Syria – Tell Me It Ain’t So


Michael Brenner – TRANSCEND Media Service

22 Dec 2018 – It is daunting to find polite words for describing American foreign policy- such is its incoherence. Purpose is obscure, logic is invisible. There is no approximation to orderly process – in thought, in deliberation, in decision.  These truths have been highlighted by Trump’s stated intention to withdraw (some) American troops from Syria – and by the reaction to it. The harsh reality that it is not the White House alone that lacks anything resembling a strategy in the Middle East. That holds for their critics, too, both inside and outside the government. Indeed, the same judgment should be made about the preceding Obama administration.

Explicating the hows and whys of this mess is akin to untangling the backlash on a fishing rod. One is hard-pressed to decide what thread to begin tugging on. So let’s start with the most elementary: what is the purpose of our engagement in Syria? Most everyone seems to agree it has been to suppress ISIS. Why is that imperative?  Because “if we don’t fight them over there, we will have to fight them over here.” Well – probably not. The Islamic State leaders have had no capability to strike the United States and no evident intention. Their project of building a modern-day Caliphate doesn’t involve us – except as we presume to block it. Terrorist acts in Western Europe have been committed by natives who had been inspired and abetted by ISIS. In any case, there is no danger of have to deal with an invasion force of thousands, or even hundreds, requiring us to mobilize the forces we deploy “over there.”  Major terrorist attacks do not depend on control of territory. Think of 9/11. It was conceived by Bin-Laden in Sudan or Afghanistan. It was designed and organized in Hamburg. Operations were coordinated in New Jersey. Training took place in Arizona and Minnesota. Implication?  All the territory you need is a studio apartment just about anywhere in the world. The same logic holds for Afghanistan where have been fruitlessly chasing Pashtuns around the Hindu Kush for 17 years – with tears for all.

If our risk tolerance for possible terrorist acts in America or against American persons/interests is so low that we nonetheless feel obligated to intervene military over there, then we should be fighting other terrorist organizations in Syria as well. Yet, we are not doing that. We have not done that at any time since 2012. Al-Qaeda in its various incarnations have been the most powerful jihadist organization and the one that has come closest to seizing power from Assad in Damascus. The same holds for their brothers-in-jihad like Ahrar al-Sham.  We have fired hardly at shot at them for 6 years. We have no plans to do so. Indeed, Washington consistently has made it clear  – by deed and declaration – that it prefers to see those terrorists succeed than for the Assad regime to survive. Toward this end, successive administrations have stuck the fictitious label of “moderates’ on them – a designation they have acquired by keeping alive the small actual moderate elements that survive as a diplomatic and political cover. Through that arrangement, the United States supplied al-Qaeda & Assoc with arms, including thousands of TOW anti-armor missiles. Much of these munitions were conveyed through the Saudis acting as middle men for their fellow wahhabis and surrogates in the war to create a Sunni dominion across the Middle East.

That policy continues. Still potent al-Qaeda led jihadis are concentrated in Idlib province. There, they have been protected from elimination by the Syrian Army (with Russian support) by Turkey, their original sponsor, and the United States. This summer, when the SAA was about to large an all-out assault on Idlib, Washington threatened retaliation against Syrian installations. The harangues by Pompeo and Haley reached new heights hostility – and of hypocrisy. The breath-taking truth is that the United States was ready to chance war with Russia for the sake of the organization that committed the 9/11 atrocity. We never have been given an explanation. Nobody has asked.

The same mindlessness was manifest in our selective, at times half-heartened, campaign against ISIS. The U.S. for four years refused to attack ISIS’ oil commerce which provided most of its sustaining revenues. Those oil fields, facilities, and truck convoys carrying through Turkey to Mediterranean ports where much of it was trans-shipped through Israel, worked undisturbed. Erdogan got a cut of the proceeds; his son headed the company that handled the logistics. That continued until the Russians in early 2016 embarrassed Obama by exhibiting photographs at the U.N. So the less than strenuous pursuit of ISIS remnants since Raqqa conforms to a well-established pattern.

Turkey has been our other partner in this enterprise from the outset. These jihadist organizations, ISIS included, were incubated by Erdogan’s Turkey who provided aid, succor, and free access to Turkish territory for training and transport. We were part of a triple alliance with the KAS and Turkey whereby we made arrangement for the purchase of arms in Eastern Europe (mainly), the Saudis the money, and the Turks the conveyance. Vice-President Biden denounced the Turkish and Saudi role in sponsoring ISIS in a speech he gave at Harvard in October 2014. There was no follow-up, though, either in word and deed – and Biden shut his mouth.

