Donald Trump thinks he’s going to get rid of ISIS in Syria “quickly,” and then we’ll be on our way to making America great again – but already he’s finding that the terrain there is a bit crowded, and that he has a bit more than the fast-dissipating “Caliphate” to contend with.
According to reports, the Pentagon has come up with a plan to carry out Trump’s pledge, as ordered, but reality is racing ahead of the generals – and auguring a clash of civilizations in the midst of Syria’s blasted out cities.
The plan involves an unspecified increase in the number of US Special Forces and a qualitative uptick in heavy armaments: this is to be accompanied by a loosening of the rules of engagement previously imposed by the Obama administration. The cap on US ground forces will be lifted, and arms previously withheld will be put in the hands of Kurdish forces, the “People’s Protection Units” (YPG), in the midst of which US advisors are now embedded. The plan is to use the Arab-Kurdish coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as ground troops, backed up by “U.S. fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters.” In tandem with this effort, US forces will move into Syria deploying heavy artillery, “while more Special Operations troops would move closer to the front lines – requiring more US military assets to protect them.”
The goal is Raqqa, the Syrian equivalent of Mordor, where ISIS is ensconced. But the focus of the military situation is currently on the other side of the country, close to the Turkish border, where Turkish troops are moving toward the town of Manbij, with their Islamist allies in tow, and a looming confrontation with Kurdish fighters is eclipsing the now delayed siege of Raqqa.
SDF forces, mainly Kurds, took Manbij from ISIS in August, but the Turks and their radical Islamic “rebel” allies are moving toward the town with great dispatch, determined to block the consolidation of a Kurdish enclave on Ankara’s border with Syria. Turkish despot Recip Erdogan says the Kurds are “terrorists” associated with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has previously conducted military operations inside Turkey with the goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state. Last summer, the Turks launched air strikes against Kurdish positions close to Manbij, and the US is fearful of a repeat – and escalation of the developing conflict.
Further complicating the already crowded scene, the Syrian government and the Russians have moved into the breach. The “Manbij Military Council,” i.e. the Kurds/SDF, have invited Assad’s forces in. As the Washington Post reports:
“On Thursday, as Turkish shells reached the outskirts of the town, the Manbij Military Council announced it had invited the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take over several nearby villages as part of a deal brokered by Russia to avoid conflict with the Turks.”
Yes, the Russo-American alliance that Trump’s enemies in Washington despise, and are doing everything in their power to prevent, is now taking shape on the ground in Syria:
“On Friday, Moscow announced that Russian and Syrian ‘humanitarian’ convoys were heading toward Manbij. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters in Washington that the convoys also included ‘some armored equipment.’
“[Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff] Davis said that the US government had been “informed” of the movements by Russia but that ‘it’s nothing that we’re party to.’”
How John McCain and Lindsey Graham must be grinding their teeth – I can hear the sound of it all the way in California! – as their radical Islamist “rebels” are pushed out of the way and the Kurdish-Syrian-Russian tripartite alliance liberates the country from ISIS. The Dynamic Duo have been the greatest champions of the Islamist rebels. McCain personally visited Syria where he canoodled with his favorite Islamist head-choppers, and then returned to Washington where he supported the Obama administration’s agenda of regime change – an agenda, coincidentally enough, perfectly in sync with ISIS.
Trump, on the other hand, says “we don’t know who these people are,” and it’s clear the new administration wants nothing to do with them. Yet McCain isn’t the only one at odds with Trump over Syria policy.
What’s very interesting in the Washington Post story is the way it juxtaposes the aims of the Pentagon in opposition to the Trump administration:
“The United States and Russia have managed to avoid confrontation in Syria’s separate civil war, where they are on opposing sides. Trump has said repeatedly that the two powers should cooperate against the Islamic State, and he has indicated that the future of Russia-backed Assad is of less concern to him.
“The Pentagon disapproves of possible U.S.-Russia cooperation, although U.S. officials are not unhappy at the buffer Russia and Syria now appear to be creating between Turkey and the Kurds, or the prospect of the Syrian government moving into Manbij.”
Of course they’re “not unhappy”: that’s because they share a common military goal with the Russians – the defeat of ISIS. Which leads us to a larger point: the whole basis of Trump’s proposed rapprochement with Russia is based on this commonality. The Pentagon, which wants a larger budget, and is using the mythical “Russian threat” as a tool to get what it wants, has political reasons for opposing détente with Moscow. And yet in Syria they are confronted with the military necessity of a de facto alliance – because in war, reality rules.
