Trump’s disastrous Year in the Middle East: Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump on the campaign trail said many self-contradictory things about the Syrian civil war. He wanted to carpet bomb ISIL, which had a strip of territory in the far east of the country. He wanted to send in 30,000 US troops, he said at one point. Then at other times he argued that “we” should just “let Russia handle it.”

As it happened, the Pentagon under Ash Carter, Obama’s secretary of defense, had worked up a plan to defeat ISIL and to deprive them of their caliphate by giving close air support to the Syrian leftist Kurds of the northeast.

Trump did not innovate in any way, he just had SecDef Jim Mattis go on doing in eastern Syria what Ash Carter had been doing. The US air force and aerial allies such as France bombed ISIL in their capital, Raqqa, and gave air support to the YPG Kurds, who gradually advanced to the center of the city and then took it away from ISIL. The capital of their so-called caliphate had lasted for only three years before they lost it.

As the action then picked up south of Raqqa, the Syrian Arab Army troops of al-Assad combined forces with the Russian Aerospace Forces to finish off ISIL. The US and its Kurdish allies did take some of Deir al-Zor province, but down there the regime reasserted itself.

So Trump, like Obama, helped maintain a buffer zone around the Syrian Kurds with 2,000 special ops troops.

But aside from putting down that marker for a sphere of influence in the Jazira, the northeast of the country, Trump has done almost nothing else.

Meanwhile, al-Assad and the Baath regime used their Shiite auxiliaries from Lebanon and Iraq and Russian air fire to further consolidate control over much of the country.

They lack the East Ghouta pocket outside the capital of Damascus, and likewise they lack Idlib province in the north.

Trump intervened briefly in Syria, where he dropped some Tomahawk missiles on a base he was convinced were being used for delivery of chemical weapons.

It was a one-time intervention, followed by … nothing.

In the meantime, al-Assad and Russia are gradually, and brutally, reestablishing regime control.

So of all his campaign promises, Trump’s actions came closest to the version where he lets Syria go to the Russians. The only wrinkle is the 2000 spec ops guys in the northeast among the leftist-anarchist Kurds.

Since Turkey doesn’t like that and al-Assad/Russia doesn’t, at some point Trump will have to decide whether the US troop presence there is a low priority or a high one. If the former, he’ll have to withdraw or face terrorist strikes. If the latter, he may come into direct conflict with shadowy troops belonging to someone or another. In other words, there may yet be a battle royale.

The 2011 youth revolt in Syria was turned by the al-Assad regime into a civil war. The regime deliberately used heavy weapons to target peaceful, civilian protesters, in hopes of making them militant so that they could be denounced to the outside world as terrorists. While outside money played a role in radicalization, most of that preexisted the outside money and was homegrown.

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11 Responses

  1. I think it is unfair to criticize Trump for policy failures because I don’t think he has the capacity to formulate policy or execute it. He could just as well be a Times Square billboard programmed by Bannon and company. You can’t blame the advertising company for the taste of the soup.

    Unlike Reagan, the Teflon president, Trump is the hologram president.

    • Gotta disagree with you about that point, Sherm. As I look back at the past year, I need to acknowledge that I was flat wrong when it came to Trump. I never thought he’d win the GOP nomination and I NEVER, EVER thought he’d win election as President. But let’s give this guy credit for being more clever than he seems. I won’t make the mistake of underestimating him again – and that’s why I intend to work my butt off in 2018 to help elect progressive candidates. Long story, short, he’s not being “programmed” by Bannon or any other of that crowd; rather, it’s an echo chamber that reflects whatever gauzy convictions he holds about foreign policy. So, yes, he shoulders responsibility for what’s going on and it’s perfectly fair to criticize his mistakes.

  2. “As it happened, the Pentagon under Ash Carter, Obama’s secretary of defense, had worked up a plan to defeat ISIL and to deprive them of their caliphate by giving close air support to the Syrian leftist Kurds of the northeast.”

