At the close of 2018, President Donald Trump announced that American troops were being withdrawn from Syria. By the open of 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Senator Lindsey Graham were saying that there would be no withdrawal before a full defeat of the Islamic State and other objectives were achieved.
As usual, the tune being played by the White House is more cacophony than symphony, and no one knows when the troops will be withdrawn from Syria. The notes played have included everything from immediately, to a month, to several months to not until were done.
Whenever it is to be done, the withdrawal of U.S. troops has brought near unanimous criticism from the mainstream media. The alternative media has had several very good articles on the appropriateness of the withdrawal since all of America’s objectives in Syria have been realized to the extent they can be realized. Trump, himself said this when he said, via Twitter, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there. . . . "
But, it is not true that the defeat of the Islamic State was the only reason for American troops being in Syria. The reasons have ranged and changed from regime change, the Islamic State and chemical weapons to Iran. And most of the alternative media articles have missed the more important point that, if America’s objectives have been realized, it is only because they were never problems in the first place. If the obstacles to peace are gone, it is only because they were never there. If the troops can be withdrawn from Syria, it is only because they never should have been there.
The realization that it is time to withdraw the troops from Syria is simultaneously the realization that America does not need to pursue regime change in Syria. James Jeffrey, the US special representative in Syria, now says that, though America wants to see a regime in Syria that behaves fundamentally differently, the US has abandoned its consistently stated insistence that Assad must go: "We want to see a regime that is fundamentally different. It’s not regime change — we’re not trying to get rid of Assad."
But, if America does not need regime change in Syria now, it can only be because it never did. Bashar al-Assad has long been willing to behave fundamentally differently as an ally of the west. In his 2009 article entitled “Syria Calling,” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that then Senator John Kerry, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and who had just met with Assad, said that Assad “wants to engage with the West . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States.” Hersh says that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told him that “Syria is eager to engage with the West."
"The things he need[ed] to do" included altering Syria’s relationship with Israel. According to professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco Stephen Zunes, Assad offered talks with Israel but was spurned by the US and Israel. But Assad kept trying to establish cooperation with the US Zunes says that, because he was anxious to receive international legitimacy, Assad was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. Hersh says that Israel and Syria had at other times engaged in talks too. He even says that they had reached “agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations.” He says that Assad continued informal talks with Washington into the Obama administration. Zunes said in a personal correspondence that blame for the failure of those talks lays not with Assad but with “[t]he new hard-right Israeli government that consolidated power in 2009." Nothing could happen, Zunes said, “without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do."
Assad did not only try to reshape his relationship with America indirectly through proposing to reshape his relationship with America’s Israeli ally, he also tried to directly change the nature of Syria’s relationship with America. In the wake of 9/11, Assad issued a statement supporting America’s war on al-Qaeda. In his book Reporter: A Memoir, Seymour Hersh says that in the wake of 9/11, Assad came to America’s side "by sharing with the CIA hundreds of his country’s, most sensitive intelligence files on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamburg, where most of the planning for 9/11 was carried out." Assad also provided the US with details about a future al-Qaeda attack on the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, which Hersh says that he confirmed was invaluable.
So, if America wanted a cooperative regime in Damascus, they had only to accept it. Regime change was never necessary because Assad was offering a new relationship. The regime change objective can be abandoned because it was never necessary to go to Damascus to get it.
It was never necessary to send troops to Syria to remove the Islamic State because the Islamic State was not originally a problem. The Islamic State was permitted to be born and to grow because it was a coincidental and convenient tool of American foreign policy. The Islamic State challenged Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: the very three allies of Iran that America sought to challenge and to amputate from Iran.
Washington knew its allies were funding al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. A September 17, 2014 memo written by Hillary Clinton clearly states that based on “western intelligence, US intelligence and sources in the region,” the US knew that “the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia . . . are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.” Biden also acknowledged that America’s "allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. . .. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis."
But America knew it long before that. As early as August 12, 2012, a classified Defense Intelligence Agency Information Intelligence Report made the rounds through the US intelligence community, including the CIA, FBI, State Department and CENTCOM. Section 8.C. of the Defense Intelligence Agency report says “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor),” and goes on to say that “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime. . . .” In the preceding section 7.B., the powers that are supporting ISIS are identified as “Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey." Section 8.D.1. of the report goes on specifically to say that ISIS "could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria."
