The downing of a Syrian fighter jet by the United States – and, more recently, of an Iranian drone – augurs a confrontation that could take us down the road to World War III. The US media is echoing the Pentagon’s explanation, which is that the Syrian jet bombed (or was threatening to bomb) units of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around the town of Tanf. The Syrians say they were attacking forces aligned with ISIS, which both the US and the Syrian government are supposedly fighting.
The reality is that there is no such entity as the “Syrian Democratic Forces.” There are only loosely aligned groups, factions and splinters of factions, which proliferate seemingly on a daily basis in a mosaic of ethno-religious-ideological conflicts that reflect the chaos that has enveloped that country. The failure of the US to unite these various factions into the so-called Free Syrian Army – large units of which kept defecting to the various radical Islamist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda – led to an explosion of smaller groups centered around local, tribal, ethnic, and religious affiliations. The SDF is an attempt to solder these groups together in a military force capable of fighting and defeating the “Caliphate” established by ISIS – an effort that is far less successful than it seems.
The main military component of the SDF is the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel/YPG), consisting of about 45,000 fighters, including the all-female unit. The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a far-leftist formation which adheres to the “democratic confederalist” vision of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Ocalan, who in turn credits anarcho-communist theoretician Murray Bookchin as his inspiration. The YPG is the official army of “Rojava,” a non-contiguous union of Kurdish-controlled territories that is supposedly secular, egalitarian, and socialist. However, the alleged ideals of this ostensibly leftist configuration haven’t always translated into practice: the YPG regularly enforces conscription on areas under its control, seizing property and persecuting Assyrian and Armenian Christians, and engaging in ethnic cleansing of Arab villages. The YPG is viewed by Arabs as a separatist movement, while the Arabs oppose any effort to divide Syria along ethnic lines. As a result, there is considerable hostility between the Arab fighters, organizing in tribal and regional outfits, and the Kurds, despite American efforts to unify these groups into a grand anti-ISIS coalition.
Another source of internecine conflict is the YPG’s relationship with the Syrian government and its allies: while Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has persecuted the Kurds in the past, he has also supported them at various times against their Turkish enemies, and Syrian government forces have voluntarily withdrawn from YPG-controlled areas in order to concentrate their fire on the Islamist fundamentalists who were threatening Damascus.
Operating under the rubric of the SDF are several Islamist groups formerly affiliated with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist outfits. Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa (Front of Raqqa Revolutionaries) is one of the founding groups of the SDF: they were formerly allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, but supposedly split away when Nusra moved closer to ISIS. However, the ideology, aims, and tactics of the group have not changed: its “split” with al-Nusra was over tactical and control issues. The “Raqqa Revolutionaries” are still fighting to establish an Islamic state in Syria under Sharia law, with their main goal being the destruction of the Syrian government in Damascus: they have simply changed their strategy, which is now to ally with the American-sponsored coalition.
The US air strikes in southern Syria, near the town of Tanf, which hit a Syrian fighter jet, were in defense of three American-backed groups: Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra, a jihadist group trained by the US and the Jordanians, the "Ahmad Abdo Martyrs," another jihadist group with murky origins and financing, and the “Lions of the East Army,” formerly a part of the “Authenticity and Development Front,” a Saudi-funded alliance of groups that included the Nour al-Din al-Zenki grouplet responsible for the beheading of a young Palestinian boy. They have also fought alongside al-Nusra: see here for their links to al-Qaeda as well as Turkey.
The Syrian government rightly considers these groups in the same category as al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, and seeks to eliminate them wherever they exist. Thus we see that the conflicting claims coming out of Damascus and Washington – with the former saying they are attacking “terrorists,” while the latter insists it will defend its “allies” – are not really in conflict, because the US is indeed actively supporting terrorists in Syria.
In short, these groups – which the US military is defending against the Syrian army – are the “radical Islamic terrorists” that President Trump continually rails against. So why are we aiding and protecting them?
Looking at the ultimate defeat of ISIS as a foregone conclusion, all the regional powers with proxy forces in Syria are seeking to dominate the country once the Caliphate is consigned to history’s dustbin. The Syrian government, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, look to the restoration of control by Damascus over the entire territory of Syria. The Saudis look to their jihadist outfits to establish an Islamic state after Assad is deposed. The Qataris are backing their own jihadists, notably al-Nusra, and the Turks have their proxies among the Islamist groups in the northern part of the country, as well as the Turkmen militias, which they hope will block the Kurds from establishing a Kurdish state on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Stuck in the midst of this four-sided civil war is the United States, with no real policy, and with its military strategy ceded to commanders on the ground – who are pursuing the same course set by the previous administration, i.e. canoodling with radical Islamists bent on regime change in Damascus. In alliance with the Saudis, the British, the Israelis, and the Jordanians, Washington is seemingly still determined to oust Assad and establish a Sunni regime in Damascus.
The real goal of this strategy – which seems entirely contradictory to Trump’s campaign pledges to stay out of Syria, and cut off aid to Islamist rebel groups – is a looming confrontation with Iran. Trump has always been vehemently anti-Iranian, and his recent trip to Saudi Arabia reinforced his headlong rush into a collision course with Tehran. There is currently a debate going on within the administration over how far to take this: for the moment, the radical anti-Iranian faction seems to have lost out. Yet the ultimate outcome of the fight remains to be seen – because with Donald J. Trump in the drivers’ seat, you never know what will happen next.
The Russians, for their part, have declared that any and all planes flying over Syrian territory will be considered “targets” – and this underscores the seriousness of the threat we are now facing. We are a single incident away from a major conflagration that could drag in all the powers now feasting on the carcass of Syria.
And it’s all because of an American President who was elected on a pledge to stay out of Syria, stop funding radical Islamist terrorists in the region, and who often asked “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?”
Trump has entered the upside-down realm of Bizarro World: he’s inverted most of his foreign policy positions. Instead of détente with Russia, we are pursuing a policy of confrontation. Instead of putting America first, we are putting Saudi Arabia first. Rather than concentrate on pulling this country out of the economic doldrums, the Trump administration is rushing headlong into yet another major war in the Middle East.
While the complete reversal of Trump’s foreign policy stances as expressed on the campaign trail seems inexplicable on the surface, it is perfectly in accord with what I call the theory of libertarian realism: the view that there is no real line of demarcation between foreign and domestic policy, and that all foreign policy is the result of domestic political pressures and the desire of the group in power to retain and expand that power.
Trump is now harried by the phony “Russia-gate” scandal, which depicts him as a pawn of the Kremlin: therefore he is acting in a way that would discredit that charge, maintaining and even expanding sanctions on Russia while confronting Moscow and its allies in Syria. How could he possibly be “Putin’s puppet,” as Hillary Clinton put it, if he’s defying Russian threats to shoot down our planes?
Another factor to consider is the influence of the Israel lobby. Israel has been giving covert support to the Syrian rebels, and their spokesmen have openly preferred the Islamist rebels (including ISIS) to Assad, Israel’s historic enemy. Engaged in an increasingly open alliance with Riyadh, Tel Aviv benefits if Syria is turned into a version of Lebanon – hopelessly divided along ethno-religious lines. Both Hezbollah and Iran are siding with Assad – and if the Israelis can maneuver the US into fighting them, well then all the better.
Here is yet another crisis that has been caused and ratcheted up by our alleged “allies,” who have succeeded in getting the US to front for their interests. As for American interests, they don’t come into the equation. So much for “America first.”
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.