    You wrote on October 17th 2017 that: “Not to mention that it has come out that the US saw ISIL growing in eastern Syria and let it do so because they thought it would pressure al-Assad. So who was complicit with terrorism in Syria?”

    You later wrote that former Secretary of State was the source of your conclusions. The Obama administration’s plans and actions in Syria were in contravention of international and human rights laws. The material and logistical support of extremist groups in Syria has costed Syrians and Iraqis many innocents.

    “It was a one-time intervention, followed by … nothing.”

    What? We should have further strikes on Syria, and fund further extremist groups in Syria to further destabilize the region? No! The people of the Near East and sensible people here in the US are done with this warmongering. Instead, strengthen international and human rights law to prosecute all war crimes, including the war crimes of al-Assad and Saudi Arabia. Give the ICC to prosecute everyone, including non-signatories Rome Statute. That would of course mean that our leaders too would have to be tried for their war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in numerous other places under the same governing mechanism.

    “The 2011 youth revolt in Syria was turned by the al-Assad regime into a civil war. The regime deliberately used heavy weapons to target peaceful, civilian protesters, in hopes of making them militant so that they could be denounced to the outside world as terrorists. While outside money played a role in radicalization, most of that preexisted the outside money and was homegrown.”

    Yes, Al-Assad is a war criminal, and Russia supported many of his war crimes. Simultaneously, ordinary Syrians did not want anything to do with ISIS, Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and the other numerous murderous groups in Syria and Iraq. They detest these groups as much as the regime of al-Assad. Many of these extremist and terrorist groups received funding and support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia (with support from our government in Washington). Without this support, none of these extremist groups would have been able to overrun entire sections Iraq and Syria. The financial and material support of these extremist groups is precisely what killed the Arab Spring.

    Trump’s domestic and foreign policies are catastrophic: costly for our planet, costly for ordinary humans, and costly in terms of fulfilling the promises of our constitution.

    • Anon, good comment. But when you start shadowboxing with yourself at the beginning of the fifth paragraph, it gets a little, eh, weird. I don’t think the proprietor or most of his readers would disagree with any or certainly not much of what you wrote.

  3. “The 2011 youth revolt in Syria was turned by the al-Assad regime into a civil war. The regime deliberately used heavy weapons to target peaceful, civilian protesters, in hopes of making them militant so that they could be denounced to the outside world as terrorists. ” I believe that Assad released many of the Iraqi Baathists that were being held in his prisons as part of that effort. This appears to have been a major tactical error, as these Iraqi Baathists went on to form the backbone of ISIS.

  4. You might remember the old days when the USSR was described as a superpower that had only one weapon, a big hammer. Any problem that they faced was dealt with using the big hammer.

    How times have changed; Russia is employing a foreign policy of cleverness and subtlety. They use very few troops and a few bombs and get their relatively modest wants. We use large numbers of troops and lots of bombs and don’t get any of our grandiose wants (remake the middle east!).

    Look at what the Russians have done to our politics and no bombs involved!

    • The notion Russia is not a real-time deadly threat to the U.S. mainland is a Russian propaganda meme for dupes.

      Currently, Russia has more fully-operational thermonuclear weapons targeting U.S. cities than any other country(s).

    • In the good ole days, China had a huge number of bodies to surge across the Yalu, which for them was efficient.

      The USSR had nukes bigger than could possibly be employed in any practical scenario, but which made the apparently cost-efficient impression they sought. Actually, I get the impression the Russians have historically been pretty serious tacanos, as the shoe Khrushev carried in to bang at the UN was even cheaper. Now, or even then, when Russia intervenes, it seems to be pretty well thought-through and disciplined. They got sucked into the Afghanistan, but they knew when to cut their losses.

      Scarcity engenders frugality and disciplined foresight. OBL saw the leverage of $500,000 to provoke the US along a more or less successfully predicted line. That $ would hardly even generate a RFP in the US. The Russian disinformation campaign cost, what? Supporting a few hundred nerds with second-hand PC’s?

