The Syrian debacle is not only Trump’s fault

America’s 2011 decision to back Turkey and its Syrian proxies laid the ground for today's conflict.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Topics Politics USA World

The folly of President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria did not lie in the withdrawal itself – after all, little positive has come from continued American interference in the Middle East. No, the folly lay in withdrawing on terms set by the Turkish state. It lay in Trump’s impulsive acquiescence to President Erdogan’s long-standing demand that US forces move out of the Turkish military’s way. It lay in intervening, through withdrawal, on Turkey’s behalf, against the Kurds.

The consequences of Trump’s folly have been dire. Turkish military forces, fronted by the hardline Islamist remnants of the Free Syrian Army, have moved quickly, cutting a ruthless swathe through territory in northern Syria held by the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces. It is estimated that between 160,000 and 300,000 people have so far been displaced, and many killed and injured. Despite the partial ceasefire, or ‘pause’, as Erdogan called it, the Turkish state remains undeterred in his efforts to repopulate the area with some of the 3.6million Syrians Turkey is currently holding for the EU.

Having been abandoned by the US, Syria’s Kurds, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its de facto army, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been forced to seek an alliance with Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime. There is little love lost between them, given that Assad, like his father, has treated the Kurds as second-class citizens, depriving them of fundamental rights. But the Kurds are desperate, hence the willingness to renounce any stab for autonomy in return for the protection of the Syrian army.

Brokering the alliance between Assad and the Kurds is the major beneficiary of Trump’s impetuousness: namely, Russia. So just as Assad’s regime looks to Russia for political and military support, now the Kurds do so, too. The Russian state’s role is not straightforward, of course. Erdogan has forged a relationship with President Putin, with the Turkish state now purchasing weapons from Russia as well as the US. Nevertheless, it is an indication of just how internationalised the Syrian conflict is, with or without American involvement, that its immediate future is being decided not in Damascus or the towns and cities of northern Syria, but at the Black Sea resort of Sochi where the leaders of Turkey and Russia have been meeting this week.

Not that anyone should expect peacemaking miracles from Moscow. It backs Assad’s insistence that Syria retain its territorial integrity, which goes against Turkey’s effective plan to shift its Syrian border 30 kilometres south. And it does not want a revived ISIS revitalising Russia’s own restive Islamists, something threatened by the breakdown of the Kurdish order, not to mention the collapse of the ISIS-packed prisons, in northern Syria. The presence of Russian forces in the key border towns of Manbij and Kobani, both of which lie within Turkey’s designated ‘safe zone’, shows how Turkey and Russia’s semi-amity could easily turn into antagonism.

So it is a dangerous, volatile situation. The YPG, betrayed and fearful, are in retreat. Syrian government and Russian forces are empowered. The Turkish state and its proxies are emboldened. And the jihadist threat is resurgent. The consequences of Trump’s folly are now all too palpable.

Many in the US foreign-policymaking establishment recognise this. They have seized upon Trump’s folly to impeach him in the court of public opinion. Former defence secretary James Mattis, was joined last week by General William McRaven, a former special forces commander, Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO chief, and others in slating Trump’s decision as a ‘geopolitical mistake of near epic proportions’. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, penned an op-ed slamming it as a ‘strategic nightmare’. And former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called it ‘a sickening betrayal both of the Kurds and his oath of office’.

Yet the blanket condemnation, echoed around the Western world by pundits and politicians, sticks in the craw. Trump’s decision was many things. Crass. Capricious. Not to mention politically and morally wrong. But it was also a decision born of an almost impossible situation, one in which the interests of two US allies – Turkey and the Kurds – are in flagrant conflict. A conflict for which the conditions, moreover, were created precisely by the US foreign-policy establishment, and the assorted cheerleaders for Western intervention, now using Syria to condemn him.

For it was they who enthusiastically intervened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Syria. It was they who set the US and the West against Assad. And it was they who worked alongside the Turkish state to confect a rebel alliance of ‘moderates’, with the so-called Free Syrian Army at the front, to wage war against Syrian government forces.

And this is the tragedy of what we are seeing right now in northern Syria. Those largely Islamist militias in the employ of the Turkish state, now gleefully hacking their way across northern Syria, are the remnants of that intitial US-Turkey-led intervention. They were sponsored, backed and even trained by the US in the years between 2011 and 2014.

Here’s Clinton speaking in 2014 to the Atlantic: ‘The hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them.’ As Max Blumenthal, of the Gray Zone, notes: ‘One of those “hard men” is Salim Idriss… de facto leader of the mercenary forces dispatched by Turkey into northern Syria. He has pledged, “We will fight against all terror organisations led by the PYD/PKK.”’

