On Trump’s withdrawal from Syria

So Donald Trump has decided to pull US forces out of Syria, and people are upset. Some are opposed because they are neo-cons who think America should be fighting wars anywhere and everywhere to spread peace and democracy, while others don’t like it just because it’s Trump. This tweet is an interesting example of the reaction:


If the goal of the US military in Syria is to protect Israel, the Kurds, and Iraqi Christians this should have been stated before their deployment as part of a clear and transparent policy. This never happened. Instead, US troops turned up in unspecified numbers which the public gradually got to hear about as they took part in various actions. Certainly Congress was never consulted, as they are supposed to be (although that requirement is laughable these days). We were told various stories, one of which was that US forces were in Syria to support rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad, another was they were there to fight ISIS. But there was never a clear policy as to why they were there, nor any indication of what would constitute victory. As usual, US troops were in a foreign country for an unspecified purpose seemingly indefinitely. What should be upsetting people is there were US forces in Syria under these conditions to start with, not that Trump is pulling them out.

Trump is quite correct here:

Firstly, Trump is right that ISIS – being a shadow of what they were a few years back – are mainly a local problem in a military sense. I have few doubts Russia can handle any threat posed by ISIS to Assad’s government. One of the points many people don’t like to acknowledge is Russia made short work of the various rebel groups, mainly because they didn’t pussyfoot around with how they went about it. They’ll do the same with ISIS.

Secondly, America has no strategic interest in Syria whatsoever. People talk all sorts of nonsense about surrendering the Middle East to Russia, often in the same breath they condemn Trump for being too close to the Saudi Crown Prince. It also overlooks the rather large US military base in Qatar and the strategic alliances they have with the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain. So what if Russia establishes itself in Syria? Assad has always been aligned with Russia, and I can’t for the life of me think why Russia is so invested in the place other than for some vague notion of prestige and as a handy place to test and sell weapons systems.

Now consider this tweet:


Who cares if Iran and Russia “claim a victory”? Over whom? The US is withdrawing from the battlefield because the Commander in Chief doesn’t know why they’re there or what constitutes victory. Who are they supposed to fight in the coming years? Russians?  I’ve seen some pretty daft justifications for keeping an army deployed overseas in perpetuity, but doing so in order to deny others from claiming a non-existent victory surpasses all others.

What is also laughable is the idea that Russia, Iran, and Turkey are in a grand alliance whose nefarious plans were only thwarted by the presence of US forces. One thing is certain, and that is neither Russia or Turkey are going to allow Iran to do whatever it likes in Syria. I wrote before about how Israel has little to fear from Russia, who might play a useful role in keeping Iranian ambitions in check. And if Israel can’t handle Iranian forces fighting in Syria because 2,000 US soldiers stationed nowhere near their borders have been withdrawn, they have serious problems indeed. Rather than a coordinated effort between Russia, Iran, and Turkey to threaten US interests – whatever they may be – and Israeli security, I expect we’ll see non-stop squabbling, scheming and backstabbing with the occasional military engagement thrown in for fun. I have little doubt that Turkey will seize the opportunity to flatten the Kurds, and personally I’d have been happier if Trump had been a lot tougher with Erdogan on several issues. But with the best will in the world, any attempt to support an independent Kurdish state will end in disaster; I see no reason why the US shouldn’t give them weaponry to make the Turks think twice, though.

Finally, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria seems to have come at the price of James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence. In his resignation letter to Trump he said:

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

Meaning, he disagrees with Trump on how he sees the role of the US military in future. A lot of people are saying this is a body-blow for Trump, and losing a man like Mattis is a big loss for any organisation, but I’m not so sure. Mattis is one hell of a soldier and probably knows everything there is too know about winning wars, but it is not his job – nor his expertise – to determine the political direction in which US forces are applied now or in future. As I understand it, his job is to advise the president on military possibilities and, once strategic political decisions have been made, to make the military decisions necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. In other words, Mattis might be quite happy for the US to stay deployed in Syria forever and “advance an international order” but that’s irrelevant to his duties.  His job is to win battles in Syria, not decide whether the US is involved there and for how long.

So while it is quite right for Mattis to resign at the end of his tenure if he is unconvinced by Trump’s political approach, one must remember that Trump ran on a platform of not using US military power to “advance an international order”. Indeed, that seems to be a policy many Americans, and an awful lot of foreigners, really wish America would abandon. Unless, it seems, it’s Trump making the decision, in which case bombing people is good again.

UPDATE

See this from the BBC:

The Trump administration is planning to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, US media say.

Reports, citing unnamed officials, say about 7,000 troops – roughly half the remaining US military presence in the country – could go home within months.

Analysts have warned that a withdrawal could have a “devastating” impact and offer Taliban militants a propaganda victory.

Better stay for another 17 years then, eh? I remember when the likes of the BBC were against American military adventurism.