      It’s the “business-like” approach to these things which gets the US in trouble. That is, vested monetary interests; the business of building careers; the unchecked and unreflective pride of putative leaders and wannabees.

      The US can do things on the smart and cheap, if things are happening too fast for cooler heads to prevail: like the way the CIA went into Afghanistan post 9/11. In fact, they’ve done all sorts of things along those lines with relatively few people, as has the State Department in a kinder and gentler way.

      But, when the potential for something grander becomes visible, look-out Iran.

  5. Donald Trump actually ended the largest covert operation that the Central Intelligence Agency managed since Operation Cyclone was initiated in Afghanistan during the Carter administration to effectuate regime change against the Soviet puppet government in Kabul.

    Operation Timber Sycamore involved the intelligence services of Britain, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Jordan, Turkey and Israel – as well as the Pentagon – to purchase and deliver thousands of tons of arms into Syria at a cost of billions of dollars to violently topple the Baathists in Damascus.

    The aftermath of this quashed operation – engineered by CIA director John Brennan who sold it to Obama in 2013 – is 100,000 dead and wounded Syrian Arab Army and security personnel, plus millions of displaced Syrians several hundred thousand dead Syrian civilians.

    In addition to sophisticated purchased weaponry falling into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates after being distributed to FSA and other friendly forces, there have been allegations that CIA-supplied rebel units have used child soldiers and committed war crimes.

    Further, the CIA has reportedly paid “contractor” firms to deploy personnel to engage in combat operations against the Assad regime. Some of these CIA operatives are currently missing in action and were the subject of a visit to Damascus by a Trump administration official recently to the Syrian Baathist intelligence chief, as reported by Reuters.

    The Free Syrian Army is still very active and as late as a month ago scored victories in the Daraa Governorate south of Damascus against government forces and has significant popular support in that region, where the Baathists had been blamed for mismanagement of water resources and abuses by the Syrian security forces.

    The Obama administration needs to be blamed for the shortcomings of Timber Sycamore – however the abrupt stoppage of support to the rebels to the extent of handing Putin and Assad an undeserved victory in Syria.

    Whether Trump colluded with Putin in an improper manner as to the Syrian situation is open to speculation and needs to be examined by the Mueller probe.

    In any event, a Congressional investigation should also examine the role of both the Obama and Trump administrations for the Syrian fiasco…

    link to nytimes.com

    • “The Obama administration needs to be blamed for the shortcomings of Timber Sycamore – however the abrupt stoppage of support to the rebels to the extent of handing Putin and Assad an undeserved victory in Syria.”

      Support can come in many ways: vocal support of the democratic aims of the citizenry and strengthening International law are likely to be the most effective. If support involves providing armaments and munitions to rebels, are such actions truly in support of the Syrian people? Many of the rebels likely fit the definition of mercenaries laid out by the Geneva convention, and as such providing them weapons is in contravention of international law. As you note, many of those rebel groups that were provided munitions and armaments used child soldiers. One also has to question the purpose of these munitions and armaments. These guns end up being pointed at the Syrian and Iraqi citizenry, and only end up extending a conflict that can only be resolved through sustained negotiations. Is arming rebel groups really going to help ordinary Syrians and Iraqis more effective in negotiating future civil rights from autocratic governing authorities? We have not seen other examples where arming rebel groups has supported democratic or civil rights advocates.

      Assad and Russia have both committed war crimes in Syria. The United States is not responsible for these war crimes; the only capacity in which one could argue that the US bears limited responsibility is through not establishing the requisite and enforceable laws of international governance that would prevent such actions. The war crimes in Syria and Iraq that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are responsible is precisely arming and supporting Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Islam, as well as other terrorist groups.

      For Syrians and Iraqis (as well as every human on this planet), it is fortunate that Timber Sycamore has come to a close.

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