In the days immediately following Donald Trump’s announcement on 13 October that he had ordered the withdrawal of the contingent of approximately 1,500 U.S. special forces stationed in the Kurdish controlled territory of northeast Syria bordering on Turkey, I understood that this momentous decision deserved close analysis and comment. However, I held back, because the President’s previous attempt to extricate the United States forces from the Syrian conflict dating from December 2018 had yielded only modest results following fierce criticism from the Pentagon including the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis, fierce criticism from Congress on both sides of the aisle and from the mass media. This time I would wait till the dust settled before issuing any pronouncements, I told myself.
But the fact is that dust does not settle in Syria. There are too many parties intervening in the eight year long civil war there and these parties, with their contradictory interests, kick up storms in the desert that have repeatedly dimmed our vision and militated against drawing final conclusions on winners and losers from the conflict. Moreover, the same may be said of the political civil war raging in the United States between the centrists of both dominant parties and the Trump Republicans. In this ‘no holds barred’ wrestling and kickboxing match, the issue of countering Russian and Iranian influence in Syria is one of the several vital interests in play.
Indeed, as has become clear in the last few days, at the insistence of the Pentagon and of its cheerleaders in the political establishment, a group of US troops estimated to number 150 has reportedly been left behind at an oil field near the Euphrates within the Kurdish region. Their mission, according to Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is to guard the field and prevent its seizure by Islamic State militants. That, of course, is double-talk. The obvious reason is to ensure that this asset does not return to the control of the legitimate government of Syria in Damascus, and so to enforce the economic stranglehold that the United States and its allies have from the beginning of the conflict sought to impose in order to realize regime change.
Be that as it may, in this essay we will look at the developments in Syria over the past month as they bear on our appraisal of one person, Donald Trump, who, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been at the eye of the storm.
This latest political firestorm in the United States over Syria policy began a week earlier than the announcement of any troop withdrawal, on 7 October to be precise, shortly after the contents of a telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Erdogan became public knowledge. In effect, Trump was accused of giving a “green light” to the impending Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, which, as Erdogan had stated in the preceding several days, was meant to achieve several strategic objectives and would be pursued whatever the US or other powers thought of the matter. Firstly, it was tasked with sealing the Syrian border along the roughly 100 km stretch in the northeast where a de facto autonomous Kurdish region had been established with the help of the Americans. For the US, the Kurdish dominated Syrian Defense Forces were their ‘boots on the ground’ in the fight against the Islamic State. For the Turks, these same forces were viewed as collaborators with PKK Kurdish fighters on the Turkish side of the border, who have been foes of the Ankara regime since the 1980s and are labeled as terrorists. The second objective was to create a ‘’safe zone’’ under Turkish control extending 30 km inside Syria where two million of the three million plus refugees now living in Turkey might be resettled.
When the Turks lost no time responding to Trump’s “green light” and sent their troops into Syria, Western media was waiting on both sides of the border– to document loss of life among civilians, other evidence of brutality and the flight of more than 100,000 civilians from their homes to leave the war zone.
All of this media attention was in support of political posturing on Capitol Hill in Washington, in the European Parliament and in the capitals of several major Member States. The “authoritarian” Turkish regime was denounced. Quite extraordinarily, calls went up for an arms embargo on this NATO member and for imposition of sanctions. The US Congress led the way, and in what might be construed as damage control by the White House, President Trump on his own imposed personal sanctions on Turkish officials deemed to play key roles in the incursion.
Meanwhile, the criticism of Erdogan was not nearly so harsh and openly insulting as that directed against President Donald Trump. He was universally vilified in US and European media for his “betrayal” of the Kurdish allies, for putting in question the value of US security guaranties in general. Another line of attack was on the supposed capriciousness of policy-making under Trump, his unpredictable nature which undermines national security.
One might wonder whether the media barrage directed against Trump really influences public opinion of the Chief Executive. I firmly believe that it does, if we speak of the well-educated middle-classes on both continents. The media provide the arguments against Trump which fit very nicely with the predisposition towards Liberal, anti-Trump politics of these folks.
As a straw in the wind, I quote here from an email I received a few days after the start of the Turkish incursion from one new acquaintance, a retired European diplomat who could not contain his outrage over the behavior of the incumbent of the White House:
I am no fan of President Trump. Here are some reasons why not.
- He is in the business of destroying everything he can lay his hands on while not offering valid alternatives
- He never consults anybody before taking the rashest decisions: the latest example is the unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Northeast Syria last week for which he is blamed by both parties in Congress
- I abhor his daily tweets attacking people who simply disagree with him. In the same vein, I dislike his disparaging language against any imagined or real opponent when on the stump. Examples abound.
- Trump is no friend of alliances and allies. He prefers acting alone like a wannabe autocrat and not as the elected leader of one of the most democratic countries in the world.
Of course, all of this rant could have been clipped from The Washington Post at any time during the past few weeks and for many months earlier.