It was only after 2014, when those nice, moderate Free Syrian Army rebels the US and Turkey had so proudly cultivated, revealed themselves to be violent jihadists, some even joining with insurgent ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates, that the US was forced to perform a volte face. For it was then, with ISIS occupying vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, that the US turned away from Turkey, and towards Turkey’s avowed enemy, the Syrian Kurds. So having encouraged and backed Turkey in its anti-Assad manoeuvres, through the Syrian rebel militias, the US began fighting it, through the Kurds, in its own anti-ISIS manoeuvres. As one headline at the time put it, ‘America is in a proxy war with itself in Syria’.

In other words, those now condemning Trump set in motion the very conflict now tearing northern Syria apart. They initially enjoyed the feelgood moral sentiments arising from posturing against Assad, and went along with the Turkish state, funding and arming its Islamist proxies in the FSA. And then, when the folly of that intervention became apparent, they pushed and backed the Kurds, against Turkey’s proxies and their ISIS brethren.

Trump, then, confronted an insoluble contradiction created by the US’s long chaotic foreign policy, one in which the product of the first phase of its intervention in Syria ran up against the product of its second phase. That’s not to excuse Trump’s wretched decision to side with Turkey and betray the Kurds. It is to point out the fact that Trump’s preening, self-righteous critics, from Clinton to the laptop militarists in the UK, exacerbated in Syria the very conflict between Turkey and the Kurds of which Trump has now so callously tried to wash his hands. His, one might say, are far from the most dirty.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty Images

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Comments

John Doran

26th October 2019 at 5:50 pm

Any attempt to associate Trump with any blame for this horrendous & now lost war on Syria seems to me ridiculous, frankly.

He has inherited this steaming pile of ordure & looks to be trying to extricate his failing Empire from a lost & failed adventure rooted in ambitions for a Global Govt in a unipolar world.

JD.

John Doran

26th October 2019 at 5:37 pm

Book: Pawns In The Game, by WWII Canadian naval intelligence officer William Guy Carr.
Can be read free online:
http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/pawns_inthegame/pawns_contents.htm

Rothschild + 12 ‘pals’ plot for global domination is in chapter 3, on The French Revolution, drawn up, 1773, by ex(?) Jesuit Professor of canon (Church) law, Adam Weishaupt.

JD.

John Doran

26th October 2019 at 5:25 pm

Obarmy, 2011, certainly armed the ISIS jihadists with the Gaddafi weapons he stole from Libya, along with his partner in crime, Hitlery Clinton.

But the roots of the Syria situation, how far to go back?

Back 70 years to 1949? Back 246 years to 1773? Take your pick. Citing 2011 as the start date is not even scratching the surface. 2 books + 1 web ref:

http://www.ukcolumn.org/article/white-helmets-and-hala-systems-grotesque-militarisation-“humanitarianism”-syria

Book: The Lost Hegemon, F. William Engdahl.

John Doran.

Willie Penwright

26th October 2019 at 8:26 am

Erdogan is playing both sellers off against each other. It’s business. One wants tosell S400s and the other F35s. All the talk of ‘human ‘rights and ‘democracy’ and even national ‘soverignity’ is just so much window dressing for the public.
The UK and the other EU arms dealers don’t object as they have their own contracts to look after. (British Royals belittle themselves and their country for the sake of Saudi arms contracts and even send military personnel to ‘help’ in the Yemen massacres).
As Don Corleoni puts it: “It’s just business.”

Winston Stanley

23rd October 2019 at 2:32 pm

“It lay in intervening, through withdrawal, on Turkey’s behalf, against the Kurds.”

That is not logical. A withdrawal is an intervention? You might as well say that non-intervention is intervention in so far as it allows one side to continued without one’s (non or continued) intervention. Trump was elected on a platform to withdraw US troops from endless wars and that is what he is doing.

Trump has also withdrawn 2000 troops from Afghanistan this year and the pentagon has drawn up contingency plans in preparation for a sudden policy announcement to withdraw the rest of them. Are you going to say that Trump has “intervened” in Afghanistan on behalf of the Taliban by getting US troops out of that otherwise interminable forum?

Trump’s attitude is that US involvement just makes situations worse and prolongs disputes that are better sorted out by the local participants themselves. That way the countries can find their own solutions and a sustainable equilibrium, which has long been the position of Ron Paul. US has no strategic interests in the Syria or Afghanistan and it is wasting its time and everyone else’s by prolonging those conflicts.

sp iked are supposed to be against Western interventions but they have now made it clear that they support them, or their prolongation, for their own pet political causes – as does every wannabe geopolitical interventionist. Exceptions are not the exception, they are the rule. Either you oppose Western interventionism in other people’s countries and disputes in principle or you do not.