A State Department cable sent by Clinton as early as December 2009, reveals that America already knew that Saudi Arabia was funding al-Qaeda by then.
And America not only knew about the funding of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, they blessed it. According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, at a May 2015 Camp David summit, "Obama and other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients, so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.” Notice Obama did not demand that they stop funding al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, only that they control them and keep them on the desired course. Secretary of State John Kerry accidentally confessed that blessing when he told Syrian opposition activists at a meeting in September 2016 that "We were watching. We saw that Daesh [the Islamic State] was growing in strength and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, you know, that Assad might then negotiate and instead of negotiating, you got Assad, ah, you got Putin supporting him."
Just as America knew very early about allied funding for al-Qaeda, so it very early on blessed it. A WikiLeaks cable with the shockingly early date of December 13, 2006 that was written by the charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Damascus to the Secretary of State shows the embassy recommending the encouragement of sectarianism and tension between Sunni and Shia Syrians. The cable recommends that the US"Play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence," though it admits those fears are "often exaggerated." It says that "There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis." It recommends that the US "coordinate more closely with" Egypt and Saudi Arabia "on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on these issues." The top US diplomat in Syria is here counseling the exacerbation of sectarianism as a means of undermining the Assad government.
As for extremists, the same cable identifies "the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists." The embassy sees this presence as one of the "vulnerabilities" for which "there may be actions" the US government can take to "improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising." The presence of extremists is not seen as an undesirable problem to be eliminated, but as an anticipated opportunity to be encouraged.
So, America need never have had the need to go into Syria to eradicate the problem of a metastasizing Islamic State. The problem need never have existed had America not seen the Islamic State as an unfortunate but manageable tool that could help it achieve its foreign policy objectives regarding Iran because its objectives and the Islamic State’s objective coincided.
The crossing of the red line of chemical weapons was another reason frequently given for sending troops to Syria and for overthrowing the regime. But this problem too seems no longer to be a reason to keep the troops there only because it was a problem that went away before the troops were there.
In September 2013, as a result of a plan worked out by Syria, Russia and Iran, Walid al-Moalllem, Syria’s foreign minister, announced Syria’s willingness to acknowledge its chemical weapons stockpiles (that, despite America’s boasts that force compelled Syria to do so, Syria had, according to Noam Chomsky, acknowledged long ago), sign the international convention against chemical weapons, place its arsenal under international control and swear off any future development of chemical weapons. The United Nations confirmed receipt of a letter signed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declaring Syria’s intention to sign the international chemical weapons treaty. Shortly after, on September 14, the United States and Russia finalized an agreement on the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. According to The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the destruction of those chemical weapons was completed as promised.
The US case that Syria has used chemical weapons nonetheless is weak. And, though Trump says that his only reason for being in Syria was the defeat of the Islamic State, he has previously given the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as a reason for regime change and for being in Syria. But, like the times prior to the Trump administration, the case against Assad was weak.
The case against Assad relied on the claim that the chemical weapons were dropped from airplanes and only government forces have airplanes. But, Theodore Postol, MIT professor emeritus of science, technology and national security, a leading analyst on military technology and former scientific advisor at the Department of Defense, says that his analysis of the evidence shows that the chemical weapon was not dropped from an airplane but exploded on the ground. Postol concludes that “. . . there is absolutely no evidence that the crater was created by munitions designed to disperse sarin after it is dropped from an aircraft. . . . The data cited by the White House is more consistent with the possibility that the munition was placed on the ground rather than dropped from a plane. . . . Analysis of the debris as shown in the photograph cited by the White House clearly indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground. . . .”
Furthermore, Postol has shown that the crater identified by the US as being the one where the sarin gas hit the ground after being dropped from a plane couldn’t be the source of the sarin gas that killed the victims of the gas attack. He says his analysis of photographs of the crater site, the cite where the victims are located and wind and weather data reveal that the location of the victims is inconsistent with the crater cite offered up by the White House. His conclusion is that the version of the gas attack described by the White House that points to Syrian regime culpability – sarin gas dropped from a plane, landing on the ground and making a crater, and killing civilians in a nearby hamlet – never occurred.
