Some issues cannot wait. I planned to continue my writing on the splits within the British Left, but focusing on the cultural divide rather than the debate over Brexit. However, Friday we were hit by the political storm responding to Donald Trump’s twitter announcement that America would be withdrawing approximately 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in northeastern Syria. “When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
Ignore the calumny against the Obama regime for now. The historical series of events and the situation on the ground will be dealt with in a future blog. Trump’s announcement was followed by the subsequent resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis and the State Department coordinator of U.S. anti-Islamic strategy, Brett McGurk. Just weeks earlier, the latter had insisted, contrary to Trump, that “nobody is declaring a mission accomplished,” namely, that ISIS had been “largely defeated.” Like many others, I have been preoccupied with the decision over the last few days, though, as you will see, the decision was not as precipitous as has widely been reported.
Part of that preoccupation concerns apocalyptic thinking that often accompanies Trump’s moves. This was certainly no exception. The announcement was greeted as the final spike in the international liberal order built with so much diplomatic craftsmanship in the decades since WWII. That order has been unravelling, especially during the Trump administration. However, this move seems to have rendered it asunder.
My eldest son, Jeremy, has a forthcoming article in the magazine Aeon called “Catastrophe: What Does it Mean to Write Histories of the End?” It is primarily about the narrative of global economic integration and the vision of “one world connectivity and technocratic togetherness” and how that vision has been rent since 2008. Collapse. Extinction. Gloom. Dysphoria rather than euphoria. These are typical responses to the cascade of events since 2008. The response to Trump’s decision fits into the stream of fear and distress that underpins apocalyptic thought in contrast to narratives of hope and promise which focus on a new world order arising as a phoenix out of the ashes of the old order. The fear is that we will only be left with ashes and no resurrection whatsoever.
The irony is that it has been the populists who heretofore have been the prime purveyors of the doomsday narrative. Now, though the liberals and progressives received a brief reprieve with the midterm elections, the music of a dirge once again fills the air just beneath the joyous sounds of Christmas. The “oy” undermines the “joy” the more that picture of unmediated and contending forces clashing in the dark becomes dominant.
Even in a not-very-good movie, Mary Queen of Scots, quite aside from the historical liberties taken in the film, the dominant motif is one of two Queens with every intention of bringing peace but unable to resist the dominant forces that propel the two nations towards conflict and violence. Diplomacy fails. A queen has her head severed. War ensues. The Kurds had insisted that it was America’s “duty to prevent any attack and to put an end to Turkish threats,” but Trump seems to have no sense of any American obligation to others. That attack on the Kurds by Turkey now seems inevitable.
Intractable, incompatible. Zero-sum games. This is the world of Donald Trump. Nativists in general, about whom I still plan to write re Britain and France, view globalism and interdependence as a trajectory of disaster. As much as progressives resist adopting such an outlook, it percolates beneath the flesh so that liberals scratch instead of think, tremble instead of responding with determination, or else, seem undercut immediately after expressing a renewal of hope. Disaster results when leaders cannot get their act together and prevent the onset of a catastrophe. Is there a realistic prospect of finding a route out of the valley of death that Syria has come to symbolize?
I want to set aside the outlandish way a major foreign policy shift took place, especially one with such historical and geo-political significance, quite aside from the uproar within Washington and particularly within the Republican Party. Trump’s announcement and the response stood in such sharp contrast to the way the biblical Joseph with the subtlest diplomacy reconciled with his brothers and set in place the foundations for the unity of the Israelites, one with many cross-cutting divisions and splits, but a unity nevertheless. Trump’s announcement has been the very opposite, deepening and multiplying divisions, not only in America but throughout the world.
I begin with Israel from where I received Rabbi Dow Marmur’s blog this morning. It is entitled, “DON’T TRUST THE GREAT.” One can view the screed as another installment of Dow smiling as he paints a picture of pessimism while always offering a rhetorical glimmer of hope at the end. This time, instead of the smile of a Cheshire cat, we see gloating permeating the writing. After all, Netanyahu bet on Trump, bet on the Republicans. Given Israeli intelligence rather than any advanced notice, Netanyahu, reportedly, had tried strenuously to change Donald Trump’s mind before the latter sent out his tweet thrusting the Israeli Prime Minister back on his tuchus.
This morning, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, from the right-wing Jewish Home Party, had to fall back on a weak response: the move was “certainly not a good thing, does not help Israel.” This was a mild prognosis to say the least. Shaked insisted that Israel would still be capable of defending itself. This anemic reply from such a normally powerful speaker, one who was absolutely bubbly when Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the American embassy there, is now viewed by Likud and right-wing supporters as strengthening the “antisemitic war criminal, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
Does it matter whether the Trump administration is “the friendliest administration there’s ever been” if Trump’s move opened a land bridge for Iran to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon and even send “volunteers” to Israel’s border? What a feeble, impuissant response by Shaked! An unnamed Israeli official in the Department of Foreign Affairs was blunter: “Trump threw us under the wheels of the semi-truck of the Russian army, the one that transfers weapons to Syria and Hezbollah.”
The move ran totally opposite to John Bolton’s promise a few months ago that U.S. troops would remain in Syria as long as Iranian forces were there. Only a few days ago, John Bolton was quoted in the New York Times: “we’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” including Iranian proxies and militias.” (That is, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite forces)
As Marmur wrote, Trump has been fickle, ignorant and unreliable, and even the right-wing press in Israel vociferously denounced the move.
- Shimon Shiffer of Yediot Achronot: “Trump is now responsible for abandoning Israel which has to face Iranian aggression in the region alone. As long as Russia is the region’s boss and there is no American deterrence in Syria, what is to prevent Iran and its heavily armed sidekick Hezbollah from turning the Syrian side of the Golan Heights into a military outpost?”
