While the Electoral College in the U.S. was officially making Donald Trump the President-elect on Dec. 19, twin terror attacks in Berlin and Ankara offered the West a fresh reminder of the true enemy it faces from radical Islam.
It does not matter if you live in a country like Germany, which has taken in 1 million refugees from the war in Syria and opposes the Assad regime there. Or in Russia, which backs the Assad regime in Syria and whose ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated on camera while delivering a speech at an art gallery in Ankara.
The enemy is making no distinction.
Whether you support or oppose the Assad regime in Syria, they’re coming to get you. Whether you take in the refugees or not — although your society might be safer if you didn’t — they’re coming to get you. The enemy does not care.
The truck that plowed into a Christmas marketplace in Berlin may have been driven by a refugee — a Tunisian man named Anis Amri is now being sought after asylum office papers belonging to him were found in the cab — but more importantly, it was an Islamist attack. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the carnage in Berlin, which matched the tactic used by the truck attacker at Nice, France in 2015.
The message is clear.
Radical Islam remains at war with the West. Its adherents simply want us dead.
And now it will be up to Trump, upon assuming office on Jan. 20, 2017, to prosecute the West’s war against radical Islam.
But Trump will be entering the world’s stage in an increasingly dangerous environment, where events have played out largely with U.S. acquiescence under the leadership of outgoing President Barack Obama as the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated.
The U.S. backed the overthrow of the governments of Libya and Egypt in 2011, and then opposed it when Egypt was reclaimed from Muslim Brotherhood by the military in 2013.
In 2011, the Syrian civil war began, with the U.S. backing rebel factions there against the Assad regime, a Russian ally.
The U.S. finished its withdrawal of military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, completing Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to leave that country.
By 2013, the Obama administration was seeking Congressional authorization for direct military confrontation there to overthrow Assad, and even considered options to go there without a vote of Congress.
As the civil war in Syria played out, the power vacuum the U.S. left created the opportunity for Islamic State to fill as it rose to power in 2014 after capturing several cities in Syria and Iraq.
The war displaced millions of refugees, who fled the region for Europe and elsewhere, setting the stage for Islamic State attacks in Paris, Nice, multiple attacks in the U.S. and now Berlin.
Since then, U.S. special forces have reentered the theater in Iraq along with a campaign of air strikes beginning in 2014. That was possible because although Obama had withdrawn U.S. forces, the 2002 authorization to use force in Iraq, which overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein, was never repealed.
In 2015, the U.S. signed the nuclear deal with Iran that critics charge creates the path for Tehran to get nuclear weapons.
Russian forces too have since intervened in Syria since 2015, culminating in the latest offensive by Syrian forces to defeat the rebels at Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, this month.
Trump indicated on the campaign trail that he would focus U.S. efforts on defeating Islamic State and has hinted at the possibility of cooperation with Russia in that endeavor to defeat a common enemy.
In that case, the assassination of Karlov in Turkey, a NATO ally, and the Islamic State attack in Germany, another NATO ally, could provide a basis for Trump to thread that needle, but it will not be easy.
Countries like France and Germany have played both sides of the conflict in Syria, working to overthrow the Russian-backed Assad regime while simultaneously opposing Islamic State, fueled by the illusion that the armed opposition to Assad was anybody but radical Islamists. That convoluted policy has destabilized the country and led directly to the refugee crisis.
It will now be up to Trump to bring clarity to the conflict by focusing on the real enemy, Islamic State. By now, it should be clear that Russia will not permit the overthrow of the Assad regime. If the U.S. had intervened there, it could very well have brought the U.S. to war with Russia. That would not only be destabilizing, but catastrophic.
The path of least resistance, then, is defeating Islamic State, and working to simultaneously deescalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
That will likely require assurances that the U.S. will not act to overthrow the Assad regime, which should be easy, since the war there is already over and the U.S. has already passed up the opportunity to intervene.
The gunman in Ankara, who shouted “Remember Aleppo!” as he shot Karlov, certainly did not think that the war in Syria is over. He also pledged allegiance to the rebels there, reportedly saying, “We are the descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammad for jihad.” That is said to be similar to the anthem of al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, another Islamist faction in the Syrian civil war, and the group has claimed responsibility via an Internet letter.
Defeating those factions, then, Islamic State and al Nusra, will have to be the administration’s top foreign policy priority. There, the U.S. and Russia share common interests, and cooperation should be embraced, despite allegations by the outgoing Obama administration of supposed Russian intervention in U.S. elections. Defeating radical Islam is more important than hearing out grievances from John Podesta and the now-defeated Hillary Clinton for President campaign.
At the same time, and in exchange for providing Assad assurances, Trump could then work with European allies to settle the refugee crisis in Germany, Italy and France — by resettling refugees into a more permanent setting. Trump’s call for halting immigration from terror havens comes into view, as well, but if the war in Syria winds down, then it becomes possible that the refugees could begin to return home.
But even if they would not return there willingly, the political circumstances in Europe may ultimately mean the final settlement for refugees will have to be elsewhere in the world of Islam, in North Africa or somewhere else. This will require more deft diplomacy by Trump to work with U.S. allies in the region, but it could help deescalate tensions in Europe as well while simultaneously denying sanctuaries for Islamic State there. Europe cannot be the dumping ground for the Middle East’s wars.
The goal now must be restoring stability across the entire region.
European integration of the refugees was a foolish, idealist pipe dream by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sadly, it lays in tatters on the streets of Berlin. Now it falls on Trump to clean up the mess.