One thing is certain; there is no definitive transcript for what is going on in Syria and who is benefitting the most from pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan. But if we listen to MSNBC and other so-called MSM outlets, at least get the bullet points and work from there we can begin to deconstruct the spin that is too often presented as reality.
In one recent TV broadcast news commentary it was claimed that Donald Trump endorsed the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and used the position of the Soviet Union in that conflict to justify his current policy of getting out and bringing to a close a war that the US should never have gotten into in the first place.
What Trump said was,
We are talking to the Taliban and we’re talking to a lot of different people but here is the thing … because you mentioned India – India is there, Russia is there; Russia used to be the Soviet Union. It was Afghanistan that made the USSR into Russia because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. It had a right to be there. However, the problem is it was a tough fight and literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again as opposed to the Soviet Union—you know a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia because of Afghanistan – but why isn’t Russia there, why isn’t India there.., and why are we [the US] … 6000 miles away?
This summary does provide “historic justice” in explaining why the USSR collapsed, but its actual importance is that it makes a statement which is starting to make sense to more and more Americans – that “we just cannot afford costly wars in faraway places.”
David Ignatius of The Washington Post described the situation well from the perspective of that journal and its fan club. He made a convincing argument on the show Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough & Mika Brzezinski [6 AM] 01/03/19 and raised some good questions:
1) What is American policy in Syria?
2) What are we trying to do in Afghanistan?
3) How long are we planning on staying in these places?
One thing is certain in answering these questions, “America is less important in the world now; and it is necessary to reckon with this reality”. That conclusion is especially worrying for many pundits.
Ignatius puts it bluntly, and many would agree: “It ends a low-cost, high-impact mission and creates a vacuum that will be filled by one of a series of bad actors — Iran, Russia, Turkey, Islamic extremists, the Syrian regime — take your pick, they’re all dangerous for U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
As for Syria, Trump is also sharing inconvenient truths for many. “We don’t want Syria, and Obama gave you Syria years ago when he didn’t violate the [proverbial] Red line. I did when I shot in 59 missiles– Syria was lost long ago, and besides that, I don’t want to be talking about sand and death—that’s what we’re talking about – we’re not talking about vast wealth – we are talking about sand and death.”
Those that take exception to such comments see this as “giving Russia a foothold in the Middle East, giving Iran a chance to be an existential threat to Israel by arming terrorists who will kill Israelis day in and day out and finally resurrecting ISIS and other terror groups that decide to pour into that void.”
This was to be expected, and as a result Trump now has to delay, out of “political expediency” the withdrawal of troops from Syria. He can now stall for time while the political dust settles and he can get his new people in place and with the programme—his programme!
Turkey also benefits, as it really does not want to fill the void— it too needs to stall for time and let the dust settle.
My mother taught me as a child, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” That statement of Sir Walter Scott’s really applies to the double-dealing of so many sides to the Syrian conflict, and how a complex web of events got us to where we are now.
America has too many irons in the fire, and with things not going as planned, it has to reconsider its policy on many fronts: China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia on a macro level and then other countries (Ukraine for starters).
It must have forgotten that existing US policy is not in the best interests of its erstwhile friends and allies, especially the European ones. Iran is a hard nut to crack, and sanctions are nothing but a way to provide lip service to doing so. More can be gained by negotiations. In fact, as has been the case with Russia, sanctions are pushing so-called evil countries closer together out of shared pain and financial necessity, and forcing them to become more self-sufficient.
It is obvious that the now-unfolding events in Syria could be turned to American advantage. Withdrawal would provide the perfect escape mechanism for many stakeholders, even Israel and Turkey, who could then distance themselves from their own repeated threats.
For instance, Turkey does not want to make good on its threats to get “payback” over the Kurdish standoff, nor does it want to drive the Kurds closer to Syria and the United States. Turkey knows its own history with Russia, dating back to the Crimean War and the Russian-Turkish War of 1877, and it will stand alone should it initiate a conflict – as Article 5 of the NATO agreement has never been more than a paper tiger.
