The Costs Of U.S. Retreat

Al Qaeda revives in Iraq and Syria’s contagion spreads to Lebanon.

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 06 JAN 14) … Editorial

Americans want to forget about Iraq and Syria, especially since President Obama walked back from his bombing threat in September, but Syria and Iraq haven’t forgotten America. The contagion from Syria’s civil war is spilling across borders in ways that are already requiring U.S. involvement and may eventually cost American lives.

The casualties include the stability of Lebanon, which like Syria is riven by Shiite-Sunni divisions. Thousands of Shiite Hezbollah militia have joined the war on behalf of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, and the opposition is retaliating with a terror campaign inside Lebanon.

An al Qaeda affiliate took credit for the car bomb that exploded on Thursday in a residential neighborhood of Beirut that is a Hezbollah stronghold. This followed the car-bombing murder of Sunni moderate Mohamad Chatah a week earlier that had the hallmarks of Hezbollah. The Saudis recently pledged $3 billion to turn the Lebanon military into a viable counterforce to Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, our Journal colleagues report that Hezbollah has smuggled advanced antiship missile systems into Lebanon from Syria. The missiles are intended for use against Israel, which has attacked arms shipments headed for Lebanon at least five times in the last year.

The dangers are that the violence in Lebanon devolves into another civil war, or that Hezbollah provokes Israel into a response like the 2006 war. Hezbollah already has upwards of 100,000 missiles, many of them unsophisticated Katyushas, but two or three times the number it had in 2006. Hezbollah may be stockpiling higher-quality missiles in order to retaliate after an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program or on another arms shipment. This could escalate into another war.

Syria’s contagion is also spilling into Iraq with the revival of al Qaeda in neighboring Anbar province. Anbar was the heart of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and American soldiers paid dearly to reclaim cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. Al Qaeda was defeated when Sunni tribal chiefs turned on them amid the U.S. troop surge in 2007.

But now al Qaeda is coming back, thanks to the heavy-handed sectarian rule of Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and to the rise of jihadists in Syria. The U.S. refusal to help the moderate Syrian opposition has given the advantage to Sunni jihadists, including many from Europe and probably the U.S. too. Much of eastern Syria is now controlled by the al-Nusrah front or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and they move with ease back and forth into Iraq. Men flying the flag of al Qaeda took over large parts of Ramadi and Fallujah last week, ousting the Iraq army.

The Iraqis are promising a counterattack to retake Fallujah, but insurgencies aren’t easily beaten when they have support in the local population. Many local Sunni leaders no longer trust the Maliki government, which may not be able to protect them against al Qaeda reprisals.

The U.S. recently supplied Mr. Maliki with Hellfire missiles to use against the insurgency, and he wants American intelligence and drone support. It’s clearly in the U.S. interest to defeat the jihadists. If al Qaeda can operate with impunity in Anbar, it could develop safe havens from which it can plot attacks outside Iraq. As we learned from Afghanistan before 2001, that includes attacks on the U.S.

The best use of such aid would be as part of a counterinsurgency campaign to win back the Sunni population. But the U.S. gave up most of its leverage with Mr. Maliki when President Obama chose to leave Iraq in toto to serve his re-election theme that “the tide of war is receding.” It would have been far better for U.S. security to have kept 5,000 or 10,000 troops, as well as air and intelligence assets, as a bulwark against al Qaeda’s revival and Iran’s regional dominance.

Mr. Obama’s retreat has squandered the gains of the surge, and now we’re slowly being dragged back in. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the U.S. is “very, very concerned” about events in Iraq but that the U.S. won’t send troops because “this is their fight.” That’s true until jihadists based in Iraq attack U.S. targets. If the Iraq insurgency grows, don’t be surprised if Mr. Obama is urged to send in military advisers.

President Obama and the Rand Paul Republicans want Americans to believe we can avoid the world’s conflicts with good intentions and strategic retreat. The costs and consequences of that retreat are now becoming clear in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond. Those costs may end up being far greater than if we had stayed engaged in Iraq and attempted to help the moderate opposition in Syria.

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