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21 thoughts on “On Trump’s withdrawal from Syria

  1. As you say, Trump’s position has been well documented and must have been getting frustrated that the established wouldn’t support him. I wonder if he’s been watching some Yes, Minister’s?

    There’s an episode where Hacker is being frustrated in one of his plans and he decides (advised by Bernard, IIRC) that the best was to get his policy is to announce it tot eh press.

    On a more serious note, I’m starting to have some sympathy with the conspiracy theorists who claim that the neo-cons and the defence industrial complex are out of control.

  2. Aren’t these the same leftists who would usually protest the US going out and killing dusky foreigners?

    Presumably, Russia’s only interest in Syria is Latakia, the naval base that renders Crimea redundant. And yes, who cares? They care about keeping someone in charge of Syria who is friendly to the Russian presence, but it’s of essentially no consequence to the west if the Russian navy has a base in Syria. Heck, I think we could offer them Brighton without too much fuss.

    What we should never forget is that Cameron was all for joining in the Syrian civil war. On the side of what was to become ISIS.

  3. The US went into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. ISIS is finished militarily. The groups fighting Assad are mainly unpleasant jihadis and Salafis, who we should not be supporting. Assad is unpleasant, but do we really think that Libya is better for having gotten rid of Gadhaffi? The screams of outrage coming from the left and right are idiocy. MBS has been kicking the salafis and some of the corrupt princelings around, things that are generally in the interest of the West.

  4. MBS has been kicking the salafis and some of the corrupt princelings around, things that are generally in the interest of the West.

    Indeed, and the ones now wailing about Turkey’s malign influence are the same people who swallowed the Erdogan line on the death of Khashoggi without question.

  5. ” I remember when the likes of the BBC were against American military adventurism.”

    They are against America full stop. Whatever America does, they’re against it. They’ll criticise the US for going into a sh*thole to try and sort it out, and they’ll criticise them for leaving it, on the grounds it will probably descend into a sh*thole again.

    You’d have thought that they might have noticed that if sh*tholes get less sh*tholey after the US arrives, and more sh*tholey after they leave, then the US might actually be a force for at least some temporary good rather than downright evil.

    But hey, its the BBC we’re talking about…….

  6. “What should be upsetting people is there were US forces in Syria under these conditions to start with”

    Exactly and unlike Russia they had no legal basis for being there in the first place.

    On face value and I guess this is all we can take this announcement at, it appears that Trump has once again and very skillfully kept his war hawks at bay. He has bombed an empty airfield in Syria and dropped a MOAB in Afghanistan and that’s about it. Pulling the funding from the Pakistani military mafia was also a good move by him.

    Personally, I have always been pro-Assad and consider him to be a courageous, accidental, democratically elected leader, that had always governed in accordance with their constitution and had the balls to stay and fight. No one that lived there from any persuasion and that was right in the head would have wanted the Wahhabi head choppers to ruin their secular and ancient and culturally mature nation. They nearly got him, and it looked like they would, right up until the moment the Russians stepped in.

    I have also noticed of recent times that Assad’s many enemies in the Arabic world appear to have buried the hatchet and have now accepted that he will remain as their leader and that they will negotiate with him and his representatives, with some notable exceptions like Erdogan.

    Again, and on face value the winners appear to be the Syrians, the US, Russia & Turkey. The Syrians with the unwanted invasion force now leaving, the US in getting the fuck out of there and avoiding the very real and ever-increasing risk of a direct military incident with Russia, Turkey outmaneuvering the Kurds and being seen to have played a winning hand in their negotiations with the US. It appears that the hapless Kurds may be getting thrown under the bus again.

    Somewhat relevant and with respect to timing for the overall region is that there is a big noticeable shift in alignment by Qatar, who are still subject to the Saudi led embargo and are now opting out of OPEC and moving towards the US in announcing a major investment program into the US domestic gas sector, this at a time when the US announced that they have discovered the “largest continuous oil and gas resource potential ever assessed” in Texas and New Mexico.

  7. Tim: The reason why the Russians are so keen to defend Assad is that he provides the Russian Navy with a massive deep water base at Latakia where they can position ships in the Meditteranean Sea and not have to transit the Bosphorous.

    In return the Syrian Air defence network was, for many years, the best in the region, such that even the Israelis feared it, and it was supplied by them in return.

  8. The reason why the Russians are so keen to defend Assad is that he provides the Russian Navy…

    What Russian navy? This aircraft carrier and its rescue tug, which must go everywhere with it?

  9. Syria has a truckload of oil. The money from that is what kept ISIS going so long even after the US stopped financing, arming and training them.

    Afghanistan is a lost cause. The Taliban are back in town in a big way that nobody could have foreseen a year ago.

  10. Syria has a truckload of oil.

    Not really: I worked with guys who used to run those oilfields.

    The money from that is what kept ISIS going so long even after the US stopped financing, arming and training them.

