Q&A: Tamara Wittes:

Middle East expert: ‘The ISIS threat has never been vanquished’

During her career in academics and government service, Tamara Wittes has witnessed conflict and tension in the Middle East from a close vantage point.

Amid the Arab uprisings, she coordinated U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East as a deputy assistant secretary of state. She then served for five years as director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where she remains a senior fellow.

This week, Wittes traveled to UNLV for a week of teaching, faculty conversations and a presentation Wednesday titled, “Can the United States escape the Middle East?”

On Tuesday, she sat down with the Sun to discuss President Donald Trump’s decision last week to withdraw U.S. troops protecting Kurdish territory in northern Syria. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

What was your first reaction to the news?

On the one hand, it’s not surprising. We’ve known that this is the president’s inclination for quite a while. Last December, he had a phone call with the president of Turkey and announced then that he was going to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria but was eventually dissuaded by his advisers.

But as with many foreign policy decisions from this administration, it’s not just the what but the how that matters.

The decision was made so capriciously, there was no consultation with our allies — not only the Kurdish militias fighting with us on the ground, but our British and Australian allies. British troops were patrolling that security zone at the Turkish border alongside us and the Kurds, and they didn’t know this was coming.

What are some of the more serious consequences, short-term and long-term?

The most immediate consequence was the Turkish incursion, which the president now says he wants to see stopped. Well, he made it possible.

And that Turkish incursion is not just uniformed Turkish military, it’s also Turkish-backed militias who are reportedly engaged in ethnic cleansing and extrajudicial killings and other war crimes.

The other one we’ve already seen is that the Syrian defense forces, this Kurdish-led militia that had been fighting ISIS with us and doing most of the dying in that fight, they have been guarding two main prison camps filled with former ISIS fighters and families of former ISIS fighters.

The Kurds had been guarding them, but they said some months ago that if the Turks invaded and the Kurds felt the need to defend their territory, they would reduce their guards on the camps. And that’s what they’ve done.

ISIS in the meantime has carried out bombings to try to further draw away Kurdish forces. And we’ve seen breakouts from the camps. From the family camps, we’ve seen people just get out and head to the Iraqi border — they’re not under anyone’s control.

ISIS was holding territory, but it began as an insurgency and it remains one. The ISIS threat has never been vanquished. We’ve never “won the war” against ISIS.

So eventually, these folks are going to melt back into this insurgency and we’ll be facing ISIS 2.0.

And that’s all before you get to the credibility or our commitments to allies. How do our partners in the region feel about our willingness to stick around on their behalf?

How much is that question being asked?

I go back and forth to the region fairly frequently, and I think that questioning began after the December round of this drama.

When the Israeli leadership and in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, when they saw the president get on the phone with the president of Turkey — who is no friend of them — and be persuaded to something and then announce it immediately with no consultation with them, they concluded then that they needed to worry about the credibility of American commitment.

What about the argument that the U.S. has become too predictable in its foreign policy? Is there any benefit in a more chaotic approach?

I don’t think there’s a benefit in chaos in a region that is already dealing with multiple civil conflicts, an aspiring nuclear weapons state in Iran, and transnational terrorist movements.

There’s plenty of chaos there already. In fact, part of the reason that governments there that the U.S. has had relations with for decades are so desperate for our attention is they feel so disoriented by what’s going on in their own region.

Now, it is a hard set of choices for the U.S. no matter what. For decades, we were able to be in that region without a lot of boots on the ground.

If you think about the U.S. that negotiated the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of troops in the region when we did that. We did that because of our power as expressed through our diplomacy, our economic engagement and, yes, very strategic use of military resources.

So this is not a moment when we can easily wield influence, because the region is in turmoil. But we shouldn’t just avoid making hard choices and flail around.

What does all of this mean for Vladimir Putin and Russia?

It is certainly another opportunity for him, both in the narrow sense in Syria and in the broader sense in terms of his international and regional influence, as well as Russia’s prestige.

For the U.S., and this isn’t just under President Trump, the involvement in Syria was tightly focused on fighting ISIS. We were only willing to work with partner militias that were going to fight ISIS, not (Syria’s Bashar) al-Assad.

And Russia understanding that we were not going to take a view in the civil war, decided they would back their man, Assad, and they came in on the ground to do that in a moment when he was losing that war.

So here we are, four or five years down the road, Putin looks like he’s been a stalwart, committed partner. He can look to the region and the world like, “I don’t know what’s going on with the U.S., but I do what I say I’m going to do. And you can rely on my word.”

Let’s try to end this on a positive note. Do you see anything heartening going on in the Middle East?

There are a few things. One is that although many of the countries that saw uprisings in 2011 did not have good outcomes, Tunisia did. This past weekend, it concluded a presidential election. It had parliamentary elections last month. They have a functioning democracy that has resulted in transfer of power from one party to another.

They have a lot of work to do. Their economy is struggling and they’re dealing with a Libyan civil war next door. But they’re dealing with it as a vibrant democracy.

So there are places in the world where we’re seen as partners on behalf of progress and freedom. And that is heartening.

These Tunisians who disagree on many things all agreed that the most important gain since the revolution is their freedom — their ability to speak freely and have a say in who’s running their government. That’s huge. That’s what it’s all about.