How Trump is losing in Syria & why Haley is Posturing

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Well, I say Trump is losing, but it isn’t clear that Trump has a policy in Syria or cares whether he wins. The Department of Defense is losing. Its policy was to

1. defeat ISIL with the help of the leftist Kurds of the YPG (People’s Protection Units)

2. weaken Assad in hopes of his overthrow by covertly supporting fundamentalist guerrillas

3. once it became clear those guerrillas could not take Damascus, the US supported the “deconfliction zones” also suggested by Russia as a way of preserving the rebel areas from complete defeat and putting down a marker on negotiations toward a post-war Syria that made a place for the rebels (as opposed to a return to complete one-party Baath rule).

4. Find ways to block Iranian influence in Syria and to stop Iran’s use of Iraq and Syria as land bridges to supply Hizbullah. (This goal was not really that of the US but of Israel, with which the US is helping)

5. Retain strong relationships with Syria’s neighbors–Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

While the plan to defeat ISIL with the help of the Kurds worked, it is being interrupted in its last stages by the Turkish invasion of Afrin, one of three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria and the only one where US troops were not embedded.

YPG militiamen have deserted the front lines with the last ISIL holdouts to run off to Afrin to help defend it against the Turkish incursion, which is being aided by Arab fundamentalist militias of the “Free Syrian Army.” There are fears that ISIL will stage a comeback if this pressure is removed.

Moreover, the last thing the YPG is interested in at the moment is blocking Iran. It is contemplating an alliance with Assad against Turkey.

Worse, Turkey has disregarded US entreaties to cease its move against the Syrian Kurds. Turkish officials are on the cusp of taking Afrin, and they plan to move east to Manbij and Kobane after that. There are US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in those areas, so a US-Turkish war looms if the Turks follow through and the US stands its ground.

The US is having vastly to curtail its use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, having sent A-10 tank-killing planes to Afghanistan and having sent US dependents home. These moves signal a severe rift in NATO.

The US hopes of avoiding a complete defeat of the fundamentalist Arab rebels through the de-confliction zones and then negotiations with al-Assad from a position of relative strength are also fading, as al-Assad and Russia have used the past year of reduced conflict to prepare for a final military push. The Syrian Arab Army is now splitting the East Ghouta enclave near Damascus into three, which will allow it to cut off aid to them and to negotiate with each of the neighborhoods in turn and to separate off the militias that dominate each one.

The possibility of the fall of East Ghouta this year impelled US ambassador to the UN to issue a threat of US bombing if chemical weapons were used by the regime. It was an empty piece of bluster, since the East Ghouta operation is a Russian one in the air, and the US will not intervene in a Russian sphere of influence.

The Syrian Arab Army has also taken substantial territory up at Idlib in the north.

And Syrian and Russian fighter jets have begun bombing the southern rebels around Deraa after the latter announced that they would begin an operation against the regime (presumably to relieve East Ghouta).

US strategic goals, with the exception of the defeat of ISIL, are being negated one after another, and whether ISIL in Syria can be permanently rolled up is now in doubt.


Bonus video:

Syria: US warns it will ‘act’ amid attack on enclave | Al Jazeera English

12 Responses

  1. Is this how the world ends? Not with a whimper, not with a bang, but with an endless series of questionable complications in all the existing conflicts, producing a mid-range wail of pain and frustration coming off the global body politic.

  2. This is a complex piece professor, but your assertion that “Trump” is losing in Syria is not really credible. The lunacy of the Syrian affair was well under way long before Trump even announced that he might stand for president and in reality, the machinations now going on in Syria from the American perspective, are well outside of Trump’s personal control. He has as some commentators say, abrogated foreign military matters to his generals. As for Nikki Haley and her chemical weapons jibe, its about a s credible as the Russian using Sarin to kill a former Russian spy over here in the UK. A couple of surveys have shown that the British public are treating with derision the notion that Putin ordered this foolish, clumsy attempt to put a spoiler on the coming world cup football match in Russia. Our halfwit prime minister, Mrs May, is milking this nonsense for all its worth to deflect attention away from her own failings over the Brexit affair. Its heaven sent for her.

    • Well, now Trump has fired his Secretary of State for saying that Putin did it. Something interesting is going on.

  3. While this analysis seems to address current conditions on the ground, it fails to understand that Trump’s goals in Syria are whatever Putin tells him they are.

  4. These objectives are either self-contradictory or at the very least pursued in a manner that makes at the very least 2 or 3 out of 5 impossible to achieve.

    On 10/14/2017 in a column titled, “ElBaradei: Trump Propaganda on Iran Nuclear Deal like Run-up to Iraq War”, you wrote:

    “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.”

    You wrote on 05/22/17 in a post titled, “Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shiism”:

    “Then they condemn Iranian intervention in Syria but don’t mention that Saudi Arabia backed the radical terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam that had genocide against Syria’s Shiites on their minds.”

    The first comment means that second objective on your list to topple Assad was pursued even if that meant giving material, financial and logistical support to groups that were associated with known terrorist groups (as classified by the US Department of State). It also meant that the US did not care when Saudi and Turkish support in the form of munitions and heavy armaments ended up falling to ISIS.

