I’m taking a break from heavy blogging but I’m not dead, and so I have some preliminary thoughts about Donald Trump’s announcement today that the US is pulling its forces out of Syria (or is going to pull them out of Syria, or considering pulling them out of Syria, or something–the Trump administration, like Syria, is a land of contrasts).
- This is the right thing to do (maybe “right outcome” is a better way to put it) though it is almost certainly being done for the wrong reasons and probably in the wrong way (see below, and also see Mitchell Plitnick at LobeLog, who I think does a very good job of expressing this sentiment). US forces have no legal right to be in Syria in the first place. Congress didn’t vote on the deployment, and while we’ve gotten to the point where we just let the president do whatever the hell he likes when it comes to war-making, it’s not supposed to be that way under the Constitution and it’s incredibly dangerous that we (well, mostly Congress) allowed it to get to this point. And I know we make fun of “international law” around here a fair bit, but the United States waves it around like a club when it serves our interests. Setting a good example by actually following it every once in a while wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
- Also too, the administration has no coherent long-term mission for those soldiers–or at least not one it can talk about openly. Right now they’re supposedly there to help the Syrian Democratic Forces finish off ISIS. Later they’ll be there to make sure ISIS doesn’t come back. That’s about 6 months, maybe a year. After that, what’s the mission? Of course we know what the mission really is, and it has nothing to do with ISIS. Those soldiers are squatting in eastern Syria because having them there increases the potential for a war with Iran. Removing them should therefore lower that potential a bit, which is good.
- Pulling US forces out of Syria might also force Turkey, Russia, and Iran to face up to the fact that they all disagree on what to do in Syria in ways large and small. Now that they don’t all have opposition to the US driving their respective Syria policies, those disagreements are likely to emerge. And since those disagreements are hampering efforts to finally end the civil war, confronting them would probably be a good thing.
- In making his announcement Trump said that ISIS has been completely defeated in Syria. It hasn’t been. I don’t offer that as a judgment on this decision one way or the other. It just hasn’t been. It’s not a serious threat anymore, but it’s still there. Trump could’ve made this announcement three months ago because very little has changed in that time as far as ISIS’s status.
- Yes, the Kurds are screwed, and yes, as a human being the possible onset of another Turkish ethnic cleansing campaign in northern Syria is appalling to me. But if the US must stay in Syria to protect the Kurds, why mustn’t it invade Myanmar to protect the Rohingya, or Iran to protect the Bahai, or Ukraine to protect the Roma, or Sri Lanka to protect Muslims and Tamils, or…well, you get the idea. Yeah, we’re already in Syria, but we’ve got no more right to be there than any of those other places.
- The Kurds were always going to be screwed in precisely this way. The only question was timing. This is the 1991 Kurdish uprising in Iraq all over again. We rallied the Kurds, encouraged them to rebel against Saddam Hussein, and then abandoned them when Hussein retaliated. Here we encouraged the YPG to fight ISIS for us, no doubt with promises of protection against Turkey and the Syrian government, and we’re abandoning them at our earliest convenience. This is just what the US does. And I would be stunned if the Kurds couldn’t see this move coming, especially since Trump has repeatedly threatened to do it. I can’t blame people for being upset about this part of the story, but it was inevitable.
- I don’t know what YPG leadership is doing right now but me personally, I would be on the phone with Bashar al-Assad. It’s the only move they have left to protect them from Turkey, and it’s a move they absolutely must make even if this troop withdrawal doesn’t actually happen (see below). And no Kurd should ever again believe a word the US government tells him or her. If the CIA shows up offering weapons and support if you just do this one teensy favor for America, run screaming in the other direction.
- It looks actually as though Trump’s announcement delayed Turkish plans to invade, which buys the YPG/PYD time to have some critical talks with both Assad’s government and the Russians.