Ven Oods

23rd October 2019 at 1:58 pm

Thoughtful article, Tim.
So often, these things operate on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Then, something changes and a swift reverse-ferret is required, and one party or another feels betrayed.
That Clinton feels able to pronounce on this is like Major criticising BoJo for proroguing Parliament – hypocrisy and humbug.
Then again, nobody got to the top in politics by being scrupulous, so should we be surprised?

Forlorn Dream

23rd October 2019 at 12:54 pm

I don’t know enough about the situation to decided one way or the other. I will however, make two general comments.

I always assume the opposite is true for any claim or statement made by either of the Clinton’s. These two are proven liars.

In my opinion any country, organisation, political party, military force, etc that contains the word ‘democrat’ in its name is usually absolutely not democratic.

jessica christon

23rd October 2019 at 12:33 pm

Predictably the loudest critics of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops are those who would happily see the US permanently involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and never allowed to leave because that would lead to X being persecuted by Y. Those who argued for the US and UK remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely also used a similiar type of ‘we’re holding the ring’ logic.

But as usual the voices you hear clamouring in politics and the media aren’t representative of the views in the population at large; the average American doesn’t want his/her tax dollar going on this kind of thing and that’s partly why Trump was elected.

I agree that it is Assad and Russia who should be the ones taking responsibility for protecting the Kurds, and if that means the Kurds giving up the claim to a homeland for now then so be it. There’s not going to be another Israel so I can’t see that they have any choice, but at least their leadership seems to be pragmatic about this.

Winston Stanley

23rd October 2019 at 12:14 pm

Now Angela wants in on the action with a safe zone. Hmmm, pretty sure there is one already in operation Angela, or about to be.

> Angela Merkel backs plan for a ‘safe zone’ for migrants in northern Syria which could be enforced by German troops

German chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown her support behind her defence minister’s controversial plan for a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria enforced by Western troops – possibly even German ones.

Merkel told conservative MPs that the idea was ‘very promising, even if there are many questions’, sources in the parliamentary party said. (DM)

Jim Lawrie

23rd October 2019 at 11:35 am

So a regional power has filled the void. No surprise there. For all the the fear mongering about Russia, it is a regional power, concerned with maintaining access to the Med, pipelines through the region, and stability on its southern borders. All of which directly benefits Ukraine and Azerbaijan.
It is Turkey that has expansionist goals into Syria, Iraq, Greece and Bulgaria..

Let them sort out their own affairs.

Jim Lawrie

23rd October 2019 at 11:44 am

Erdogan, March, 2013;

“From this magnificent place I personally want to congratulate my brothers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Western Thrace, Crimea, Bulgaria and Romania.

We send our greetings to all the victims and oppressed brothers of ours in Sarajevo, Skopje, Xanthi, Komotini, Kardzhali and Mostar. We share our cordiality with these brothers whose souls and eyes are turned to Turkey, for those who pray for the success of Turkey.

Every time I say it – these cities are physically located in the borders of other countries, but they are part of our spiritual boundaries. The meaning of Turkey does not fit at 780,000 kilometers. The half of our hearts are in Istanbul, Diyarbakir, Trabzon, Antalya, Izmir, and the other half is Aleppo, Kirkuk, Jerusalem, Sandzak and Bukhara “

Jim Lawrie

23rd October 2019 at 11:45 am

Pardon me. March 2018

Winston Stanley

23rd October 2019 at 12:21 pm

Jim, he is talking about “spiritual” kinship of a diaspora, something that you would likely understand with the Anglo diaspora, not geographic expansion. You do yourself no favours by trying to milk a silly far right trope. You are clearly a bright bloke and you are capable of following sensible mainstream geopolitical analysis, as the bulk of your first post made clear, so why ruin it with trope nonsense? No serious geopolitical analyst even suggests that Turkey has “expansionist” ambitions. We all get that you do not like mass immigration but these sorts of displays will get you nowhere.

Michael Lynch

23rd October 2019 at 8:03 am

The very fact that allied forces refused to tackle ISIS on the ground has created the current situation. It was a despicable act of cowardice on our part and has caused nothing but grief for innocent civilians not to mention European politics. Never mind American soldiers, where are ours? This our problem not America’s. Rationality has left the building because the European elite can’t see past their loathing for Trump. Where’s Obama’s responsibility for all this? That Nobel Peace Prize was won on the backs of dead Syrian children – piles and piles of them.

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