|Syrian Democratic Forces at a funeral parade for a fallen comrade|
The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw US troops from Syria represents a foreign-policy decision which will have a negative impact not only on the MENA region but far beyond. At first glance, one might be asked why withdrawing 2,200 American troops from Syria should be framed in such a negative light? Unfortunately, this decision reflects much more than a simple drawdown of troops in Syria. What will be the ramifications of Trump’s decision?
Let me begin by listing the 10 destructive consequences of Trump’s decision and then examine that damage in greater detail.
1) Trump’s withdrawal of US troops strengthens the so-called Islamic State, materially and psychologically
2) In the process, Trump has abandoned the Kurds of northeast Syria (Rojava), who have played a central role in helping the US defeat the Dacish terrorists, and exposed them to a brutal attack by the Turkish army and its allied militias comprised of radical Islamists
3) The US withdrawal will create a military and political vacuum in Northeast Syria which will be filled by three authoritarian states which will expand their power in the MENA region: Turkey, Iran and Russia
4) Failure to maintain support of the Kurds of Rojava will strengthen the genocidal regime of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Asad, and make it easier to once again impose its despotic rule on the Kurds, including through use of chemical weapons
5) Trump’s decision threatens to destroy one of the most democratic experiments in the MENA, a region known for authoritarian rule, namely that of the Rojava Kurds
6) An attack on the Kurds will produce more chaos and refugees, who will place greater burdens on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and on refugee assistance organizations in the area
7) Trump has undermined US foreign policy in the MENA region by sending a clear message that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its words to its allies, especially those who do not possess large supplies of oil.
8) The US withdrawal puts more pressure on an already overextended Iraqi army which will need to fill the military vacuum in fighting against the Dacish along the Syria-Iraq border
9) Trump’s decision underlines the efforts of his administration to continue the US withdrawal not only from the MENA region but from global affairs
10) Trump’s decision has undermined the morale of the US military and State Department, leading to the resignations of 2 top players in Syria and Iraq, Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, and Special Iraq Envoy, Brett McGurk
Contrary to Trump’s assertions, the Dacish has not been defeated in eastern Syria. While the terrorists only control a small area around the town of Hatrin in eastern Syria (about the size of Manhattan island in New York City), estimates place the number of Dacish fighters at as high as 30,000.
In neighboring Iraq, in the mountainous areas and caves near the city of Kirkuk in Northeast Iraq, the Iraqi army and Federal and local police are constantly engaged in firefights with terrorist from Dacish “sleeper cells.”
The withdrawal of US troops will not only further encourage terrorist attacks, both against the Rojava Kurds and Iraqi security services, i.e., in both eastern Syria and Northeast Iraq, but will be posited by the so-called Islamic State as a “victory” against “Crusader forces.” Thus the withdrawal will constitute a psychological and symbolic “shot in the arm,” which will help reinvigorate the Dacish, facilitating its reorganization and ability to attract new fighters.
If the morale of the Dacish terrorists is strengthened by the withdrawal of US forces in Northeast Syria, the opposite is the case for the Rojava Kurds. The YPG,YPJ and Syrian Democratic Forces all responded with shock (as did many US troops stationed in the Rojava region) to Trump’s announcement.
That Trump’s announcement was issued soon after a telephone call he had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wasn’t lost on the Kurds and their local allies. The citizens of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria know that Erdogan has been itching to attack the Kurds who he claims support the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party) which has been fighting the Ankara government for the past 30 years to obtain more rights for Turkey’s minority Kurdish population.
Erdoğan considers the PKK a terrorist organization (and, for the record, I have indicated that its attacks on local police forces and the Turkish army is an unacceptable way to secure more rights for Turkey’s Kurds). However, it is erroneous to argue that the Rojava Kurds are involved in PKK attacks inside Turkey. What is much closer to the truth is that Erdoğan fears the success of the Rojava Kurds, not only in their ability to break away from the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Asad, but in creating a model society (see below) which could be emulated by Turkey’s Kurds
A third consequence of Trump’s decision will be to enhance the power and influence of 3 states in Syria, all of which oppose and contravene international norms of peaceful conflict resolution. They also threaten US national interests in the eastern MENA region (al-Mashriq).
