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Trump's Syria Withdrawal Is a Simple Case of Foreign Policy Realism
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President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria is being denounced by an impressive range of critics claiming that it is a surrender to Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran – as well as a betrayal of the Kurds and a victory for Isis.

The pullout may be one or all of these things, but above all it is a recognition of what is really happening on the ground in Syria and the Middle East in general.

This point has not come across clearly enough because of the undiluted loathing for Trump among most of the American and British media. They act as a conduit for the views of diverse figures who condemn the withdrawal and include members of the imperially-minded foreign policy establishment in Washington and terrified Kurds living in north-east Syria who fear ethnic cleansing by an invading Turkish army.

Opposition to Trump’s decision was supercharged by the resignation of Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis which came after he failed to persuade the president to rescind his order. Mattis does not mention Syria or Afghanistan in his letter of resignation, but he makes clear his disagreement with the general direction of Trump’s foreign policy in not confronting Russia and China and ignoring traditional allies and alliances.

The resignation of Mattis has elicited predictable lamentations from commentators who treat his departure as if it was the equivalent of the Kaiser getting rid of Bismarck. The over-used description of Mattis as “the last of the adults in the room” is once again trotted out, though few examples of his adult behaviour are given aside from his wish – along with other supposed “adults” – to stay in Syria until various unobtainable objectives were achieved: the extinction of Iranian influence; the displacement of Bashar al-Assad; and the categorical defeat of Isis (are they really likely to sign surrender terms?).

In other words, there was to be an open-ended US commitment with no attainable goals in an isolated and dangerous part of the world where it was already playing a losing game.

It is worth spelling out the state of play in Syria because this is being masked by anti-Trump rhetoric, recommending policies that may sound benign but are far detached from political reality. This reality may be very nasty: it is right to be appalled by the prospects for the Syrian Kurds who are terrified of a Turkish army that is already massing to the north of the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

There is a horrible inevitability about all this because neither Turkey nor Syria were ever going to allow a Kurdish mini-state to take permanent root in north-east Syria. It existed because of the Syrian civil war in which Assad withdrew his forces from the Kurdish-populated regions in 2012 in order to concentrate them in defence of strategically vital cities and roads. Isis attacked the Kurdish enclave in 2014 which led to a de facto alliance between the Kurds and the US air force whose devastating firepower enabled the Kurds to capture a great swathe of Isis-held territory east of the Euphrates.

Turkey was never going to accept this outcome. Erdogan denounced the Kurdish political and military forces controlling this corner of Syria as “terrorists” belonging to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.

This is a good moment to make a point about this article: it is an explanation not a justification for the dreadful things that may soon happen. I have visited the Kurdish controlled part of Syria several times and felt that it was the only part of Syria where the uprising of 2011 had produced a society that was better than what had gone before, bearing in mind the constraints of fighting a war.

I met the men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) who fought heroically against Isis, suffering thousands of dead and wounded. But I always had a doomed feeling when talking to them as I could not see how their statelet, which had been brought into existence by temporary circumstances, was going to last beyond the end of the Syrian civil war and the defeat of Isis. One day the Americans would have to choose between 2 million embattled Kurds in Syria and 80 million Turks in Turkey and it dd not take much political acumen to foresee what they would decide.

Turkey had escalated its pressure on the US to end its protection of the Kurds and this finally paid off. A telephone conversation with Erdogan a week ago reportedly convinced Trump that he had to get US soldiers and airpower out of Syria. Keep in mind that Trump needs – though he may not get as much as he wants – Turkey as an ally in the Middle East more than ever before. His bet on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia as the leader of a pro-American and anti-Iranian Sunni coalition in the Middle has visibly and embarrassingly failed. The bizarre killing of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team in Istanbul was only the latest in a series of Saudi pratfalls showing comical ineptitude as well as excessive and mindless violence.

Critics of Trump raise several other important questions in opposing his withdrawal decision: is he not letting Isis off the hook by prematurely announcing their defeat and thereby enabling them to make a comeback? There is something in this, but not a lot. The Islamic State, that once held territory stretching from the Tigris River in Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is no more and cannot be resurrected because the circumstances that led to its spectacular growth between 2013 and 2015 are no longer there.


Isis made too many enemies because of its indiscriminate violence when it was at the peak of its power. Trump is right to assume in a tweet that “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others…will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us”. Isis may seek to take advantage of chaos in eastern Syria in the coming months, but there will be no power vacuum for them to exploit. The vacuum will be filled by Turkey or Syria or a combination of the two.