    Yeah, they have enough oil to keep an outfit like ISIS funded, but nowhere near enough to lend Syria strategic value – especially for a country like Russia.

  11. Agree with all of this, especially arming the Kurds. They are the one group I feel bad about since they are saner than most in the region, align with the US far more than anyone in the region, want a nation and could probably run one relatively better than their neighboring states, but will never, ever get one without a bloody war that could easily devolve into WW3.

    Having said that, I cannot support using US troops to help the Kurds simply because I like them. Arming them is a compromise but even then I don’t see how you avoid international conflicts if/when Turkey cracks down.

    Foreign policy is so difficult for many reasons, one of which is prior governments make promises that current governments have no obligation to uphold, so essentially alliances are honored arbitrarily.

    I think the vast majority of Americans favor less foreign intervention but the sad reality is we don’t really know what’s going on and don’t really care. This is true of most political actions but is doubly so for foreign policy.

    Overall Trump should definitely pull out of the ME. The republican talking point that “Obama created ISIS by pulling out of Iraq” never swayed many votes so there’s little political damage to worry about, aside from military industrial complex types lobbying for more intervention.

  12. Indeed, that seems to be a policy many Americans, and an awful lot of foreigners, really wish America would abandon.

    I’ll add that another problem with achieving sane US foreign policy is that an awful lot of foreigners – usually the ones with the most money and political power – really wish for America to intervene in their country’s/region’s problems.

  13. I was always lukewarm on the nation building line and for a while now have believed in keeping the bad actors inline with ‘death from above’ etc, no need for more than S.F. incursions on occasion. Other than that no more blood and treasure, as for the oil well they have to sell it on the market so we seem sorted there.

  14. blockquote>one of which was that US forces were in Syria to support rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad, another was they were there to fight ISIS.

    Obama & Clinton wanted to remove Assad and through Jordan created? supported & equipped ISIS – my enemies enemy fallacy. That didn’t work well for West, so head in sand.

    Russia already “owns” Syria and Russia & Israel are working together to prevent Iran controlling Iraq and Syria. Hence why Israeli air attacks on Hezbollah all over Syria accepted.

    Trump is correct to withdraw. We should too.

    Kurds – equip, train, provide intel

    Russia – people have still not accepted Russia is not USSR. Nuclear threat: yes. That’s it.

    USA in first Trump year Increased their defence budget by more than Russia’s entire defence budget.

  15. Twitter is ablaze with Americans howling how Trump has betrayed their allies the Kurds. So who are the Kurdish leaders to whom Trump made promises? Which group of Kurds are we even on about? Or are they all the same?

    Americans seem to want to go to war on behalf of people they can’t even name beyond a mis-leading catch-all term, and about whom they know nothing. They seem to think “the Kurds” are a homogeneous group, rather than a whole bunch of different groups who all want different things. I’d have thought if Americans are going to form alliances with people they’d at least bother to find out who they’re dealing with, i.e. who the leaders are and what aims they have, but apparently not. Little wonder they’ve been bogged down in endless, pointless wars for several generations. I wonder what they’ll say when they work out most of the Kurds are socialists.

  16. “I was always lukewarm on the nation building line and”

    I’m fine with nation building. But recent history has the US building nations that hate the country which freed them, and has been led by Americans who, largely, hate their own history and culture.

  17. “Americans howling how Trump has betrayed their allies the Kurds”

    You can just imagine the amount of immediate turn coating that will be going on in this large swathe of North Eastern Syria right now, the insurgents wont know if they are Arthur or Martha especially given that they all look the same in headscarves and Nike sneakers.

    At least Maricon is remaining stoic in their defense, still furious that Trump ignored his demand that the US not pull out, a high-vis clad Maricon has promised the mongrel Kurds that he will personally rally his invasion force in order that they keep the barbarians at the gate, out. A spokesman for the French Air Force has declined to comment.

    Meanwhile in Whitehall an unidentified spokesman for British Special Forces in the region said that they were going to put the kettle on following the US forces withdrawal announcement.

  18. Exactly and unlike Russia they had no legal basis for being there in the first place.

    This is rarely acknowledged by the western media or governments: like it or not, Russia is in Syria at the behest of the legitimate, recognised government. The US isn’t.

  19. “This is rarely acknowledged by the western media or governments: like it or not, Russia is in Syria at the behest of the legitimate, recognised government. The US isn’t.”

    Whilst the US decision is a positive one for Syria, the manner and reasoning for it being made still hasn’t signified any respect for the autonomy of the Syrian government, nor for its sovereign rights to make alliances with other nations as it sees fit.

    Assuming that the US troops do leave, I wonder if Putin would then invite the US to attend the Astana process, which is recognized by Assad.

    I think the next stage now is identifying how the massive rebuilding of Syria contracts and budgets will be dished out and which nations will fund it and also benefit from this major undertaking.

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