Russia seeks to use Syria as a pathway to reassert its influence in the Middle East, maintain air and naval bases in Syria, namely in a highly strategic location, and use the region to bolster its economy through arms sales and, in Iran, technology to build nuclear power reactors.
Turkey seeks to overthrow the Bashar al-Asad regime and occupy northern Syria. Through this action, Erdoğan wants to send a message to the Kurds of that region (Rojava) and Turkey’s Kurds that there will be no political and social reforms designed to give them more political rights and improve their social and economic condition in Turkey.
Iran seeks to use Syria to extend its influence to the Mediterranean Sea, thereby creating a corridor of power and influence throughout the Mashriq. Because Russia and Iran supports al-Asad, who is opposed by Erdoğan, the Trump withdrawal threatens to increase conflict in Syria, i.e., pour oil on an already raging fire.
The Trump withdrawal is sure to strengthen the regime of Bashar al-Asad, one of the most brutal and genocidal in the world. al-Asad has already shown on a number of occasions that he has no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people. With strong support from Russia and Iran, and no US constraints on his behavior, we can expect even more attacks on any group in Syria who al-Asad considers to be opponents to his rule.
Fearing a possible attack by the Turkish army, with its allied radical Islamist militias raping and pillaging the Rojava region are of northeast Syria, the Kurds of Syria have reached out to al-Asad’s regime to protect them from Erdoğan’s forces. This is understandable from one perspective given the brutal behavior the Rojava Kurds have already experienced from the Turkish occupation of the town of Afrin where extrajudicial killings, rapes and theft have been common practice.
That the Kurds of northeast Syria would be forced to turn to a genocidal dictator, one whose family has stolen their land at will, refused to give them Syrian citizenship and arbitrarily imprisoned anyone considered a threat, is a travesty. Even if the Asad regime, and its Russian and Iranian allies, are able to protect the Rojava Kurds from Turkey, the aftermath will be more oppression of them by the Damascus regime.https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/world/middleeast/syria-kurds-turkey-manbij.html
Exposing the Rojava Kurds to the violence and ravages of Turkey’s army and allied irregular forces will destroy one of the few democratic experiments in the contemporary MENA region. As I described in an earlier post, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) was established when regime forces withdrew from northeast and eastern Syria under pressure from the so-called Islamic State. The Rojava Kurds- A Model for Contemporary Middle East?
An attack on the Kurds and their Arab, Yazidi, Christian and Shabak allies will be coming, whether carried out by Erdoğan’s army and militias, or Asad’s troops and his own vicious al-shabiha (“ghosts”) militia. This attack will produce more refugees in Syria which have already witnessed on of the largest displacement of human beings in the history of civil wars. The number of refugees has overwhelmed Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdish Regional Government, which have received many of them, and the large number of NGOs which are attempting to assist the refugees, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
|Areas (in green) controlled by Syrian |
Democratic Forces - October 2018
An attack on the Kurds and their Arab, Yazidi, Christian and Shabak allies will be coming, whether carried out by Erdoğan’s army and militias, or al-Asad’s troops and his own vicious al-shabiha (“ghosts”) militia. This attack will produce more refugees in Syria which have already witnessed on of the largest displacement of human beings in the history of civil wars. The number of refugees has overwhelmed Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government, which have received many of them, and the large number of NGOs which are attempting to assist the refugees, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Beyond causing extensive harm to people on the ground, Trump’s decision has dealt a serious blow to the US’ current allies and future allies in the MENA region and elsewhere. Why should allies in the MENA region trust the United States given its erratic foreign policy. To be fair to the Trump administration, Barack Obama’s Syria policy was likewise inconsistent in its Syria policy – think of the “Red Line” disaster with regard to the al-Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
However, the Obama administration engaged in lengthy internal discussions before making foreign policy decisions, even of those decisions often came up short. With Trump, it’s foreign policy of the moment and by Tweet and based on whatever he has heard that day from his advisors, such as populist extremist, Steven Miller, and right-wing media pundits (who know how to manipulate POTUS to do their bidding).