Russians don’t forget, and time is on their side. The Russian Federation has presented the most consistent and proactive response to regional events, not only for its own policy interests but the collective best interest of the region. It is understood that if Syria collapses then a Libya-like chaos would engulf the country and the region, and nobody really wants that.
Have your Cake and Eat it too!
However, Trump is now backsliding. Immediate has become slow withdrawal, likely due to domestic pressure back in the US, especially from amongst some of his otherwise staunchest supporters, who see his announcement as a betrayal of not only the “programme” but US values in general.
One the one hand he says,
“If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero,” but then tweets. “ISIS is mostly gone; we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants.”
Definitely, he is caught between fires. Domestic politicians and financial realities are charging forward, and the commander in chief of the country that has overextended itself globally is coming to the realisation that it no longer is the superpower it used to be, and no longer has the troops or resolve to hang in indefinitely.
His statement that “we’re talking about sand and death” is revealing. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about vast wealth” – does not go far enough in looking at what will happen, especially in terms of Turkish ambitions, and how withdrawal will shift the Kurds into a position where they have to look for another backer, either the Syrian government, Iran, or Kurds in Northern Iraq.
It has long been suggested that the US wants a permanent base of operations in the region, namely a puppet Kurdish State, an idea that goes back to the Sykes-Picot treaty of just over 100 years ago.
In 1915 British diplomat Mark Sykes described to The Economist the battle underway in the Middle East. A few months later he carved up control of the region with his French counterpart Francois George Picot. The impact of that secret agreement is still being felt today.
A century later the artificial borders drawn by British and French Diplomats, which betrayed all their erstwhile friends, are still causing conflict. Only the names have changed, and the weapons are more sophisticated.
Perhaps the best borders are not drawn by rulers, as is evident by looking at the Sykes-Picot secret treaty, but by blood and local self-determination. If this is Trump’s real plan, then hats off to him, as this is one conflict which would be better handled by the UN – by either correcting the borders by diplomacy, or just stepping aside and letting the locals fight it out, and settle matters between themselves.
At least the Kurds now stand a fighting chance, having been trained and equipped by the US. Large numbers of people in each of the neighbouring countries, especially Turkey, have bled long enough that they might just be willing to allow some Kurdish entity to be established in what is now a potential long-term free-fire zone.
Trump says “we are getting out and getting out smart,” as we have been hearing from the time of Afghanistan. But now he also says “I never said I’m getting out tomorrow …. We want to protect the Kurds, nevertheless. We want to protect the Kurds, but I don’t want to be in Syria forever.”
It is little wonder that Israel is the country most concerned by this policy shift, as it wants the world to believe that Iran will use the opportunity to come rolling in, and Israelis will be facing a combination of Syrian and alleged terrorist groups in the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly pleaded with Trump to reconsider the decision, not only because of the potential security issues but because it will have a political impact on the besieged Israeli PM.
However, that is a moot issue for the most part, as Trump has to cater to his own base of supporters, core Republican voters and those who hated Hillary and her warmongering policies—including many Bernie Saunders voters, who voted for the lesser of two evils—as that is what put Trump in the White House and allowed him to keep many of his campaign promises.
Iranian Aggression [alleged]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reassured a worried Netanyahu that the planned withdrawal of US ground forces from Syria will not alter America’s commitment to “countering [alleged] Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.”
Obama prolonged the war, destroying not only Syria but dragging in other countries to clean up the mess. Killing thousands while offering no replacement option to Assad, if the US holds true to its promise, then other countries will have to pick up the slack, and don’t look to Iran, Turkey or Russia to come to the rescue.
In the final analysis, however, Trump fully understands that the US had no legal right whatsoever to be in Syria (and in many other countries too) – a topic that does not usually get discussed by the sabre-rattling pundits.
The timing is perfect for President Trump; it is as if he is a genius—someone who can examine the war in Syria and factor in all the potential costs, not only in human terms but the financial bottom line as well.
We should not forget that regardless of what claims Trump has made, it appears that that he is actually willing to take a back off and “wait and see” – and if conditions would merit– any future interventions would be launched from the territory of Iraq. However we should forget that what Trump says is one thing but what happens on the ground, the lag time, is another.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.