First, the (mostly) good news: President Trump appears poised, finally, to end the US military mission in Northeast Syria. The move would constitute the first actual follow-through on the promises of candidate Trump to avoid "stupid" and terminate "endless" Mideast wars. That’s no small thing. Furthermore, while the outcome in Syria is likely to be messy, if not tragic, I’ve long argued for an end to America’s ill-advised, all risk no reward, quagmire in Syria. With Assad – thanks to ample backing from Iran and Russia – victorious in the long civil war, the US military tenuously ensconced in Northeast Syria without true congressional authorization, and Washington’s mission more muddled than ever, it’s become increasingly unclear what some 1,000 troops can reasonably hope to accomplish in the war-torn country.
Nevertheless, the way the mission appears to be ending promises great (if ultimately unavoidable) human suffering, especially for Syria’s Kurdish minority. Specifically, Trump has sold out his Kurdish partners, the main ground force that defeated the territorial Islamic State from 2014-19, suffering some 11,000 battle deaths in the process. It’s not just that the US military is leaving, but Washington has veritably green-lighted an impending Turkish Army and Air Force invasion of Northeast Syria. The result will be war – since the courageous Kurds are unlikely to back down – slaughter, potential ethnic cleansing, and perhaps even the resurgence of ISIS during the inevitable tumult.
The Turks are led by an authoritarian strongman, and Trump amigo, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers Washington’s allied Kurdish militiamen to be both "terrorists" and an existential threat to his country. Both are wild overstatements. Regardless, in a predictable bit of Trumpian "telephone" diplomacy, the US president apparently sanctioned the invasion during a call with Erdogan – who, if Egypt’s President Sisi constitutes Trump’s “favorite dictator,” must count as Trump’s favorite almost-dictator. Not only did Trump approve the illegal invasion, but he even agreed to pull US troops out of the way and promised no American actions in the area. Erdogan must have been thrilled. The Kurds…not so much.
Personally, I think it just as well that the US military get out of a risky morass in yet another fractured Mideast country. That said, this latest in a long line of American betrayals (often of Kurds), demonstrates the broader tragedy of US imperialism and hyper-interventionism. Time and again, Washington has used and abused it’s "partners" on the ground in the Mideast locales it regularly invades and occupies. Consider America, then, the ultimate fair-weather friend.
Consider just a few examples of how the US – long before Emperor Trump took office – has blown-up Mideast societies like the proverbial bull in a china shop, then sold out its local "friends." In 1991, after expelling Saddam Hussein’s Army from Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush encouraged oppressed southern Shia and northern Kurds to rebel. When they did, he promptly abandoned them to their fate. The uprisings were crushed; thousands died. That wasn’t even the first betrayal of the Kurds – the world’s largest stateless community – by Uncle Sam. Lest we forget that Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had backed Saddam during his terror war on Iran, and not only looked the other way, but helped pick targets, as the Iraqi dictator poison gassed a Kurdish village in 1988.
In the wake Bush-the-younger’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq – the gold standard of regime change folly – Washington remained idle as all state functions collapsed, looting ran rampant, and the economy went into free-fall. "Stuff happens," is all Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld had to say about the looting, adding, though, that democracy is "untidy." How comforting. The US then dismantled the entire Iraqi Army and kicked tens of thousands of other Sunnis out of their government jobs. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were unemployed, many of whom lost their pensions. The results: sectarian civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, the empowerment of Iran’s position in the country, and Washington backing a chauvinist Shia regime in Baghdad.
To bring spiraling violence to a manageable level, to enable the US military to declare victory and withdraw, Uncle Sam then funded and armed a Sunni militia to fight more extreme Al Qaeda-linked insurgents. Once the US hit the exits, however, the Shia government predictably quit paying the militiamen, oppressed everyday Sunni citizens, and massacred protesters. The result this time: the rise of Islamic State like a mythical Phoenix from the ashes of the US invasion and destruction of Iraq. Oh, by the way, Bush, then Obama, and finally Trump, denied asylum to thousands of interpreters who had risked their lives working with the US military. Much of the same unfolded in Afghanistan.
What’s likely to transpire, as a result of this latest betrayal, is that the Kurds will reach out to Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus regime (and by extension to Russia and Iran). That’s not such a bad thing. A better solution than keeping the U.S. military in place indefinitely or enabling a Turkish terror invasion, and one which Trump could totally apply, is to strike a deal between Erdogan and Assad. As such the US would recognize that Assad is, for better or worse, the sovereign ruler of Syria, that President Obama never had a right to permanently carve out any sort of fiefdom in part of that country, and to try to assuage Turkey’s “Kurdish problem,” without sanctioning an illegal invasion. Now that means dealing with plenty of nefarious actors, and sure the beltway elite will cry foul, but it’s also inevitable if the US is to avoid a permanent military presence and simultaneously avoid a new Turk-Kurd bloodbath in the area.
Unfortunately, that seems unlikely, precisely because it’s so logical. Instead, I fear we’re in for a new conflagration; this time as macabre voyeurs on the sidelines. As for the Kurds, consider the latest betrayal in Northeast Syria to be at least the third American sellout of these stateless, at-risk people. It’s unlikely to be the last. None of that should be taken to imply the US should remain in Syria indefinitely – although that’s precisely what the neocon/neolib media and intelligence apparatus now clamors for – but is a reminder of the "blowback" associated with US militarism, imperialism, and hasty interventionism.
Given the context, and the recent history, it’s amazing that anyone still falls for American promises. Sadly, that some do is a reflection of their utter desperation. Say what you will about Russian President Vladimir Putin or Iran’s Ayatollahs – I’ve no particular love for either – but at least they stand by their man, in this case Bashar al-Assad. That’s more than any recent US proxy in the Greater Middle East – save Israel and Saudi Arabia – can say. My advice to the various peoples of the region: next time, and there will be a next time, don’t even consider trusting Uncle Sam. You’ll thank me later…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen