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As US forces exit Syria, West Asia faces a new, post-American era

Ben Hubbard | NYT/Beirut, Lebanon 12 Jan 19 | 10:55 PM

Peace talks to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been frozen for years, but the long-awaited Trump plan to break the impasse has yet to arrive

When Turkey, Iran and Russia meet to talk about the end of the war in Syria, they do so without the United States.

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Peace talks to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been frozen for years, but the long-awaited Trump plan to break the impasse has yet to arrive. And now, despite conflicting messages about how and when it will happen, the United States is set to withdraw from Syria.

The withdrawal, which the military said began with equipment removal on Friday, is just the latest instance of a broader American disengagement from West Asia that could have lasting effects on one of the world’s most volatile regions.

As the United States steps back, Russia, Iran and regional strongmen increasingly step in to chart the region’s future.

“It is not pretty," said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is violent. It is illiberal in every sense of the word, and the United States is essentially missing in action."

Since the end of the Cold War, West Asia has remained perpetually near the top of the American foreign policy agenda, kept there by the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring and the battle against the Islamic State.

American leaders have offered a range reasons for the great investment of American blood and treasure in the region: to replace dictatorships with democracies, to enhance the rule of law, to support allied governments and to fight terrorism.

But for some scholars of the region, the concrete benefits of all that engagement pale in comparison to the size of the American efforts.

“When you look at the cost-benefit analysis, there is a limited payoff, and the United States is going to reduce its footprint over time because there are so many other things to deal with in the world," said Gary Sick, a Middle East scholar at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council under three presidents.

A similar view of the region has shaped the approach of both the Obama and Trump administrations. Despite the drastic differences in their words and style, both have viewed West Asia primarily as a source of nuisance that siphoned resources from other American priorities. Both presidents called on regional powers to play a greater role in protecting and governing the region.

The immediate desire to step back was driven by battle fatigue after years of deadly combat in Iraq, and a feeling that American military investment often did not make matters better. But scholars say that longer term shifts have made the region less central to America’s priorities.

American protection is no longer necessary to ensure the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, for example, and a boom in domestic production has made the United States less dependent on Middle Eastern oil anyway. 

Israel now boasts the region’s most effective military and a strong economy while many of its neighbors are in shambles, making it less dependent on American protection.

“The reality is that our direct interests in terms of protecting the American homeland are very few in the Middle East," said Mr. Sick, adding that the record on American interventions doing more good than harm was at best mixed.

“Things are pretty chaotic as they are, and I don’t see them getting better with our presence and I don’t see them getting worse if we’re not there," he said.

© 2019 The New York Times News Service

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