Now the race is on to see who will get the credit for taking Raqqa and finally eliminating ISIS as a major factor on the ground. While Erdogan and his Syrian Islamist allies are determined to get there first, odds are that the SDF, backed by the US, will beat them to the punch – and this is bound to stick in Erdogan’s craw, as he sees his plans to annex northern Syria go up in smoke. For that has been his goal all along, as he, initially, clandestinely tolerated ISIS, and then used the jihadists who opportunistically fell away from ISIS and came under his wing to extend his influence while the Syrian government stood helplessly by.
The US military is holding its breath, hopeful that Erdogan will back off his threats to eliminate the Kurdish “terrorists,” but if I were them I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands US troops in Syria, says there’s “zero evidence” that the SDF/YPG constitutes a real threat to Turkey, an argument that Erdogan is likely to ignore. After all, the Kurds have been launching attacks in Turkey for decades, and the country’s restive Kurdish minority has seen its language, its political parties, and its very existence outlawed. If Turkey’s Kurds throw their lot in with the ascendant Kurdish state, what do they have to lose as Erdogan tightens his grip on the government and institutes a de facto dictatorship?
The real flashpoint is centered in Manbij, where Turkey, a NATO ally, is converging on an armed Russian convoy in an area formally controlled by the Syrian government – although, contrary to US assertions, the Kurds are still firmly in control. What happens when Turkish troops and their Islamist Janissaries exchange fire with the Russians?
Under the terms of the NATO treaty, the US is obligated to come to Ankara’s aid – and yet that would be contrary to our military and political goals in the region. In this case, NATO isn’t just “obsolete,” as Trump put it, it’s downright contrary to our interests. For the reality is that it’s the Turks and their jihadist allies who are emerging as our real enemies in the next phase of the Syrian drama. Erdogan’s policy is dependent on destabilizing Syria by supporting the “moderate” rebels we’ve left behind in favor of the Kurds.
Once ISIS is out of the picture, the next phase of the battle for Syria will shape up, with Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies on one side, and the Turks and their Islamist collaborators on the other. The Kurds – who have already chosen to go with Assad and the Russians – will be the decisive factor. Backed by the US, emboldened by their victories, they will push for a Kurdish state – and that’s when the real trouble will begin.
As I’ve warned previously on several occasions, the unleashing of Kurdish nationalism by one or another foreign sponsor – in this case, the US – is bad news for the entire region. For Kurdish nationalism is a virulent phenomenon: ambitious, aggressive, and not likely to be appeased by grants of autonomy. And that ambition knows few geographical limits: Kurdish claims extend as far north as Armenia, as far east as Iran, and well into Turkey. And the Kurdish “autonomous region” in Iraq is straining at the bit to break loose from the Iraqi central government, seize control of the plentiful oil around Kirkuk, and declare independence. Who will prevent them from hooking up with the Syrian YPG and forming a unitary state that extends from the Turkish border to the suburbs of Baghdad?
If the Trump administration persists in its course, it is headed for a disaster of such proportions that will make the “ISIS crisis” look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric, they will have failed to learn the chief lesson of the past: that US intervention leads to unintended consequences. The great tragedy of all this that there is an alternative, albeit one that is being blocked by the anti-Russian hysteria the President has to contend with on the home front.
Although Trump is opposed to farming out business to foreign interests here at home, he’s not opposed to it abroad. I believe he originally thought he could do this in Syria by letting Assad and the Russians take care of ISIS, for the most part, while the US cheered them on from the sidelines. However, a formal rapprochement with Moscow now seems out of the question, at least for the moment, although on the ground in Syria it’s becoming a partial de facto reality. In order to fulfill his pledge to “quickly” dispatch ISIS, Trump is ramping up the US presence – and we’re well on the way to getting sucked into the Syrian quagmire.
One interesting aspect of all this is how the political brouhaha in Washington over the administration’s alleged “Russian links” is tied in to the Syrian war – and how the former is preventing a relatively bloodless solution to the latter. And you’ll note that the same people who supported Syria’s Islamist rebels and the regime-change agenda of President Obama and Hillary Clinton are screaming the loudest about appointing a “special prosecutor” to link Trump to the Kremlin.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.