Friday, December 21, 2018

Nonsense about the US withdrawal from Syria

This attempts to counter some of the foolish comments made about Trump's withdrawal from Syria.

The least foolish of these is that the battle against ISIS is not won.  No it isn't, and Trump's claim that it is, is plainly false.  But to harp on this is absurd.

For one thing, there isn't the slightest possibility that keeping US troops in Syria would win the battle, or prevent an ISIS resurgence.   ISIS' ultimate strength lies, not in its Syrian or Iraqi enclaves, but in what the West and Arab authoritarian governments have done to the peoples of the region, and in the conditions in Muslim countries worldwide.  These conditions guarantee a literally unending stream of militants seeking justice and revenge.  The notion that 2000 US troops would affect this dynamic is ludicrous.  Equally foolish are the tiresome recommendations that the underlying conditions be addressed.   The sage pundits who say these things know perfectly well that the West will never, ever address these conditions:  it can't, because they occur in sovereign states.  It would take a Western occupation of those states, involving hundreds of thousands of troops for decades, to cure the injustices of the region, and even then it's not clear that the economic basis for healthy societies exists.  In other words, whatever the West is going to do, whatever leadership it has, ISIS won't be defeated.  What then is the point of warning us that Trump's withdrawal will not defeat ISIS?

For another, forget the mantra about how effective the Kurds have been against ISIS.  Their victories are almost entirely the result of overwhelming US air and artillery support.  Their actual capabilities are better assessed by looking at how even a much-weakened ISIS can rout Kurdish forces with attacks during storms and under other conditions inimical to air operations.  The Syrian rebels, not to mention the Turkish army, would be at least as effective as the Kurds in combating ISIS, and they wouldn't need a US ground presence to do it.

There is more foolishness.

It is said that withdrawal shows the US to be an unreliable ally, and that this is a dire mistake.

In the first place, nothing says you're unreliable like supporting, with weapons, troops and air power, the armed, active enemy of your ally.  That's what the US did when it backed the Syrian arm of the Kurdish PKK against its NATO ally, Turkey.  So Trump's withdrawal of this support could well be seen as a return to reliability, not the abandonment of it.

Second, it's unclear that appearing unreliable in this instance would make much difference to the US position in the world.  Nations are allied to the US, not because they have touching faith in America, but because they have little choice.  They don't want to fall under Russian or Chinese domination.   The idea that alliances are made and preserved on trust runs contrary to all historical precedent.  It's childish.

It is said that US withdrawal is a gift to Putin.

This carries absurdity into insanity.  The unspoken truth about the US' Kurdish 'allies' is that they are also allies of Russia and Assad.  In the 2015 campaigns against rebel Aleppo, Russia and Assad even provided air support to the Kurds.  Later, Assad secured for the Kurds a road whereby they could move between their Northeastern and Northwestern territories.  He also pays for much of the infrastructure in the Northeastern provinces.  This means that, in allying with the PKK/YPG, the US is allied to Assad, Russia...  and Iran.   It's true that Putin probably enjoys seeing the US leave; he doesn't want a US presence in Syria.  But it's also true that Obama, and until now Trump, have been fighting on Putin's side.  He now faces an expanded Turkish presence in Northern Syria, which threatens and complicates his relations with Assad and Iran.  Because Turkey backs the rebels, it even threatens the security of Russian bases in Latakia and Tartous.  Trump's withdrawal means the US will mend relations with Turkey.  That in turn means Putin can't expect to pry that country - a real strategic prize that until recently seemed almost within his grasp - away from its Western alliance.  Finally, the US retains its air bases and naval presence in the region, so that US withdrawal of 2000 troops from Syria makes not the slightest difference to the regional balance of power.  Some gift.

It is said, with feeling, that the Kurds have been betrayed.

Even if there is some truth to this, it is foolish.  For one thing, the Kurds have been supremely opportunistic in their choice of allies.   They feigned neutrality when the rebels were strong, yet with increasing frankness came out on Assad's side when the rebels faltered.  For another, the morality of betrayal depends on circumstances.  The Kurds chose to ally with a rĂ©gime so monstrous that adjectives like 'brutal' can't begin to capture the extent of its atrocities.  When the King of Italy abandoned Mussolini in 1943 he betrayed Hitler.  Was that reprehensible?

The criticism of Trump's withdrawal, though couched in the language of morality and even honour, is curiously oblivious to the sort of humanitarian considerations that you'd think would belong to those values.  The most likely consequence of US withdrawal - should it really occur - is that Northern Syria will become a refuge for perhaps millions of Syrians, under Turkish protection.  Meanwhile in the rest of Syria, as widely predicted, Syrians in formerly rebel areas are subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and murder.  But sure, pontificate some more about the US withdrawal.


  1. I'm not saying the description of the PKK is inaccurate,but the link you use to demonstrate this is to a blog post which does make some utterly absurd Cold War statements about the DFLP and the Sandinistas and such, sufficiently surreal as to render reliability at least questionable. Again, I think what you say about the Kurds in Syria is more-or-less correct - I just think another source or two might have been a better choice.

  2. Of course, the investments of many leftists in Rojava at best and the Syrian regime at worst do distort how many less rabidly right-wing people represent events in Syria, so finding better sources is not as easy as it should be.