Out of Syria

26 Dec 2018



PERHAPS the most telling aspect of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and the subsequent resignation of his defence secretary — retired general Jim Mattis — is the apoplexy it has occasioned among the western commentariat across the political spectrum.

In all too many cases, what sticks in the craw is the very idea of the US pulling out of an unresolved conflict thousands of miles from its shores. Never mind the fact that, since the Second World War, precious little good has come from US military interventions anywhere — from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, Trump’s objection to military engagements abroad stems not so much from their invariably deleterious consequences as from the concomitant monetary costs. The exceptionally money-minded president — whose business career as a property tycoon has been littered with bankruptcies — sees little value in foreign investments where there is no prospect of cash profits.

Trump has much else to worry about this Christmas season.

Some months ago, he halted the largest CIA covert operation since Afghanistan in the 1980s, aimed at arming the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, long after it became clear that the effort was playing into the hands of Islamist forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra. The remnants of the so-called Free Syrian Army, which never stopped complaining about what it saw as the West’s reluctance to decapitate the Assad administration, are today allied with Turkey.

In that capacity, they are facing off against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which in turn have been bolstered, or at least somewhat protected, by the presence on ground of their American allies. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the Syrian Kurds as an extension of their Turkish cousins, whose autonomous urges he so violently resents. And the last thing he is prepared to tolerate is even a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave across Turkey’s border with Syria.

In fact, Trump’s decision to pull out was apparently triggered by a phone call from Erdogan during which the US president was expected to persuade his Turkish counterpart to hold off on any offensive against the SDF. Instead, once Erdogan asked him whether there was any point to the US deployment in Syria now that the militant Islamic State group had been more or less defeated, Trump signalled his agreement and asked his national security adviser, John Bolton, to arrange a withdrawal.

Press reports suggest that Bolton and Erdogan were taken aback. The latter, inevitably, was thrilled by his unexpected success, as were Russia and Iran. Bolton, one of the most imbalanced components of the George W. Bush regime, is obsessed with Iran and opposed to its influence in Syria, much like the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Trump’s dismay at US foreign engagem­ents evidently extends to Afghanistan, where a somewhat more gradual disengagement is on the cards. But not to Yemen, where the bombs that wipe out children and other civilians are all too often made in the US, while the Saudi-UAE coalition is happy to pay for them. In other words, that is a profitable war, and it’s unlikely that a Senate resolution against collaboration with Saudi Arabia, in the wake of its outrageous butchering of US-based commentator Jamal Khashoggi, will deter Trump from preserving his alliance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the latter’s counterpart in Abu Dhabi. The fact that the denizens of Yemen have been brutalised during this year to arguably an even greater extent than Syrians makes little difference to Washington.

Trump has much else to worry about this Christmas season, beyond insisting that Mattis should depart by the new year instead of at the end of February, presumably as a reaction to the response elicited by the departing defence secretary’s mildly critical letter of resignation, in which he obliquely berates the president for failing to live up to the expectations of his Western allies. Or, perhaps more likely, it was the feedback from the war party, including prominent Republican legislators, that persuaded him to go ballistic, so to speak.

The notion of retired generals such as Mattis, former chief of staff John Kelly and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster restraining the commander-in-chief’s worst impulses has always been something of a myth. Trump told The Washington Post last month that he placed greater trust in his own gut — clogged though it may be with burgers and Diet Coke — than in the brains of his advisers.

Mattis’s letter of resignation suggested that the president deserves a defence secretary more aligned to his own tendencies — which he has already achieved in other key posts with Pompeo and Bolton. The idea of Trump being surrounded by henchmen who are also yes-men is indeed petrifying in some respects, but his inclination against open-ended military engagements abroad, for whatever reason, isn’t be any means the worst of his predilections.


Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2018