Brief #54—Foreign Policy
With Syria nearing the eighth year of its brutal war, one which has claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000-500,000 people, President Trump declared on December 19th that Isis was defeated and the United States would withdraw the 2,000 soldiers still deployed within the country. The announcement came as a surprise to much of Washington, given that the Pentagon estimated last month that Isis forces, who continue to hold pockets of territory across Iraq and Syria, remain somewhere in the number of 20,000 and 30,000 fighters. Just last week, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat Isis Brett McGurk told reporters that the US wanted “to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas”.
The White House has been vague in its plan for withdrawal since the initial announcement with one official disclosing an intent for departure within 60-100 days, and another suggesting it could come sooner. Trump tried to clarify on the 23rd that the withdrawal would be a “slow & highly coordinated pullout”, and on Sunday Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that Trump was now more willing to maintain a presence in Syria in order to deter Isis. Senator Graham, who previously called the withdrawal a “huge Obama-like mistake” and “a big win for Isis, Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Russia” is not the only one outraged by Trump’s decision. The announcement unleashed a storm of indignation from nearly every corner of Washington, providing the opportunity for every liberal pundit to brandish their best John Bolton impression and decry the threat of Iranian influence in Syria. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis tendered his resignation, using his resignation letter to condemn China and Russia for their desire to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies” and insisting that the United States “must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values”.
Announcing unprovoked that the United States would withdraw its military presence from Syria was certainly a rash decision. The country is awash with loose ends and instability, and the United States could have maintained a certain temporary strategic position to provide a better outcome for the Syrian people. By announcing an unconditioned withdrawal, Trump is giving away his leverage in negotiating a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
As it stands, the mostly Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Protection Units), is under siege from the Turkish army, who view them as a threat due to their potential to provoke the many Turkish Kurds vying for self-autonomy and an end to their repression. The YPG has been one of the primary forces facing Isis on the battlefield, and is in the process of building a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria known as Rojava, where ethnic Kurds are protected from both the immediate threat of Isis and the potential repression of the Syrian government.
The FSA (Free Syrian Army), a loosely associated collection of Sunni militant groups still fighting the government, have been mostly cornered in the north-western province of Idlib, and their numbers dwindle as many attempt to return to their former lives. Isis still holds one major pocket, but is in the process of transitioning from an actual Islamic state to a simple insurgency. Both Russia and Iran, countries allied with the Syrian government, have provided support in returning territory to the control of the Syrian army, who currently hold 2/3rds of the country, including all major cities.
Ideally, Trump would try to leave Syria in a more stable condition, suited to returning some sense of stability and normalcy to those who have yet to flee the country. This would first mean cutting off support for the Turkish government. We should not be handing over territory, expanding trade, or selling a $3.5 billion weapon system to a country who has exploited a humanitarian crisis to backstab the most democratic force in the country that are on the frontlines fighting Isis. Trump should be working to support the Kurdish political umbrella group Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their recent talks with the Syrian government to address Turkish encroachment, and continuing to provide them with funding to defend their nascent democratic experiment. Trump should also try to negotiate critical support for the Syrian government in their attempts to rebuild their country after almost a decade of war.
The United States has a strong responsibility to help the Syrian people in their struggle for peace, just not through more war. The war fully erupted when the Obama administration chose to capitalize on the relatively minor upheavals of 2011 by flooding the country with arms. The UN has certified that the FSA is not a mass democratic movement, but rather little more than a brand name encompassing a multitude of interest groups, and that foreign intervention has led to the rise of an extremist Salafi insurgency. The US ignored the fact that many of these militias were not the agents of freedom and democracy that they would have liked, and became cavalier in their willingness to hand out arms and support for any group willing to target the Syrian government. This led to the rise of militias such as the al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra Front, who took a leading role in the uprising. In 2012, a classified memo was distributed by the Defense Intelligence Agency which warned of a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria” caused by the power vacuum created by an internationally funded uprising. This would be proven painfully true the next year, as Isis took hold of large swaths of territory. The United States took a leading role in destabilizing and provoking war in Syria in order to remove Assad from power, and there is no reason to believe that our military is in any way capable of cleaning up its own mess.
A sudden withdrawal of forces , as proposed by President Trump, does nothing to make amends for the mistakes our country has made in Syria. It leaves the anti-ISIS coaltion of coutries, that the US assembled, in a lurch without leadership; and it abnegates our ability and responsibility to support the reconstruction of a country that we helped to destroy. Foreign policy made by a tweet and a whim is a poor substitute for foreign policy made with a well coordinated and thought out strategy.
- Veterans for Peace – An international organization made up of military veterans, military family members, and allies, working to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war. Read their statement on our withdrawal from Syria here.
- Codepink – A women-led grassroots organization working to end US wars and militarism. Read their statement on our withdrawal from Syria here.
This Brief was submitted by USRESIST NEWS Foreign Policy Analyst Colin Shanley: Contact Colin@usresistnews.org