Trump Admin Commits to Forever War in Syria against Iran

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a talk Wednesday at the right wing Hoover Institution that hovers over Stanford University, in which he committed to a Forever War in Syria. The talk was a mishmash of incompatible talking points and full of inaccurate and tendentious assertions, but its most troubling feature was the determination to keep US troops in Eastern Syria over the long haul.

Some 60% of career diplomats have fled the State Department in the past year, as Tillerson seems intent on destroying the institution he leads. The lack of any real expertise on Syria is obvious in his erroneous talking points.

Tillerson laid out five strategic goals in Syria, what he called “end states”:

First, ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria suffer an enduring defeat, do not present a threat to the homeland, and do not resurface in a new form; that Syria never again serves as a platform or safe haven for terrorists to organize, recruit, finance, train and carry out attacks on American citizens at home or abroad or against our allies.

Second, the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state.

Third, Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.

Fourth, conditions are created so that the refugees and IDPs can begin to safely and voluntarily return to Syria.

And fifth, Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

The problem is that most of these goals cannot be attained at all, and several of them can be attained only if others are not.

The United States only has some 2,000 special forces operatives in eastern Syria, which is not a big enough force to police the country against rump ISIL cells. US troops are embedded with the leftist Kurdish YPG militia, which is friendly to the US at the moment and hates ISIL, and which has done the heavy lifting in defeating ISIL in Raqqa Province (along with contributions to its south in Deir al-Zor from al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army). The YPG can be depended upon to fight ISIL wherever it crops up, but only in areas adjacent to its population and power base in the Jazira, of northeastern Syria.

Since the al-Assad regime has won the civil war, it does not feel it needs to make a grand political compromise with the rebels, who only have three significant pockets of resistance left: Idlib Province in the north, the East Ghouta neighborhood in the vicinity of Damascus, and Deraa south of the capital. All together, these three account for about 2 million people. The YPG Kurds of the north and northeast constitute another 2 million, but they are not rebels against the regime per se and probably would be willing to rejoin Syria if it were reformulated as a federal state with substantial states’ rights. They also now rule over about a million Arab Syrians in Raqqa. So the remnants of the rebels rule about 11 percent of the some 18 million Syrians still inside the country. The YPG Kurds have about 16 percent of the population. That is 27%. Let’s say there are rebel pockets amounting to another 3%, giving the regime 70% of the population. Tillerson says Damascus only rules half the territory, but that statistic is irrelevant since the eastern desert is thinly populated It is like the US government losing control of Wyoming, which is a big place but, no offense, few people live there. And remember that the 11% that is Kurds, while they are not under government control, have been willing to cooperate with the Syrian Arab Army against the Arab fundamentalists and would likely do a deal with Damascus if the US left.

Not only does the al-Assad regime have 70% of the population (and potentially 81%), but it has all the major urban centers that account for most of the economy–Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Latakia, and Damascus. It has the major port, Latakia, and can blockade rural hinterland pockets in Idlib and Deraa.

Tillerson’s depiction of the al-Assad regime as having only half the cards is simply incorrect, and it leads him to over-estimate the strength of the American hand. Al-Assad does not have to go under these circumstances, and will not. In fact, the survival of the Idlib, East Ghouta and Deraa pockets is in serious doubt. Over 120,000 people have fled north toward Turkey from the current Idlib campaign just in the past month.

The United States has no lever to reduce Iranian influence in Syria.

Syria does not have weapons of mass destruction. The Russians helped sequester or destroy most of its chemical weapons, which is what this weaselly term means. It still has a small storehouse of sarin gas, about which the US probably can do nothing. Where the regime uses it in mopping up rebel pockets, as it did last spring, the Trump administration has shown that it will intervene with missile attacks. These strikes, however, had no follow-through and are relatively ineffectual.

As for the return of the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, that process has already begun as the al-Assad regime has reestablished control over much of the economically productive parts of the country. Several thousand refugees have returned from Lebanon in the past three months.

What will interfere in that process is the US keeping the pot boiling by promoting continued instability in Syria.

I can’t go into all the contradictions in this policy. Tillerson names al-Qaeda in the northwest as another target for US intervention. But complains about the regimes operations against the al-Qaeda affiliate there! When attacking the Damascus regime, Tillerson lionizes the rebels who rose up against it. But he downplays that some of them became extremists except when casting about for some reason to stay in Syria.

Tillerson tried to mollify Turkey, but did not really address Ankara’s outrage about his plans to create a permanent 30,000 strong US-armed Kurdish militia in Syria. He said that this plan has been overblown in the press, and simply aims at training Kurds to patrol the border with Iraq and prevent ISIL from returning. But if he is planning to train and arm 30,000 such border police, well, that is precisely what Turkey was complaining about.

The Trump administration is playing an extremely dangerous game here. Those US troops in eastern Syria are sitting ducks if Turkey turns on them. They are far from any support base (if you exclude Incirlik in Turkey, Baghdad’s Command, with only 6,000 troops, is the closest). They are surrounded by hostile forces–Hizbullah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Syrian Arab Army, Iraqi Shiite militias, and potentially the Turkish army and intelligence. And no one among the neighbors with the possible exception of Baghdad wants them there.