    As for other contradictions, Turkey had from the outset made it clear that it did not like the US arming YPG or providing them with any support. This makes stated objectives 1 and 5 contradictory, and therefore either one or the other was impossible to achieve. Objective 2 and 5 are also contradictory in the sense that while these same rebel groups were supported in Syria by the US, they were also opposed by the US in Iraq! That is the US helped the Iraqi Army and government with expelling these rebels in Iraq, but then supported them in Syria.

    These same rebel groups have committed terrorist attacks in Jordan, which again makes points 2 and 5 contradictory.

    Observers of the Near East need to stop thinking about “winning” or “losing.” The primary criteria the US should apply to its actions is whether or not it is commensurate with international and human rights laws. Clearly, stated objective two is problematic from an international law perspective. That is providing mercenaries with arms, material, and logistical support is against sections of the Geneva Conventions and entire sections of the UN Charter. The same issue arises to a lesser extent with the YPG. Regime change is also problematic from an international law perspective.

    Syria had a nascent and important protest movement that was both largely secular and democratic, but Saudi Arabia did not want to see secular and democratic movements succeed in the Near East. As such it either brutally suppressed these movements (in Bahrain) or it supported extremist groups that would all but destroy any chance of secular and democratic movements taking hold (in Syria and elsewhere).

  5. And now Trump fires Tillerson and hires neocon Pompeo for secretary of state. As bad as Tillerson was, he was one of the saner voices in the administration, now we’re just getting a bunch of Pro-Israel neocons, will they drag us to war with Iran? How much will this cost? How many lives? The only reason we’re interested in Syria is because of Israel’s concerns about Iran. I think there needs to be a push to force AIPAC and these neocon Pro-Israel think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which writes baseless claims about Hezbollah like them running underground drug operations in London and places in Latin America to register as foreign agents. At a time when Russia seems to be a huge concern, we really should be having a conversation about Israel. Al Jazeera actually has blocked a video on the Pro-Israel lobby from being shown because of lobbying pressure, as Americans I think it is paramount for us to be able to see it. I really wonder if this alliance is something worth hanging onto really, Israel’s policies are fundamentally against my own values, but thus far I have thought perhaps they serve our national interests, but day by day, it increasingly seems like Israel is more of a burden than anything else.

  6. When Obama aided the rebels in their war for regime change in Syria it was the right war at the right time. It helped with breaking up a network of ISIL training camps which posed a danger to the U.S.. I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Assad and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that have been made on all sides. I am supporting the intervention because I think the civilian populations of these cities, which are in the moment in rebellion against the regime and which Assad is attempting to reduce even under the current situation of international intervention, that that is something that should prick our conscience.

    • The US goal for regime change isn’t some altruistic and righteous endeavour to help the Syrian people. It’s about interests to help out Israel and Saudi Arabia while simultaneously screwing Iran.

      This thinking of justifying US intervention, just repeats a mistake like 80’s Afghanistan, for which there was blowback and in recent memory, Libya, a Western regime change initiative many supported too on what they thought were humanitarian best intentions, but has now become incredibly messy, may have been misleading and a regretful endeavour.

      Supporting the armed Syrian opposition should have been straight and simple, however, the fact that many militant groups include local and foreign Sunni fundamentalists and extremists that would be willing to commit sectarian and ethnic cleansing of minority Alawites and Christians and Kurds, besides forcing their totalitarian Sunni Islamist control over other Syrian Sunnis as well, this becomes untenable as they weren’t all ‘moderates’ like the Saudis and the US had tried to make us all believe. Most probably the moderates were there in the beginning, but it’s been partially hi-jacked and many have left the scene. As despicable as it is, unfortunately dissident Syrian political groups will probably have to cut a deal with the brutal Assad regime.

      And no, ISIL had benefited from this US support initially and weren’t always being disrupted. This includes unrestricted access via Turkey, US arms brought and captured from other groups or their defecting trained fighters for ISIL, either voluntarily or forced survival. This is besides many of these Syrian opposition groups having been in coalition with Al Qaeda backed groups, the terrorist organization who carry the honour and joy of massacring US citizens amongst them.

      • “…dissident Syrian political groups will probably have to cut a deal with the brutal Assad regime.”

        It is doubtful this will happen – although some observers have speculated a “Balkanization” will occur in Syria with certain provinces spinning off as independent states as in the former Yugoslav republic.

        My guess is that there will likely be rebel strongholds that are well-supplied by the West which will continue to fight on indefinitely. The Daraa and Quneitra governorates in the south will likely follow this path – although the Rojava area may continue to be allowed as an autonomous region under the Syrian Democratic Council – but still part of the Syrian Baathist sovereignty.

        • Very few states in modern times have balkanized in the long run, and keeping opposition cantons going when they are losing is very difficult to do or to justify. People also kept predicting that Iraq would permanently lose Mosul or Kirkuk, and Baghdad already has them both back. Damascus will be weaker than before, but it will likely over time reassert itself.

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