The picture of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after his house in Syria was bombed reminds me of my childhood in Tehran in the early 1980s during the vicious Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein dropped bombs on our city every night, demolishing homes and leaving tens of thousands dead and injured.
The shocked look on Omran’s face makes me cringe with memories of fear and rage. The moment the bomb goes off is also the moment that throws many youth on the path to war and militancy. It is the moment that the innocence of youth is replaced by hate and anger.
Omran lost his ten-year-old brother in that bombing campaign allegedly carried out by a foreign military.
We don’t need to look far to see into Omran’s future. He will most likely end up poverty stricken and deprived of education and opportunity.
While walking through the rubble of his city of Aleppo, he will almost certainly be approached by young men who have experienced his pain. Men who will try to recruit Omran to their war against foreigners who have carved up and demolished their homes for a century.
Just weeks after the bombing of Omran’s house, another child carried out a suicide bombing in Turkey along the Syrian border that killed dozens at a wedding ceremony. And Syrian children, propped up for a chilling propaganda video, executed prisoners of war with advanced, foreign made hand guns.
To stop this rage, the U.S. and Russia must stop shocking Middle Eastern youth with bombing campaigns. They must stop their arms sales. They must end their support of dictators and autocrats. And they must close their military bases in the region.
All we need to do is look to Iran. It is the only Middle Eastern nation without foreign military bases on its land, and consequently, it is the only country in the region without a single citizen as a member of ISIS or Al Qaeda.
After thirty-seven years of self-determination, Iranians are instead reforming their government to engage America in positive relations. While there are still challenges ahead, the Iran nuclear deal, a mandate of the Iranian people, has empowered a relatively moderate Iranian government.
But before the 1979 Iranian Revolution – when American military interests dominated Iran’s government – ordinary Iranians suffered from a lack of national sovereignty. This made millions of under-educated young men susceptible to a militant interpretation of religion that was peddled by power-hungry clergy promising independence.
Today, the same tragedy is playing out across Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where America’s military power, in one form or another, can be felt. Poverty and lack of education is rampant in these countries, while U.S. arms sales, and the presence of U.S. military bases are fueling violence.
And as in 1979 Iran, these countries are brimming with dissatisfied children that are turning to religious fanatics who preach independence through war and “jihad” against America.
To help stop this recruitment, America must end its military presence in the Middle East. The option of a drawdown exit is unachievable. The majority of the population does not trust foreign military forces posted in their region. Nothing in U.S. or Russian arsenals can out-fight or outlast the will of the masses.
Many political analysts have argued that an immediate U.S. or Russian exit would leave a bloody and rocky transition. But as we have witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transition will be bloody and rocky no matter when a foreign power leaves. Therefore, the first step toward democracy in the region is for unelected foreign powers to leave the Middle East.
Ending foreign military presence in the region is not only a benefit to Middle Easterners, but also to the world. As evidence, the Iranian people have not carried out a single terror attack inside the U.S. homeland since the 1979 closure of U.S. bases in Iran. Instead, they are warming up to the potential of fair economic and cultural exchanges with the U.S.
By ending the failed military interventions and policies in the Middle East – and instead opening up trade opportunities – millions of children like Omran can chart a different path in life, one with fewer bombs and more books.
And above all, these children need to heal. That healing can only start when foreign armies take the first step and exit the region.