This policy is a mishmash, and premised on fake statistics and contradictory goals.

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Related video:

AP: “Tillerson: U.S. Military Will Remain In Syria”

14 Responses

  1. Seventy-plus years of serious consideration of world affairs just drops off a cliff, just suddenly and inexplicably drops into a near-impossible sinkhole, like that little girl in Texas 25 years ago.

    The Chinese must be laughing, the Russians and Turks are likely rubbing their hands in preparation for desired selfish outcomes they mean to create. All the other local actors in the whole region are realizing that America is no longer worthy of interest or consideration as an actor in regional balance of power.

    Especially if the current 2000 American “advisors” and/or the 30,000 leftist Kurds they might train are unfortunately wiped out by Turkish and/or Russian and/or Syrian campaigns …

  2. It appears a characteristic of the Trump regime to float purposes in a manner that makes them appear firm, encouraging media and commentators to spread them widely like fertilizer, only to modify or deny them later according to the response. One recent example is this business of denying funds to UNRWA, which deals specifically with Palestinian refugees. That looked pretty clear cut when Nikki Haley announced it. However, two days ago the DOS had quite a different perspective on the issue with their spokesperson saying that $60 million committed for 2018 was not included and the other $65 million was only being held for future consideration. It’s money that’s being frozen at this time. It’s not being cancelled. It’s just being held for future consideration. She also insisted link to state.gov this was entirely part of a DOS efficiency study of the UN to make sure that the money is best spent and nothing whatsoever to do with politics. My comment here is not actually off topic because we could well be seeing the same thing with Tillerson on Syria. It’s almost as if, in the absence of the diplomats who have ‘fled the State Department’, Trump floats his ideas on the big wide world instead.

    • Having brooded on this notion overnight, I am confirmed in it. It’s very economical in time, energy, and brain (sic) activity. You announce your plan, have the media spread it far and wide, lie on your bed (the Macdonald’s is optional) and watch the responses flow back on three TV screens. Then you carry it through, modify it, or have it denied while you crack open another Coke. Who needs a State Department?

    • This would be what is known in some quarters, quite positively, as “fuzzy logic.”

      Not to be totally confused with “ready, fire, aim.”

  3. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, creator of Alibaba, said this last year in Davos.

    “The U.S. has wasted over $14 trillion in fighting wars over the past 30 years rather than investing in infrastructure at home.”

    To be sure, Ma is not the only critic of the costly U.S. policies of waging war against terrorism and other enemies outside the homeland. Still, Ma said this was the reason America’s economic growth had weakened, not China’s supposed theft of jobs.

    Lindsey Graham still wants to send 5000 US troops into Syria. The neocons never learn.

  4. “Tillerson lionizes the rebels who rose up against it.” Yes, lionizing them has been very effective against Assad’s missiles and bombs.

  5. but surely our Good Friend and NATO ally ™ Turnkey wouldn’t turn on our troops, right? I mean, that would be crazy, wouldn’t it? (sarcasm)

  6. This post only gives a hint of how illuminating and productive a more patient and thorough dismantling could be, of what purports to be a major policy speech with immense consequences. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll get a lot of huzzahs for this post. But, if you or someone else had the time and patience to organize a good solid 5000 word (?) piece with a more polished presentation appropriate for something like FP, I cannot help but think it could go far to unmask the sheer undeniable incompetence of these people.

  7. Note, too, that Tillerson sat on stage next to the war criminal sponsor of “the new Middle East,” Condi Rice.
    Going by all concepts of international law, US forces in Syrian sovereign territory are invaders and occupiers.

  8. Thanks Juan. This is uplifting . A nightmare of ignorance rules as the US sinks into darkness.Lets hope 2018 elections will bring in some light.

  9. Given that none of our policies have borne positive fruit, we need to seriously reassess just what is the point? We’ve spent so much money and the return on our supposed investment is negative. For too long we’ve harbored delusional notions that in another year or two our policies in the Near East will prove successful. It hasn’t.

    China is investing heavily in Pakistan, Africa, and South East Asian countries. The return on their investments certainly won’t be negative. If anything, the short-term and long-term results on their investments will be tremendous.

    It just doesn’t make any sense. Let’s be smart. We need to give up on policies that have no theoretical basis for working, are against international and human rights laws, and have time and time again proven detrimental to our economic and social interests. (Not to mention the harm that has come of our foreign policies in the Near East to the actual people living there).

  10. I don’t know that I completely agree with the headline here, which is based upon remarks made by Rex Tillerson. I often wonder if Trump and Tillerson ever even talk together, because they are only rarely on the same page. How often do we see one of them making a policy statement, only to be contradicted by the other? Then, when we throw Nikki Haley into mix, you never know what kind of witch’s brew will ultimately emerge. Sometimes I wonder if they do this deliberately, just to keep our heads spinning …. and their options open??? Is absolutely everything from them merely trial balloons? Heck, I don’t know.

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