A further criticism of the US withdrawal is that it unnecessarily hands a victory to Vladimir Putin and Assad. But here again, Trump’s manoeuvre is more of a recognition of the fact that both men are already winners in the Syrian war.

Nor is it entirely clear that Russia and Iran will have greater influence in Syria and the region after the US withdrawal. True they have come out on the winning side, but as the Syrian state becomes more powerful it will have less need for foreign allies. The close cooperation between Russia and Turkey was glued together by US cooperation with the Kurds and once that ends, then Turkey may shift – though not all the way – back towards the US.

By denouncing Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, his opponents are once again making the mistake of underestimating his instinctive political skills.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Kurds, Syria 
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  1. Rational says:


    Thanks, Sir. You make good points.

    The main reason the neo-cons want US in Syria is to help Israel steal land from the Syrians for the Greater Israel project. Now that will be difficult, so they are upset.

    These troops from Syria should be sent down south and to defend our border, instead of helping Israel expand its border.

    • Replies: @Alfred
  2. anon[284] • Disclaimer says:

    Kurds are seen by the people living in Turkey Iran Iraq and Syria as nothing but opportunistic puppet who will introduce Kosovar kind of politics with Israeli trojan horse .Azerbaijan is another raw example . It is not about few millions Kurds It is about 200 million Arab and 80 million Iranians.

    Hizbollah win over Israel or Israeli failure in 2006 moved many pieces on the chessboard- by bribes,by cajoling, by threats . The Hisbulalh has to go – 2000 AD retreat from Lebanon and 2006 loss of face were too much for Israel. The Israeli concocted the entire saga . Saudis joined out of fear of being chastised more by Israel in US. Turkey dis not want initially but was goaded by US. Libyan rat line was concocted the day Ghadafi was made a target by NATO.

    Yes, the place can get bloodier but without foreign intervention , the prospect of peace is much higher.

  3. anon[355] • Disclaimer says:

    If the USA had any brains and no Jewish lobby, the middle east would be irrelevant.

  4. Renoman says:

    Getting out of the Middle East is the smartest thing Trump has ever done. The US Citizens don’t want to be there, it’s their money and they are all tired of Israel and their Bullshit agenda. Good for Don I hope he leaves Afghanistan whom in all recorded History NO ONE has ever conquered and Iraq too. The whole sorry mess has brought nothing but losses and embarrassment! Go home and pave the roads!

  5. El Dato says:

    A further criticism of the US withdrawal is that it unnecessarily hands a victory to Vladimir Putin and Assad. But here again, Trump’s manoeuvre is more of a recognition of the fact that both men are already winners in the Syrian war.

    How are they winners??? Why does Cockburn write like someone trying to explain the plot of post-2000 Star Wars?

    1) Murrica: Stay in Syria because Hollywood Actresses, TV Talking Heads, Russophobes and Liberabombers demand it (Cardboard Bad Guys have been identified, what more do you need?)

    2) Jewmerica: Stay in Syria because Israel demands it.

    3) America: Stay in Syria because there are old school-colonial interests … there aren’t any? Get home then.

  6. This point has not come across clearly enough because of the undiluted loathing for Trump among most of the American and British media.

    Exactly! Thank you!

    I find myself in agreement with every point you made. My only military experience was as an enlisted man for three years back in the 60’s. All I know is what I read on the internet. But I would be a better Secretary Of Defense than Jim Mattis who apparently is completely fucking stupid. Only adult in the room my ass!

    My mother used to say “It’s a wounder we do as well as we do”.

    • Agree: Alfred
  7. Well written and I am in general agreement with the points made. I would add that the inhabitants of the Euphrates Valley in Syria, i. e. the River banks which are hemmed in by largely empty desert, are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs and there is no way they would ever be willing to accept being ruled by the Kurds.

  8. Hail says: • Website

    members of the imperially-minded foreign policy establishment in Washington

    We need some good terms for this group and its opponents.

    ‘Imperialists’ won’t do (except as polemic) because there is no formal U.S. empire. I like Cockburn’s construction “the imperially-minded foreign policy establishment,” but it’s too long to catch on.

    Are ‘globalist’ (perhaps used in union with ‘interventionist,’ as in “Globalist Interventionist”) and ‘nationalist’ the best terms we have?

    • Replies: @flaart bllooger
  9. swamped says:

    First class analysis. Glad there’s still one last “adult” reporter left in the room. And one “adult” president again.