Obviously this type of chaotic foreign policy making doesn’t inspire trust on the part of the US’ traditional allies or those countries who are already leery about cooperating with the US, such as Iraq. The inability of allies to trust in the stability and commitment of US foreign policy decisions is increasingly leading them to go their own way, thereby breaching the long-standing Western alliance.
Looking at the track record of Trump elsewhere, such as in Korea, where many analysts argue that he has been played by Kim Jong-un, further undermines the confidence of the United Stares’ traditional allies in the logic and durability of the foreign policy of the current occupant of the White House.
A negative impact of the troop withdrawal which has received little attention is the added strain it will impose on the already overstretched Iraqi army. The Dacish is reconstituting itself in north central Iraq around the cities of Kirkuk and Wajiha, The mountainous terrain with its caves is ideal for organizing hit-and-run attacks on Iraqi army troops and federal and local police. With pressure removed in Syria, the Dacish enclave around Hatrin along the Euphrates River will more easily be able to provide terrorist fighters and supplies to its forces in Iraq.
Viewed internationally, Trump’s decision is another nail in the coffin of international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Part of a larger “isolationist” strategy (and the United States saw where that led prior to the outbreak of WWII), populists within the Trump administration.
A reality of the contemporary world order is that the global economy is extremely interdependent. While the global economy is highly sensitive to financial changes, the international community lacks the accompanying political institutions and cultural understandings required for nation-states to come together to confront a rapidly and often volatile global economy.
Whether the United States likes it or not, it is and will remain for the foreseeable future a main actor in the global order. Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw from Syria are no different than his energy policy which seeks to bring back the dying coal industry. Isolationism is not an option, whatever Trump, his advisors, right wing pundits and his social base feel it should characterize.
Trump’s desire for a “wall” (and I place the word in quotes because to this day, Trump has still not offered any details on what form or length it will take or what it will cost) is emblematic of an ill-conceived vision of retuning to a non-existing past when “Fortress America” – protected from world by two oceans - could live as if what happened beyond its borders could be ignored.
Finally, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria has further demoralized the American military. Referring to highly respected military officers as “losers” and to US forces as being played for “suckers” insults the military. Certainly, it will not attract the “best and the brightest” to join the ranks of the American military. At the end of the day, Trump’s decision “shoots the US military in the foot.”
The United States military has much to be proud of, first and foremost saving the world from global fascism in WWII, and preventing southern slaveholders from establishing a nation built on brutal chattel slavery during the American Civil War. It also has its blemishes, such as fighting Philippine guerillas following the Spanish-American War, enabling Theodore Roosevelt to carve Panama out of Columbia so he could build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the “Gunboat Diplomacy” in Latin America during the early decades of the 20th century.
The military’s support for the autocratic regime of Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in Iran brought us Ayatollah Khomeini who seized control of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, while the deposing of Saddam Husayn, uniformly welcomed by all Iraqis, enabled the United States to impose a set of corrupt sectarian entrepreneurs on Iraq in the name of establishing democracy.
The conflict in Syria doesn’t fit any of these historical molds. In Syria, the United States military has been fighting the Dacish, one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the world, together with the Rojava Kurds and their Arab, Yazidi and Shabak allies. It has also protected the Democratic Federation of North Syria from the ravages of attack by Bashar al-Asad forces and the radical Islamist militias allied with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which have already demonstrated their brutality in the occupation of the town of Afrin in north central Syria.
For all the reasons articulated above, strong pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Trump administration to prevent him from withdrawing US forces from Northeastern Syria.