Many Armenians regard Deir el-Zour in northeast Syria as their Auschwitz. Ottoman authorities set up concentration camps near Deir el-Zour during the First World War for the hundreds of thousands who survived death marches from Turkey, until they too were murdered or died of hunger in the harsh Syrian Desert. Syria allowed the Armenians to build a memorial at the site of the camps, but ISIS destroyed it when they conquered the region in 2014.
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Deir el-Zour subsequently played a role in other important junctures in modern history. The British Army won a decisive victory in the region over Vichy forces during World War II. The nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007, according to foreign sources, was located in the Deir el-Zour area. The Iranian missile attack this week, which created more noise than damage, was aimed at ISIS bases in Deir el-Zour. But, in addition to signaling both to Israel and Saudi Arabia about its ballistic missile capabilities, as commentators noted, Tehran was also telling Washington that it would fight to take control of the Deir el-Zour province.
In fact, Deir el-Zour is a leading contender to serve as the flash point for a potential U.S. military confrontation with Syria, Iran or even Russia. The battle, in fact, might already be underway. In recent weeks, U.S. forces shot down two Iranian drones and bombed several pro-Iranian militias that approached Tanf, southeast of Deir el-Zour, where pro-U.S. rebels are preparing for an expected campaign to break the ISIS siege of the city of Deir el-Zour, currently held by pro-Assad militias. The Syrian Sukhoi-22 that was shot down by an American F-18 this month and inflamed tensions with Moscow was intercepted because it tried to bomb similar Western-trained rebels who are preparing to take part in the final battle for the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa. Security analysts believe that after Raqqa falls, the Deir el-Zour province could serve as the final graveyard for ISIS and its dream of setting up an Islamic Caliphate, a demise that grew closer after Moscow’s assertion on Thursday that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had been killed in a Russian bombing raid.
But the significance of the expected battle for Deir el-Zour extends beyond the final recapture of territory held by ISIS or the power struggles in a post-ISIS Syria. If the province falls into the hands of Iranian and pro-Assad forces on the Syrian side, and pro-Iranian militias on the Iraqi side of the Euphrates River, the groundwork will be laid for the fulfillment of the Iranian fantasy of creating a crescent of influence that would run from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut. Fear of such a strategic Iranian victory is driving the White House to press the Pentagon to begin staving it off even before the war on ISIS is over. This anti-Iranian approach, shared by Defense Secretary General James Mattis and National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster, could lead to open hostilities that might start with Syrian planes and Iranian drones but quickly deteriorate to regional if not global conflict.
America’s willingness to challenge Tehran militarily is appreciated by many Israelis, who view it as a welcome change from what they viewed as Barack Obama’s overcautious approach that some even saw as pro-Iranian. Saudi Arabia, which anointed Muhammad Bin Salman as its new Crown Prince this week, also welcomes the new American aggressiveness. The rest of humanity, however, wonders whether Trump realizes that he’s playing with fire or that imprudent moves could explode in his face. The evidence, so far, is not encouraging.
Whether he realized it or not, Trump was the godfather of the clash between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies with the unruly princedom of Qatar. In the first few days after the Sunni boycott was imposed, many Israelis were quick to welcome the anti-Qatar campaign, as Trump egged the Saudis on and lambasted Qatar. The President, however, apparently forgot that the U.S. maintains an air base in Qatar that is vital for its operations in Syria. He also didn’t take into account Newton’s Third Law by which for every action there is a reaction. Faced with a Sunni coalition against Qatar, Iran and Turkey rallied to its side. The anti-Iranian coalition that Trump was seeking to set up in his colorful visit to Riyadh earlier this month disintegrated, and the ad-hoc anti-ISIS coalition in Syria was weakened. Turkey, for its part, is also seething over Trump’s approval for direct American arming of the Kurdish Defense Units in Syria, in advance of a final push on Raqqa.
U.S. efforts to navigate the standoff in the Gulf also exposed the extent of the disarray in its foreign policy. At the same time as Trump was tweeting about Qatar being a strong backer of terror, a State Department spokeswoman was chiding Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for having failed to bring the conflict to a close. Saying Washington was “mystified” by their behavior, Spokeswoman Heather Nauert asked whether the Saudi-led coalition’s actions against Qatar “were really about their concerns regarding Qatar's alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.” Listening to the statement, one might have been led to believe that Trump was merely a pawn in a regional Saudi scheme.
But the biggest and most dangerous challenge facing the U.S. is still North Korea, and Trump also cast doubt this week about his ability to handle that crisis as well. Against the backdrop of American rage at the death of Otto Warmbier, who sustained brain damage at the hands of his North Korean interrogators, Trump tweeted a particularly juvenile message that said “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Not only did Trump insult the Chinese President, who he had been cultivating, but he also raised concern in world capitals that he might soon launch a preemptive military strike on Pyongyang.
Some Trump insiders tried to portray Trump’s bizarre tweet as an effort to apply pressure in advance of administration talks held in Washington this week with senior Chinese officials, but they couldn’t convince even themselves. They had no idea what Trump meant, so they had a hard time calming concerned allies, especially as Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson insisted that China still had a vital role to play. According to reports in the U.S. media, Mattis and Tillerson, along with McMaster and Vice President Pence have been quietly urging allies to ignore Trump’s tweets and to relate to actual administration policy instead. Though they are mostly hawkish, they cast themselves as the voice of moderation and reason compared to Trump’s impetuous outbursts. Needless to say, these assurances often achieve the opposite effect, presenting the U.S. as a country led by a clueless President presiding over an administration in chaos.
Israel is one of the few places on earth that has exempted itself from this anxiety. Over here, Trump is still flavor of the month. “He’s an extraordinary man who thinks outside the box,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said admiringly this week, earning herself social media comebacks such as “he never thinks anywhere” and “he doesn’t even know there is a box in the first place.” But the disdain for Obama and his policies run so deep in Israel, that Trump, while flawed, is still the messiah; and the Israeli dogma that use of force trumps diplomacy under any and all circumstances is so strong, that American’s precarious escalations are praised; and the identification with Trump’s callous values is so rooted among Israel’s right-wing rulers that even his peace emissaries, which included son in law Jared Kushner for the first time this week, were warmly welcomed, probably on the safe assumption that their efforts won’t amount to much anyway.
The rest of the world is warily watching the tensions with Moscow, which could deteriorate despite, or even because of, the Kremlin’s help in getting Trump elected; the time running out in the nuclear confrontation with North Korea, which might push Trump to take the kind of rash action that his predecessors averted; the growing friction with Iran and the increasing number of flash points that could set off open conflict; Trump’s embrace for the new Saudi Crown Prince, admired by some as a courageous reformer but feared by others as a dangerous adventurer; and the unbelievably complex situation on the ground in Syria, which even diplomatic geniuses on the order of Kissinger and Metternich would find hard to unravel. Despite his bluster, it must be said, Trump hasn’t shown himself to be gung-ho, but without the help of hallucinatory mushrooms, it’s hard to see how he navigates America’s way safely through such dangerous waters while he tries to fend off serious and numerous legal challenges at the same time.
Never mind that after the two GOP successes in the special congressional elections this week, which were portrayed as referendums on Trump, there is a clear danger that Trump will only grow bolder, more satisfied with himself and less inclined to heed the counsel of more cautious advisers. With so many potential pitfalls and conflagrations, miscalculation and ensuing flare-ups seem almost inevitable. The U.S. might find itself embroiled in a new military campaign, perhaps even more than one, led by a president whose judgment or word isn’t trusted by most of the world. The Trumpocalypse may not be now, but it’s getting hard to miss its looming shadow.