iran. A U.S. disengagement from Syria would remove the only real obstacle to Iran’s dream of a “Shia crescent” extending from Tehran to Beirut. Aside from this danger, it would damage U.S. credibility and pose a significant security issue for Jordan and Israel, America’s two most important partners in the region.
Americans—and especially those in the national security community—have been accused of “fetishizing” credibility. The U.S. fixation on preserving credibility, the argument goes, allows other countries to make their problems American problems—the exact issue U.S. officials in (former) Embassy Tel Aviv warned against. It is undoubtedly true that too much concern for preserving U.S. credibility can contribute to dubious policy decisions that put American power to use in the service of non-essential goals.
However, there is a danger to the U.S. acting only with its short-term, material interests in mind and walking away from commitments when it decides they no longer serve those interests. Over time, a pattern of this type of behavior is more damaging than following through on commitments to allies and partners, even when they become inconvenient. This is especially true when U.S. policy—as it often does—relies on partnering with local forces to avoid or minimize the direct commitment of U.S. forces. If it is seen to abandon partner forces once they have achieved the objectives the U.S. sets for them, then securing similar partnerships in the future will become more difficult. This will necessitate greater direct application of U.S. military power and put more U.S. lives at risk. Although credibility is not sufficient to achieve desired outcomes in international politics, it is necessary. In other words, while it may not guarantee you’ll get what you want, its absence guarantees you won’t.
The second idea I took from our visit to Jordan and Israel is that—in the Middle East, at least—the “perfect” policy is the enemy of the “good enough” policy. “Perfect” policies, in other words, policies built upon a strongly ideological or religious foundation, often have disastrous unintended consequences. This is because highly ideologically or religiously charged policies inevitably involve marginalizing, suppressing, or eliminating another group. “Good enough” policies, on the other hand, please no one entirely, but also don’t allow resentment to build to rage among groups who believe they have been unfairly treated.
My students, colleagues, and I were reminded several times while in the Middle East that the first intifada was sparked by a traffic accident in Gaza and the second by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. The message here was that although accidents happen and politicians do controversial things to shore up domestic constituencies, when the underlying situation is stable, a region can weather the subsequent storm. When the underlying situation is unstable and the level of grievance is high, on the other hand, these types of events can be the sparks that set off cataclysmic violence.