The smarter strategy for the Middle East in a post-coronavirus world

The United States has paid a dear price for its involvement in the Middle East since 9/11. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, and conflicts and counterterrorist campaigns from the deserts of North Africa to the Straits of Hormuz, our “all in” effort has cost more than $6.4 trillion, and close to 7,000 servicemen and women have been killed.

There have been sharp political debates as to the wisdom of our Middle Eastern adventures in terms of lives lost and money spent. These arguments will intensify once COVID-19’s impact on the global economy has been calculated.

The pandemic-related shutdowns and social distancing have harmed every facet of the financial universe — the damage is expected to exceed $4.1 trillion, roughly 5 percent of the world’s GDP.

COVID-19 has sparked a “Chernobyl Moment” for the United States and many other countries, where shortcomings in the national emergency infrastructures have become painfully apparent. Once the pandemic passes, it would be natural for us to focus our attention and resources inward, so we can rebuild a devastated economy while moving away from our expensive commitments in the Middle East.

So far, there have been no announcements from the Trump administration, the State Department or the Department of Defense concerning cutting aid to our key allies in the region. Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq receive roughly $8 billion taxpayer dollars in aid a year.

But demands to cut foreign aid will come — and that would be a fatal mistake.

Instead, the US should embark on a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan of sorts to stabilize the economies of the region, avoid a second Arab Spring and ultimately deradicalize a large segment of the population without requiring additional American boots on the ground. A strategic and courageous political plan could force us to pivot into a smaller and smarter presence that will benefit our allies and ourselves.

 Kurdish Syrian civilians flee the town of Kobani on the Turkish border as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.
The US recently withdrew its support from the Kurds in Syria, but now is the time to restore that alliance.
AFP via Getty Images

Yes, it may be necessary to decrease military aid to our Middle Eastern partners, but we should still maintain a steady flow of economic support.

The Arab Spring and the wars that followed all over the region erupted over issues of economic disparity and political corruption. The pandemic has the power to exacerbate economic concerns in the region, with inflation, food costs and unemployment all spiking.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, a moderate voice who nonetheless has always spoken his mind, was quoted as saying that what keeps him up at night is neither al-Qaeda or ISIS but the fact that 300,000 Jordanians are unemployed and over 85 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 39.

Meanwhile, the American military footprint in the region will have to be adjusted. According to US Central Command, there are some 70,000 American military personnel stationed in eight nations (including 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan).

Finally ending the conflict in Afghanistan will save lives and money, and allow a streamlined redeployment of US forces to other hot spots in the area. The burden of manning America’s front lines in the Middle East should mostly fall upon the shoulders of the intelligence fraternity and the special operations community.

Fast, nimble and powerful far beyond their small numbers, the special forces — together with their counterparts in the CIA and NSA — should reestablish a presence in northern Syria with our abandoned Kurdish allies to send a message to Iran, Russia, Turkey and others that any attempts to disrupt the current status quo of peace in the pandemic will not be tolerated.

A woman covers her face as she stands along the side of a road on the outskirts of the town near the border with Turkey with the smoke plumes of tire fires billowing in the background to decrease visibility for Turkish warplanes.Scenes of destruction, like this one in Syria near the border with Turkey, could grow worse in a post-pandemic age unless the US develops a smart long-term plan. AFP via Getty Images

With their language skills and international pedigrees, the special forces are experts in training indigenous forces and the national armies of our allies we need to fight on our side.

One of the reasons that the war against ISIS was so successful was precisely because the United States assembled a regional — and international — alliance that fought and died together. Placing the focus on a special-operations solution will lessen our footprint, yet still allow American forces to achieve our national security objectives.

In a post-pandemic age, the United States will need to do more with less in the Middle East. It will be a daunting exercise for the most powerful nation in the world, but there can be no short-term gains without setting up a well-thought-out and pragmatic long-term plan for the future.

Samuel M. Katz is a NY Times best-selling author and counterterrorism expert who is the author of “No Shadows in the Desert: Murder, Vengeance, and Espionage in the War Against ISIS” (Hanover Square Press), out now.


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