See what happens when you don’t pay attention? I was happily writing a nostalgic Song of the Day posting, and upon finishing I tuned in to my beloved Nicolle Wallace at 4PM and – say again? Trump is withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria?
A very brief bit of background – and it’s hard to be brief with this twisted tale, but here goes. Syria’s awful civil war (and we’ll leave the particulars of how that was sparked for some other day) created chaos, and an opportunity for ISIS to move in and take control of large swaths of territory to form part of their supposed sovereign Caliphate. This Caliphate had early success, there and in Iraq, too, and a years-long campaign has been mounted to roll them back on all fronts.
The U.S. effort against ISIS in Syria, initiated by Obama and carried out largely unchanged under Trump, has been highly successful. A punishing air campaign in combination with the exertions of a few thousand troops, many of them very deadly special forces, have all but wiped ISIS out as any sort of effective fighting force and potential government. This has been achieved with a huge amount of help from America’s Kurdish allies, who are the most admirable and stalwart friends the U.S. has ever had in the Middle East, save Israel, and even that’s debatable. ISIS has thus been driven out of most of the areas it once controlled, having long since also been routed in Iraq, and what’s left of them, and there are still a lot of them, have largely gone to ground. The effort has shifted towards stabilizing former ISIS territory, and gathering in, training, and arming what reliable local allies can be found, and there’s been some success so far, especially in the ISIS Caliphate’s formerly proclaimed capital of Raqqa in the northeast.
The thing is, that’s great, but that doesn’t mean it’s over, so it’s time to go home. Some ISIS enclaves remain, and indeed there were over 200 air strikes against them just last week. Meanwhile, the problem has become the same one the Americans always face in these situations: U.S. forces have soundly whipped their enemies in anything approaching a stand-up fight, but the germ of an enemy force remains and must be continuously suppressed. It’s reckoned there may still be as many as 30,000 ISIS personnel out there, even while perhaps as many as 70,000 have been killed. Should the Americans pull out, declaring victory, those enemies will crawl back out of their spider holes, reconstitute themselves, and it all starts again. It takes many years to really stabilize territory over there, if you ever can at all – look at Iraq.
Meanwhile, the situation remains in flux. A lot has happened since Russia intervened on the Syrian Government’s side a few years ago (again, striving for brevity), but events swung decidedly in the Syrian dictator’s favour, and it’s ceased to be America’s articulated policy that Bashar Assad has to go. Instead, a sort of messy equilibrium has taken hold, and while the Syrian civil war isn’t over yet (though we seem never to hear about it any more), the U.S. is hoping for some sort of negotiated settlement down the road, while stabilizing the areas taken from ISIS, and holding out the prospect of reconstruction aid if a deal can be struck. It’s all very protracted and generally unsatisfactory, but objectively, much more than nothing has been achieved.
As it stands, then, U.S. forces are keeping a number of lids on rather a lot of boiling pots. Everybody has an agenda over there that makes Game of Thrones look about as frightening as Falcon Crest. Bashar Assad, for his part, would dearly love to roll back into former ISIS territory himself – a move that would be vastly pleasing to the Russians – but as things stand, he can’t. The Kurds are hoping to carve out their own little enclave in Northern Syria, along the Turkish border, an objective for which they have fought very hard, and sacrificed much. The Turks, who have had problems with native Kurds fighting for independence, and have always bitterly resisted any whiff of a separate Kurdish state, which might also cleave off parts of southern Turkey that are ethnically Kurdish, sincerely hope that all of the Kurds immediately drop dead. They’ve invaded parts of northern Syria to keep what they view as the worst from happening, but they can’t make a direct move to wipe out America’s allies. ISIS would like to make a comeback, but every time any of them sticks his head out of his hole, he gets hammered with a JDAM dropped from a B-1 that flew in all the way from Qatar just to kill him personally.
Here, this should give you some idea of the dog’s breakfast on the ground over there:
So, long story short, U.S. forces are acting as a bulwark against a lot of undesirable outcomes, while facilitating a certain chance of a long-term solution that’s better than the status quo. There’s only about 2,000 sets of boots on the ground, but they’re supported by massive firepower, and everybody’s learned the hard way that you can’t mess with them. Last February, a shadowy Russian mercenary force, not officially under Putin’s control, but what do you think, had a go at some U.S. special forces, and it didn’t go well. It was just a small American detachment, and something close to a full battalion attacked them, tanks and all, only to be savagely beaten back, losing hundreds to withering artillery barrages and air strikes. After roughly four hours they literally ran away, what was left of them. There were no U.S. casualties. “The Americans made their point”, the Russian commander is said to have radioed back to his superiors.
Clearly, U.S. forces are fully able to hang around just as long as it suits their leaders, and the question becomes, then, how long should that be? As long as it takes to leave the place better than they found it? Or at some fixed future date, consequences be damned? See, for other examples, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
So there it sits in all its ugly uncertainty. No argument, it’s a hell of a bind, one that many on the left will quite rightly claim is the product of a chain reaction that began with a botched invasion of Iraq, and has wound up here where we’re getting told, like we’re always told, that we can’t cut out now or things will go to hell. The result is another front in America’s “forever wars”, with no end in sight, and not enough progress being made. That’s all true. But there it sits. The trick to getting out of these quagmires is to not jump into them in the first place, and the boat sailed on that one 15 years ago under W. So what’s the best choice now, today, after all this has happened?
Still with me?
O.K., so given all this, what happens if Trump, as he has claimed, has really given the order that all American forces must leave the theatre at their earliest opportunity? That’s just it. Nobody knows. Maybe chaos. Maybe something swift, decisive, and horrible. Assad will most likely move in to fill the vacuum, assisted by the Russians, and try to take the former ISIS territory now being slowly stabilized by the U.S. The Kurds will probably be S.O.L. That would be a crying shame. It would also provide one more example, to anyone on the fence in any of the many war-torn regions where the West tries to tamp down the metastasizing terrorist threat, that America’s friendship is always temporary, and American promises count for little. God forbid, the Turks might actually kill the Kurds wholesale, an idea I might once have rejected out of hand, but with Erdogan getting ever more intoxicated on the delights of authoritarianism, I just don’t know. Any prospect for a future deal that might mitigate the severity of Assad’s reimposed rule over those who rebelled against him would appear to go right out the window too. Again, God forbid, Assad might resume his old, quasi-genocidal ways.
Who benefits in that case?
Putin and the Russians, certainly.
Iran, which also has ambitions and proxies in the region.
Turkey, which wants to put the boots to the poor Kurds.
ISIS, maybe – they’re on the ropes now, but Putin is deluding himself if he thinks that any combination of relatively meagre Russian and Syrian firepower can even begin to approximate the crushing, devastating, utterly horrifying hellfire that U.S. aircraft and guided artillery has rained down on the crazed jihadists. Those areas of “former ISIS control” might not stay quite so former.
This rancid laundry list of happy outcomes for this rogue’s gallery of bad actors is the desired product of U.S. foreign policy? How? Since when? We know that everybody in the American policy community, including those closest to Trump, have opposed this as powerfully as they can. We also can’t ever take it for granted that something Trump belches out in one of his tweets actually reflects what the policy decision will amount to, in the end. Mattis over at the Pentagon might find a way to make some withdrawals, keeping Donald happy, while keeping enough forces in theatre to keep playing the current U.S. role. I don’t think anybody, not even Mattis, Bolton, or Pompeo, actually knows at this point.
But if they’re not persuading Trump to do this, who is? It sure isn’t the Saudis, not this time – any opening created for Iran would be horrifying to the likes of MbS. Does the mysterious advisor, per chance, take holidays in his own version of Mara Lago, located on the Black Sea coast near the village of Praskoveevka in Gelendzhik, Krasnodar Krai? Or is it the guy whose office resides in a palace inside the Ataturk Forest Farm in Ankara?
Another thought occurs, conceivable only in Trumpistan: is it possible that Trump’s tweet means nothing at all, and this isn’t going to happen, and never was?
UPDATE: Since the time of writing it’s been revealed that Trump’s puppet master in this instance was Option #2, Turkey’s Erdogan. It really does appear at this juncture that the withdrawal will occur as ordered.