So it turns out that the War On Terror in Syria has been quite selective; that it often has been subordinated to other objectives and interests, and that the playing field has been overrun by multiple self-interested parties. However, none of this gets focused attention in the endless discourse on America (and American troops) in Syria. More important, the manifest contradictions have never been resolved – strategically or by deed. That holds for Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump, and their critics like Mr. Mattis, Mr Bolton and the editors of the august New York Times. One of those contradictions, only one, has come to the fore this week in regard to the Kurds and the Turks. That is a significant but not the biggest part of the story. The Kurdish YPG forces have served as the United States’ infantry in Syria. Supported only by a relative handful of Sunni Arab groups, they occupied Raqqa and other towns after they had been  obliterated by American airstrikes and artillery fire. We have expanded their remit to the South and Southeast where they have seized territory in Syria from ISIS while leaving in place clumps of fighters they are unable to dislodge – even with desultory American airstrikes.

The YPG has its own aim – to constitute a Kurdish state, wholly or largely independent, that would be aligned with the fellow Kurds across the border in northern Iraq. The deal they struck with us is that in return for military and financial backing, they would continue to go after the ISIS remnants AND prevent the legitimate Syrian government from reestablishing its suzerainty around Raqqa and the oil-rich region East of the Euphrates. Simply put, Washington has stated its plans to stay in Syria indefinitely to provoke instability in the country and to prevent Assad from consolidating his rule. This is an element to the Israeli grand strategy of keeping the region fragmented and in turmoil so as to prevent a challenge to its regional domination. The United States subscribes to this strategy and underwrites it.

The primary hitch in this plan is that the YPG is viewed by Erdogan as a grave and imminent threat to the integrity of the Turkish state. For the Kurdish organization is closely affiliated with the PKK which ran a long and bloody civil war with Ankara in seeking autonomy for the Kurdish areas of Turkey.  Erdogan has bluntly stated that, therefore, he never would accept an autonomous Kurdish statelet in Northeastern Syria. He invaded and occupied another Kurdish enclave around Afrin last year. Recently, his rhetoric has become more belligerent and military preparations are being made for another invasion which, theoretically could bring himself into another conflict with the United State. The only thing Washington and Ankara have agreed upon is that Damascus should not be allowed to recover its sovereign territory.

How does one get into a jam such as this? Why the complete absence of logic? Incompetence and incoherence – incoherence within the American foreign policy establishment and incoherent diplomacy.

What prompted Trump to declare his intention to pull out American troops and, thereby, to leave the Kurds to their historical fate? Let’s recall the Khashoggi murder. Erdogan has the goods on Mohammed bin-Salman – another incompetent on a par with his American counterparts, including his bosom buddy Jared Kushner. He has tapes and videos that prove MSB’s personal direction n of the assassination – tangible evidence if any were needed. He has leaked excerpts drip by drip. In effect, he has been trying to blackmail MBS. What he wants is 3 things: One, a withdrawal of all Saudi backing for the Kurdish groups and acquiescence in a Syria deal that gives Turkey a piece of its territory. Two, money – a lot of it to ease the enormous financial pressures on the foundering Turkish economy. Three, KSA’s calling off it aggressive campaign against Qatar – a Turkish ally and benefactor. MSB has resisted with the active backing of the White House. In effect, the Saudis have been telling their Trumpian friends: if you want us to continue as close allies, get Erdogan to ease his demands. So long as Washington believes that the U.S.-Saudi alliance is more important to us than it is to them, that works. However implausible the premise, that indeed is how Washington has been appraising relations for the past 10 years. We don’t know whether any cash has passed between MBS and Erdogan. It also is unclear what the former’s intentions are in regard to Qatar – which happens to be managing quite nicely in its isolation so long as few thousand Turkish troops remain on its soil.

On Syria, we now see the terms of a three-way deal. Erdogan gets the American abandonment of the Kurds. Trump keeps Erdogan happy while earning some points in Riyadh (which he will not know what to do with if the past is any guide). MSB gets to see the curtain lowered on the Khashoggi killing. Clink glasses.