- On the Kurds: “The American move points to Washington’s weakness, and perhaps even a betrayal of its allies. The Kurds in Syria are the first to be affected by the decision, for by pulling out of Syria, the US is essentially spilling the blood of allies who helped liberate swathes of the country from IS.”
- Jonathan Tobin of JNS Daily Syndicate: “A Syria pullout is incompatible with the goal of ending the threat from ISIS and Iran. Until Trump understands that – and the unfortunate consequences of this decision may teach him a lesson his advisors apparently couldn’t impart to him – there’s no use pretending that ‘America First’ isn’t a pale imitation of Obama’s flawed foreign policy.”
- Sarah Stern of The Endowment for Middle East Truth: “moral beacons do not desert their friends…This precipitous exit can only come from someone who lacks even the most fundamental understanding of the nature of the Middle East, as well as the psychology of some of the actors.”
However, and ironically, some on the left welcomed Trump’s initiative. Michael Brenner in his blog, while acknowledging the incoherence, the obscurity and the illogic of Trump’s move, in his typical contrarian voice took on the critics. He questioned even the imperative to suppress ISIS on the rationale that if they are not defeated over there, they will come to America and repeat the terrorism of 9/11. For Brenner, ISIS lacks both the capacity and the intention; it is a myth that they still command 20,000 fighters.
In any case, building an oppressive caliphate in the Middle East does not pose a military threat to the U.S. ISIS may inspire. ISIS may abet. But Islamicist terrorists are mostly born or raised in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Further, terrorists do not need to control turf to commit their heinous acts. For Brenner, the issue is not whether ISIS has or has not been defeated, but whether ISIS poses a direct threat to the U.S. He declared that it did not.
On Jake Trapper on CNN this morning, Paul Rand in his support of Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal echoed the view that withdrawal was long overdue. Under the water and in the air, America has enough of too much fire power to pulverize the terrorists if they regroup. American troops on the ground, even if only as Special Forces to backstop and train the Kurds, provide a stimulus to create more Islamist terrorists against the U.S.
In any case, Brenner contended that American policy-makers were hypocrites for the U.S. failed to target terrorists in Syria who were more directly a threat to the U.S. – Al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham concentrated in Idlib province – simply because they were enemies of Assad. The U.S. even supplied these so-called “moderates” with arms. Americans were self-contradictory in another dimension. The American military never tried to destroy the source of wealth for the terrorists, namely the oil fields they controlled or the transport trucking that oil to nearby safe havens.
Then, Turkey is purportedly an ally of America and a member of NATO. Yet Turkey has been the incubator for ISIS in the effort to weaken the Kurds. The Kurdish YPG forces have served as America’s boots on the ground to occupy Raqqa, expand south and southeast to capture and control territory from ISIS and prevent Assad from taking over. But the YPG has its own agenda, not simply to re-establish an autonomously Kurdish controlled territory in Syria’s north and east, but to link up with the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq and, according to Erdoğan, also to join with and support the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, in Turkey, named by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, while Erdoğan harasses and persecutes all Kurds in Turkey.
Turkey has openly declared that it wants to conquer, control and even annex a part of Syria along its border. Iran wants a land route through Syria to Lebanon as well as to expand its influence in Syria and Iraq, even as Iran has actually reduced its military presence in Syria. The withdrawal benefits Turkey in its long war with the Kurds. Trump’s announcement, however, not only abandons the Kurds to their own fate, but also seems to betray its ally Saudi Arabia, which is a sworn enemy of Turkey. Turkey wants to push the terrible embarrassment inflicted on the Saudis over the murder of Khashoggi and get the Saudi regime to lift its blockade of Qatar as well as have the Saudis pay a huge ransom to Turkey for ending the drip drip of terrible evidence on the murder. In return for the American withdrawal, did Trump get Erdoğan to commit to future silence on MBS?
Israel loses. The Kurds lose. The EU, particularly the UK and France, also both lose for, although very minor players, they were allied with the U.S. in backstopping the Kurds and now insist they will stay, but that is akin to saying that all the ants do not have to be eliminated for the Russians, Iranians, Turks and Syrians to enjoy a picnic. The Republican neo-cons, the centrists and the interventionist liberals with their bleeding hearts for the Kurds, all lose. Iran gains, if only because America has withdrawn as a threat to the Syrian regime which Iran supports. Turkey gains. Most of all, Russia gains because, without firing a shot, America has left the battlefield to allow Russia to solidify its control over its Syrian satrap.
Further, Putin, since his successful venture into Syria to prop up the Assad regime in 2015, now acquires even more leverage over Israel. He can now resist Israeli airstrikes against his Syrian allies in the Assad regime, not only by upgrading Syrian air defences with Russian-manned S-300 batteries, but can now draw a red line that any further direct attack on air defences in Syria will entail a direct clash with the Russians. Russia ran circles around American policy in Syria. The withdrawal of the 2,000 troops is simply an open acknowledgement of defeat that retaining a foothold cannot disguise.
The reality is that after this long seven year very destructive civil war, the Syrians themselves have perhaps the most to lose from the American withdrawal. Russia, Iran and Turkey together do not have the funds to rebuild the devastated infrastructure. The West will not, leaning on the stated policy that help will only be forthcoming if Assad leaves. That is definitely not going to happen now. Assad will gain because he and his henchmen will escape being tried by the international court for war crimes. The Syrian refugees will lose because the monies to rebuild and re-establish themselves in Syria will be sorely lacking.