Speaking in his own defense over what he did or did not do with the Turks and with the Kurds just after the Turkish armed incursion, Trump called his actions a “brilliant strategy” that prevented the unthinkable – armed clashes between two NATO countries on the ground in Syria. He quickly claimed that the United States would punish Turkey severely if it crossed certain red lines in the conduct of its campaign, and he sent his Vice President Pence to Turkey to enter into talks that resulted in a temporary cease-fire. Following that success, Trump lifted the sanctions he had imposed.
This small amelioration of the situation was followed by something totally outside the control of the Americans and far more consequential: the 22 October meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin in Sochi which lasted six hours, two of which were strictly tête-à-tête, and ended in a detailed agreement on joint Russian-Turkish supervision of the withdrawal of Kurdish armed units from the delimited border area followed by joint patrols. This was widely seen in the American and European media as establishing Russia as the power broker in Syria and in the broader Middle East, for better or for worse replacing the United States in that role.
In effect, Trump’s peremptory order for the Americans to clear out just ahead of any Turkish advance resulted in initial abandonment of camps that were immediately overrun by the Syrian army and Russian military police. Russian television triumphantly carried images of their boys finding caches of Coca Cola and other booty left behind by the Americans in flight. Other images showed the departed American military convoys being pelted with tomatoes by the Arab villagers. These videos were replayed on Western channels.
For the American political establishment, the Turks would have to pay a price for precipitating this turn of events in their back yard, which compounds their prior still unpunished offense of completing their purchase of Russian S400 missile defense systems in the face of stern warnings from Washington. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress has put up legislation entailing economic and military punishment. It also voted to characterize as genocide the Ottoman repressions against the Armenians more than a century ago, a measure with few practical consequences but seen as a slap in the face to the Turkish regime.
At the same time, there is little to suggest that Republican dissatisfaction with Trump’s behavior in Syria has impacted his overall level of political support in their ranks. In the vote in the House yesterday over procedures for impeachment, not a single Republican Representative defected from the party line backing Trump against the Democrats. That kind of party discipline is “awesome” in American parlance and shows up the daily articles in The Washington Post on one or another Republican’s discomfort with Trump to be nothing more than editorial wishes rather than proper reporting.
Notwithstanding my acquaintance’s suggestion that the latest American withdrawal came out of the blue and was symptomatic of Trump’s capriciousness, it was nothing more than a resumption of the pullout that Trump had called for in December 2018 which in turn was simply the realization of one of his campaign pledges in 2016: to extricate the United States from the many ongoing wars initiated by his two immediate predecessors.
Given the fierce opposition Trump faced following his December 2018 announcement of plans to leave Syria, it was easy for him and his advisers to foresee the bitter reaction his new withdrawal orders would touch off. The only possible explanations for his action are two: stupidity or courage. I do not for a second hesitate to choose the second explanation, which, strangely we hear very little about even from the antiwar activists who say they approve of this withdrawal.
That leaves me with the other fundamental accusations brought against Trump by my acquaintance and by his detractors in the media: his dislike for alliances, which he is destroying in various ways and his seeming lack of an alternative vision for the world order. Dealing with these matters, I think we can dispose very nicely of the notion that Trump is witless.
Going back to his earliest days in office, in early 2017 I remarked that Henry Kissinger’s “fingerprints” seemed to be all over the national security doctrine that the Trump administration had released. Readers of my essay on the subject accused me of placing too much emphasis on the choice of words and ignoring the actions of the administration, which in many ways seemed to be a continuation of the Obama policies, particularly as regards Russia.
Into the spring of 2017, Henry Kissinger was visibly at Trump’s side on a number of public events. He has since virtually disappeared from view. And yet, the underlying principles of Realism as set out in Kissinger’s master work Diplomacy (1994) are to be seen today in the deeds of Mr. Trump, none more so than in his rejecting any moral obligations to the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria and pursuing strictly American interests in getting out of the Syrian quagmire and letting others, who have greater national interests, pursue it to the end without us.
Though he is no idiot, Trump is also no genius. His verbal abilities are very limited. And yet, he seems to have understood perfectly well Kissinger’s point that balance of power, as practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a perfectly valid concept for conducting foreign policy today, whatever the likes of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and their intellectual guru Joseph Nye, author of “soft power” may have thought.
Indeed, I am willing to give Trump credit for having understood that alliances like NATO should be wound down precisely to allow nations to regroup periodically for the sake of balance of power. He may even have fathomed that the onset of WWI was facilitated by the division of the major powers into two blocs that were hostage to the military technology of their day, a kind of deus ex machina that resembles our own in 2019. All of this could be learned in Kissinger’s book of 1994 if Trump ever opened it, or more likely from the author himself during their several meetings.
Of course, it would be preferable if we did not have to speculate on what exactly Trump has in mind. But that he has something in mind, and that it serves our purposes of cutting back on U.S. armed interventions around the world, remains unquestionable.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2019