Not everyone in Washington, or in European capitals like London and Paris, is happy, though. For they have bigger fish to fry. The Pentagon, the neo-cons, the interventionist liberals, the Zionist lobby – they all have their eyes set on Iran and Russia. They want regime change in Tehran – or, at least, the Mullahs unconditional surrender to American-Israeli-Saudi demands that it denature itself politically. A strong American military presence in Syria (and Iraq) is taken to be a crucial element in that coercive strategy. The U.S. has built a network of a dozen air bases in Syria , and permanent facilities for Special Forces, CIA operatives and thousands of contract fighters. Washington has been moving heaven and earth to secure the right to do the same in Iraq (in the name of preventing a recrudescence of ISIS). The latter is a failing policy that makes securing its presence all the more important for keeping maximum pressure on Iran. Their fate in the wake of Trump’s impetuous announcement is unpredictable – most likely, they will stay in place. As The New York Times loyally and approvingly has quoted John Bolton’s remarks of a few days ago:

“we’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies [Hezbullah] and militias [Iraqi Shi’ite forces].”

It is a marker for our times that America’s semi-official newspaper of record now promotes the Melian dialogue as the guide for American diplomacy.

This attitude is reinforced by reference to the standard fictions. “ISIS has roughly 20,000-30,000 fighters on the Syria-Iraq border.” No independent, knowledgeable observer agrees – unless you count every straggler who harbors sympathies for ISIS from the Turkish border to Basra. Then there is: By overriding the advice of “grounded professionals” like General Mattis, Trump “not only hampers morale and undermines allied forces like the Syrian Kurds, it also could risk getting American soldiers killed or wounded….” This is crude polemic. American soldiers are nowhere engaged in direct combat with ISIS. Not even Special Force units advising the Kurds have direct contact. There hasn’t been an American casualty in Syria for several months. This is little different than the fear-mongering that characterizes the talk show blowhards who are always egging for a fight – somewhere for some reason.

To add to the mindless clamor, they raise the old bogeyman of Israel intervening to taking out the abominable Iranians who remain in Syria if the Americans are not around. But there is no threat posed by the very modest Iranian forces remaining in Syria. Moreover, their numbers are diminishing. As for Netanyahu doing something crazy that could lead to a wider war, Putin has made it clear to the Israelis that he won’t stand for it, will not tolerate renewed airstrikes against Syrian targets, and has punctuated matters by deploying upgraded S-300 sir defense batteries manned by Russians.

The grossest canard is that Obama is to blame for the rise of ISIS, and what followed, by withdrawing American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. This is an outright falsehood – despite its being repeated ad nasueum. The objective truth is that we were kicked out of Iraq by the government of al-Maliki. That occurred under the Bush administration. Throughout 2008, David Petraeus and Ambassador Corker negotiated with Baghdad on a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would grant the U.S. a permanent military footprint in the country. The duo were sure that the Iraqis would agree- They were wrong – as usual. Ayatollah Sistani declared such an arrangement anathema and a consensus formed among the Shi’ite political factions that the Americans should go.

A SOFA was signed on December 4, 2008 – with Bush still in the White House which stipulated that U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by 30 June 2009, and that all U.S. forces would be completely out of Iraq by 31 December 2011. Obama had no choice but to implement it. Endless repetitions of charges to the contrary are nothing more than evidence of the ‘big lie’ technique at work.

 Russia, of course, is the other bee in the bonnet of American policy-makers. The Pentagon especially was shocked and embarrassed by the successful Russian moves into Syria in 2015. Expectations that they would fall flat on their faces, as predicted by Barack Obama, who personally sees Putin as a rival for international stardom, proved little more than an expression of American hubris. The simple truth is that fragile self-esteem cannot stand the idea of Russia ‘winning’ in Syria. The country’s foreign policy establishment was convinced that Russia’s days as a great power ended in 1991. To see it emerge even as an important regional power is taken as an insufferable affront to American pride. The implication is that we must stay in Syria to curtail Russian influence, to keep the pot boiling by causing as much trouble for them in Damascus as possible and to strengthen our credibility with the Israelis and Saudis to whom we are wedded in a bizarre relationship of dominance by the weaker.

France and Britain have both vowed to keep in place the forces they currently have deployed in Syria. The two allies, and their leaders personally, are soul-mates of the hardliners in Washington, their viewpoint is shared, as are their delusions and fabrications. They, too, have painted themselves into a corner. What these vestigial forces could do in Syria is another matter. The harsh reality is that they are irrelevant – politically and militarily.  As they have been everywhere in the Middle East with the partial exceptional of Libya – if anyone in Paris or London is still boasting about that fiasco. The sad truth is that none of the major players in the region take the Europeans seriously.


Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Dec 2018.

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