- I’m not blaming the Kurds for accepting US aid back in the really dark days of the war. I’m not even blaming them for jumping on board with the “be our proxies against ISIS” plan when the US made the offer. The Kurds haven’t been purely heroic in this conflict, but they’re obviously the good guys here compared with ISIS. And they’re the ones getting screwed. I feel bad for them. I understand the anger people have over this, because it is a betrayal of an ally. Not just any ally but an ally that the US coaxed into the fight in the first place that, as it turns out, probably would have been better off staying out of it. But I am absolutely, 100 percent convinced that we were going to betray them anyway, and moreover I’m convinced that the Turkish government knew it. I just can’t subscribe to the theory that the US troop presence was saving the Kurds from ethnic cleansing. We did nothing in Afrin and assuming Turkey had invaded Rojava in the coming days we wouldn’t have done anything about that either. Hell, the fact that Trump made this announcement today should stand as proof that he wasn’t ever going to use US troops to defend the Kurds from a Turkish offensive.
- Also feeling screwed here, probably, is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted the US to permanently occupy Syria in order to keep Iran in check. My heart breaks for him. That said, if Netanyahu decides to act aggressively now to counter Iranian influence in his near abroad, that would definitely be a very bad thing.
- Likewise, if the Kurds turn to Assad now, as seems to me to be the only play they have to make, it increases the chances of a Turkey-Syria war breaking out. I don’t think Turkey would take it that far but the possibility is there. This is not an argument for leaving US troops in Syria. It is an argument for not withdrawing them on the spur of the moment because the President was suddenly feeling it today for whatever reason. A managed withdrawal would be the right thing to do. We might still get something like that, as the withdrawal isn’t happening tomorrow (see below), though I doubt it.
- European governments would do well to get on the horn with the YPG ASAP to talk about all the ISIS prisoners–many of them foreign fighters–the Syrian Democratic Forces have been rounding up. Because if the Turks do start attacking Rojava, I’m not sure what’s stopping the SDF from dropping all of those guys off at the Turkish border and telling them to go nuts. I suppose some of them might try to go back south and rejoin their comrades, but I have to believe that at least some would enter Turkey and maybe try to make their way back into Europe.
- Does this decision suggest that Trump doesn’t really care about confronting Iran as much as his advisers do? I guess–nobody could possibly care more about confronting Iran than John Bolton–but I think framing it this way gives Trump far too much credit for being able to consider all the ramifications of his decisions.
- Trump made this decision after talking on the phone with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Because that’s what he does. Since Trump has no grounding in the facts of any given policy and has no real tether to objective reality in general, he listens to whoever’s in his face at that moment and then reacts impulsively to whatever he just heard. It remains exceedingly dangerous to have somebody like that running a country with a military arsenal that could destroy human civilization with the push of a few buttons.
- The reason we know Trump made this decision impulsively after talking with Erdoğan is that it contradicts what nearly every senior figure in his national security team has been saying, as recently as earlier this week. He caught everybody in his own administration by surprise with this announcement.
- If Trump made this decision as part of a deal with Erdoğan to get off of Mohammad bin Salman’s back about the Jamal Khashoggi killing, then hoo boy, we are in for a rough next couple of years. If every time MBS fucks up–which seems to be at the rate of about once every two months these days–Trump is going to bend over backwards to cover his ass, that’s pretty grim. This is what I meant about “the wrong reasons” above.
- You’re going to hear a lot of Very Serious People talk about how Trump just gave away all the leverage the US had to influence postwar Syria. What they won’t say is that the US had next to no leverage before this, so it’s not giving up very much.
- You think Bolton can stay after this? I do. He’s a notorious bureaucratic ass kisser, despite the unhinged warmonger he portrays himself to be to the public.
Finally, I’m not actually sure this withdrawal is going to happen. I’m not predicting it won’t, but this reads like a catch to me:
If there’s anybody inside the Trump administration on the national security side above the mid-level staffer range who agrees with this decision I’d be stunned. And all the people who disagree with it could very well try to gaslight Trump about ISIS’s imminent threat 60 days from now. Meanwhile they can unleash Netanyahu to try to talk Trump out of it. Would they be able to pull it off? I don’t know. But I know they could. That possibility exists and isn’t terribly small. And what if Trump just, you know, changes his mind? It’s been known to happen. So I’ll believe this withdrawal is actually taking place when I see it.