The former US intelligence analysts, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, say that, according to their "US Army contacts in the area," what really happened is that "a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died.” Former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, says that most of his sources – including members of the team that monitors global chemical weapons and people in the US intelligence community – are also telling him that that is what probably happened. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter reports that a former US official knowledgeable about the chemical weapons event said that Russia informed the US that Syria planned to strike the warehouse 24 hours before the strike. The source, according to Porter, “is in direct contact with a US military intelligence officer with access to information about the US-Russian communications.” Russia also informed the US that the Syrian military thought the warehouse housed chemicals. Furthermore, Porter reveals that “an internal administration paper circulating in Washington . . . clearly refers to ‘a regime airstrike on a terrorist ammunition dump in the eastern suburbs of Khan Sheikhoun.’"
On April 14, 2018, Trump ordered the bombing of Syria because of another claimed chemical attack: this time in Douma, near Damascus. Only days before the missile strikes, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the USlacked the intelligence that Assad was responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack. Mattis admitted that the US was “still assessing the intelligence… We’re still working on it.”
Russian chemical weapons specialists who were on site found no trace of chemical weapon use. Neither did Red Crescent doctors who treated people. The OPCW inspectors might quickly have answered the question, but their access to the site was blocked by the United Nations department of Safety and Security.
The evidence for Assad’s chemical weapons attack on his own people came from rebel-affiliated and Western financed groups like the White Helmets. However, investigative journalist Robert Fisk, who was the first western journalist to make it into Douma, heard from no local who knew of a chemical weapons attack. He did hear a different version of the story in Douma than the one put out by the White Helmets and accepted by Donald Trump.
The video of victims of chemical attack is real, but the interpretation is false. The suffering is real, but they are not suffering from chemical exposure. They are suffering from oxygen starvation. There was heavy shelling by government forces that night. But this particular night, there was also a huge wind and huge dust clouds choked the tunnels and basements the people were hiding in. The suffering people in the video were struggling from hypoxia, or oxygen starvation. Then a White Helmet “shouted ‘Gas!’” The panic, and the propaganda begun.
When Russia brought seventeen witnesses from Douma to the Hague to testify before the OPCW, the US, U.K., and France not only did not listen to the evidence, they did not show up. The witnesses from Douma supported the story that Robert Fisk had heard when he was in Douma. Each witness was either a victim of that night’s events or a doctor who treated them. Some of the victim witnesses even show up in the White Helmet videos. They all said that there had been no chemical attack: they were sucking in dust, not gas.
If the US can withdraw from Syria with no further action taken on chemical weapons, it’s because there has been no problem with chemical weapons since Syria eliminated them.
Iran is in Syria legally: they are there at the invitation of the government of Syria; the US is in Syria illegally: domestically, the troop deployment was never authorized by congress, and, internationally, they were never invited by Syria or authorized by the United Nations.
Iran has also consistently been fighting the Islamic State terrorists whose defeat, according to Trump, is the condition of America’s withdrawal. They have been far more responsible than the US for the defeat of the Islamic State that Trump is now taking credit for.
Nonetheless, the US has claimed as a vital reason for being in Syria that they need to roll back Iran and get all Iranian troops out of Syria. It was surprising, then, to hear Trump declare, not only that the US can now withdraw from Syria, but that "Iran . . . can frankly do whatever they want there." Once again, Iran’s presence is not a problem now because it was not a problem then.
The United States has long known that its ally, Saudi Arabia, and not its enemy, Iran, is the largest problem in the region, since it is the leading state sponsor of terror. All recent attempts to link Iran to terrorism have failed. Even America’s own reports on terrorism don’t list Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism. The State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorisms "rarely identifies a terrorist incident as an act by or on behalf of Iran." And, the recent Global Terrorism Index from the Department of Homeland Security clearly states that, not Iran, but "ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaeda" are the biggest terrorist threats. None of these four groups is Shiite and none is aligned with Iran, but combined they are "responsible for 74 per cent of all deaths from terrorism." The Index also clearly identifies "ISIL," not Iran "as the deadliest terrorist group."
So, Saudi Arabia is the leading state sponsor of terrorism and of the Islamic State, the Islamic State is the deadliest terrorist threat, and Iran is one of the largest state oppositions to the Islamic State. But Iran is the leading problem in the area that needs to be rolled back.
The only reason why Trump can say that the US can leave Syria now and let Iran do "whatever they want there" is because there was never a problem with what Iran was doing there.
The crucial point that is being missed in the conversation about Trump’s promise to withdraw US forces from Syria is that, if the conditions are compatible with a withdrawal now, it is only because they always were.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.