  10. LS says:

    How quick would the public demand these wars end if Trump called up the Military Draft!

  11. Virgile says:

    Trump is now challenging Erdogan to fight ISIS, which the Turkish army never did.
    If Erdogan does not soon make a deal with Bashar al Assad, we should expect ISIS elements supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE ( with Syria’s approval) to create terrorist acts the areas ‘occupied’ by the Turkish army. Saudi Arabia wants Erdogan’s skin and it will do all they can to achieve that. It refuses to see Turkey becoming the powerful Sunni leader in the region at the expense of the Arabs. Therefore I see a new rapprochement between with Syria and the GCC to confront the ‘turkish’ hegemonic ambitions. Iran is now a lesser threat for the Sunnis. Turkey is the one.
    To survive that imminent assault, Turkey is trying to mend its relation with the USA and NATO countries and that would distancing from Russia and Iran. A very delicate game and I am not sure Erdogan is capable to manage it. Tthe witdrawal of the USA is opening a new chapter in the power struggle in the region.

  12. it pains me to see how people contort their brains to find a downside to this pullout in syria.

    my god, the man campaigned on it.

    what else is there to say>?

    you wanna go kill people in syria, get your passport and gtfo.

    don’t ask me to pay for it ya yard turds.

  13. @Hail

    globalist works fine.

    maybe with the caveat, neocon or neoliberal.

  14. ‘”‘The Roman Empire stretched from North Africa, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea to Germania and Britannia in the north. It ended at Scotland..”

    The Roman Empire – particularly the military – declined largely as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the legions.”

    Arther Ferrill:The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation .

    This week is the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie. Therefore, the Crown must release the evidence.

    • Replies: @Alfred
  15. it is right to be appalled by the prospects for the Syrian Kurds who are terrified of a Turkish army that is already massing to the north of the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

    And who will behave very, very differently to how the Kurds would behave if the situation were reversed.

  16. Ruprecht says:

    The decision to remain in Syria, and the greater Middle East, is one that empires have had to deal with for thousands of years.

    If we’re still democracies, we should at least be able to have an honest discussion about what we’re deciding, as opposed to babbling about “spreading democracy”, “freedom”, “human rights”, or any other such nonsense.

    • Replies: @JLK
  17. APilgrim says:

    Congress has NEVER legitimized the Syria campaign, with an AUMF.

    Congress passed the War Powers Act, yet they refuse to use it.

    The Syria campaign is dying from lack of congressional support.

  18. It is an historical shame that the Kurds didn’t get their own country in 1919. But that omelet can’t be unscrambled now.

    I hope the US pullout comes with an implied understanding between Assad, Erdogan and Trump that the Kurds deserve at least a semi-autonomous region.

  19. JLK says:

    If we’re still democracies, we should at least be able to have an honest discussion about what we’re deciding,

    Right. If the electorate is systematically kept misinformed and/or uninformed about critical topics, the system isn’t working the way the Constitution intended.

  20. APilgrim says:

    Bill O’Reilly needs to write a book titled ‘Killing Congress’.

    Or ‘We The People’ need to knock ’em up side the head.

  21. Alfred says:


    I don’t know much about the Neocons, but I suspect ordinary Israelis are waking up to the fact that they will have to choose between a Lesser Israel and a No Israel.

  22. Alfred says:
    @Hagia Sofia

    What evidence? That some Libyan bought a suitcase in Malta? That a Swiss-made timer was found in the debris (easily arranged)?

    The reality is that the Iranians did it in order to avenge what happened to Iran Air flight 655. It was shot down for no reason by the US Navy when coming in to land in Dubai – with the loss of 290 civilians. The USN claimed it was an accidental shooting – the USN captain got a medal soon after.

    The fact that no one has tried again to shoot at Iranian civilian aircraft is ample proof that the Iranian message was well taken. Even the Israelis have been too scared to take on Iranian vessels.

    They chose to blame Gaddafi because they had to blame someone and his country was next on the list. They shook him down for a massive amount of money while they were at it.

    The Scottish legal process is totally corrupt and followed the wishes of the British government.

  23. APilgrim says:

    It is time to consider another invasion of Venezuela.

    Over Russia’s threat to violate the Monroe Doctrine.

    I admire Russian President Putin, but the Monroe Doctrine is non-negotiable.

    The Americas are OUR indisputable ‘Sphere of Influence’.

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