Despite the criticism, there is a strong argument that the US president has done the right thing by withdrawing his forces from Syria
If 700 days out of US President Donald Trump’s 1,461 days of presidency seem a wasteland of unfulfilled promises and expectations in foreign policy – except, perhaps, on the Korean Peninsula – things dramatically changed on December 19 when he announced the troop withdrawal from Syria.
Taken together with Washington’s hurry to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, it appears that Trump is, finally, on the move as a man of peace, fulfilling the pledge of Candidate Trump to prioritize nation-building over extravagant military adventures in faraway lands.
Admittedly, Trump is still a quintessential “outsider” in the Washington Beltway, but then, he also enjoys the backing of a good majority of the American people who are tired of the United States’ endless wars abroad. And that becomes a decisive factor in Trump’s political calculus. This is one thing.
A proxy war
Indeed, a coalition of disgruntled elements and assorted interest groups is forming to debunk Trump. Simply put, they are unhappy that the US military is pulling out of Syria. For many, a gravy train is running while for some others, the issue is Trump – not even Syria.
For the Cold Warriors in the strategic community, Syria is a proxy war against Russia.
Evidently, there is a sophistry in their campaign against Trump’s decision. Principally, three phony arguments are being advanced – that Trump’s decision “baffles” the United States’ allies; that he has thrown the Kurds under the bus; and that a US pullout from Syria harms the anti-ISIS fight.
To take the last argument first – what will be the impact on the Syrian situation? To be sure, ISIS is down, but not quite out. But then, ISIS is today only residual terrorism, after the huge defeat in Iraq.
At any rate, the brunt of the fight against the ISIS was borne by the Syrian government forces and their allies – remember Aleppo? Their grit to finish the job has never been in doubt and there is no reason to fear any let-up.
In fact, their interest lies in stabilizing the security situation in the quickest possible way so the political process leading to a post-conflict Syrian order can be speeded up.
Ironically, the departure of the US forces could help matters, since in many ways the US military presence only impeded the anti-ISIS fight in Syria. It is well known that terrorist groups took shelter in the US-led security zones in eastern Syria.
The Al-Tanf base and its 50-square-kilometer security perimeter was only the most glaring example. Again, the “no-fly zones” prevented Syrian and Russian jets from hunting down the ISIS cadres and de facto amounted to US air cover for terrorists.
Succinctly put, the Americans are laboring under an illusion that they alone “won” the war against the ISIS in Syria, or Iraq. This illusion must be purged.
No, without the 2,000 American troops, Syria isn’t about to collapse like a sack of potatoes or become the revolving door for international terrorists. Trust the Russians and Iranians to eliminate the scourge of terrorism from Syrian soil, because it directly affects their own national security.
Therefore, isn’t it the smart thing to do to let “others” do the job, as Trump put it? However unpalatable the thought might be, a tragedy like the attack on the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 is waiting to happen in Syria once the Turkish military crushes and scatters the Kurdish militia, leaving the 2,000 US troops stranded like sitting ducks in 12 bases in the middle of nowhere spread over a vast territory about one-third the size of all Syria.
Wouldn’t Trump know he’s skating on thin ice? For if body bags were to come home, the political cost would be his – not Mattis’.
Equally, Trump can no longer take for granted the Saudi willingness generously to bankroll the United States’ war in Syria, especially if the self-styled humanists on the Hill proceed with their foreign-policy agenda to wreak vengeance on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. You can’t have the cake and eat it too, can you?
The ground reality is that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan have exited the Syrian conflict. Egypt has no stomach to get involved and Turkey, of course, has turned hostile. So who are these “allies” that the agitated folks in the US are talking about? The frank answer is: a clutch of British and French operatives and a horde of Western mercenaries. Isn’t this a macabre joke?
The Americans have been acting as “spoilers” in Syria, locked in a geopolitical struggle that has very little to do with fighting terrorism and has only impeded the stabilization of the Syrian situation. Thus it is no coincidence that Trump unveiled his considered decision just as the announcement was made in Geneva that the pan-Syrian committee for the drafting of a new constitution has been set up, which will work under United Nations supervision to galvanize a political process leading to elections and the formation of a new government enjoying the mandate of the people.
Turkey and the Kurds
Finally, the Kurdish factor. The alliance with the Kurdish militia in Syria has severely damaged US-Turkish relations. Turkey will never allow the creation of a Kurdish homeland on its borders, and it has a congruence of interests with Iraq and Iran – and even Syria – in this regard.
On the other hand, without a strong partnership with Turkey, a “swing” state overlooking several regions, American strategies not only in the Greater Middle East but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Caucasus will be at a serious disadvantage. Now, is that something the US can afford?
The US has done a great injustice to the Kurds by giving them false hopes. Leave them alone. They will reconcile with Damascus, availing of the good offices of Russians who have dealt with them from time immemorial.
Plainly put, the Pentagon’s trainers and Special Forces “embedded” with Kurdish men and women fighters helped develop romantic notions of creating an independent country for their partners. This should never have happened.
M.K.Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the ‘Indian Punchline’ blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.