Christmas came early in Syria. US President Donald Trump’s surprise tweet heralding the withdrawal of US troops neatly indicated the winners and losers in the murderous eight-year Syrian war. While the US never had much leverage in Syria — due to former US president Barack Obama’s disastrous 2013 decision not to act following the Ghouta chemical attacks — Trump has managed, in a 16-word message, to embolden the Islamic State (IS) group, Moscow, Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran. In a sense, he has abandoned any western influence over Syria and handed the territory to dictators, murderers and terrorists.
First up is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began “engagements” in Syria in 2015 — relentless campaigns that targeted civilians. For Putin, US withdrawal represents a green light to remain in Syria as long as he wishes, to consolidate his power base and pursue his personal Syrian agenda without meddlesome threats from Washington.
For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it means more time to finish off a war that began as a peaceful demonstration of people calling for their freedom: a war that involves gulags, unimaginable torture, ethnic cleansing and the chemical gassing of civilians.
In a strange example of camaraderie, turning a blind eye to grievous human rights violations in Syria is one of the few areas where Trump and Obama meet. Still, having the US involved — even minimally — complicated al-Assad’s scorched-earth campaign against the Syrian opposition. All he needs now is the northwestern city of Idlib and the country is his (except that he has to share it with Russia and Iran).
For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who held talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday last week, Trump’s message is a blessing. The US involvement in Syria meant empowering the Kurds, whom he has always seen as an existential threat.
Erdogan on Monday said he was ready to launch a new cross-border military operation at any moment against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which have been shielded — until now — by the US military presence.
His hawkish stance was echoed by Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar, who said that Turkey was preparing “intensely” for a military offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria, where Kurdish-led forces, the Syrian Democratic Front, have battled IS.
The Kurdish fighters there have already dug trenches and tunnels in anticipation of a military operation, he told Turkish reporters.
“But whatever they dig, when the time comes they will be buried in the trenches,” he added. “Of this there should no doubt.”
The Kurds have been betrayed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, so it is not entirely surprising for them to be stabbed in the back — but it is galling. They did most of the heavy lifting in terms of fighting IS, took many casualties and, in the words of US Army General Joseph Votel, were exemplary at “living up to their word.” In short, they were important, essential military partners.
Now they are abandoned — again. A rapid US withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to the Turks, but also would lead to a disintegration of the Arab fighters who were aligned with them in the fight against IS.
Those fighters are now being courted by al-Assad.
It is all good news for Iranian militias and Tehran, but the greatest gift of all is to the IS group. While Trump boasts that it is finished in Syria, his shortsighted elation over eliminating terrorism is premature. There are still thousands of IS fighters — they hold a small area of Syria — and sophisticated recruitment continues. If anything, IS will use Trump’s withdrawal as a powerful recruitment tool.
What Trump has failed to grasp is, while the blows IS took from the US coalition in Raqqa and Mosul were heavy (and they also inflicted massive collateral damage in both cities), they did not destroy the philosophy that IS has been able to peddle to disenfranchised Muslims throughout the world. The caliphate was halted — but only momentarily.
In an interview this week, Interpol secretary-general Jurgen Stock said that “IS 2.0” was emerging as a powerful force in Europe, as first-generation fighters would soon be released from prison.
For knowledgeable US officials, the news is devastating — and it has caused US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign.
“Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished,” Brett McGurk, Washington’s top diplomat against IS, said earlier this month, adding that a long-term campaign to ensure stabilization was essential.
At the Atlantic Council in Washington this week, US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, said: “IS will come back if the underlying conditions are receptive to that kind of ideological movement.”
That time — thanks to Trump — is now.
While the situation for the Kurds is dire, other minorities will also be affected.
The Christians — who were targeted, expelled and killed by IS, and whose villages were razed — were beginning the slow process of going home and rebuilding their lives. They are caught between their fear of other rising radical Islamic groups and Iranian militias.
They also fear the Kurds.
Some members of the Syrian Christian community, for instance, welcome the withdrawal because “Syrian Christians want their country united as one, and the territorial integrity of Syria respected with no separatist regions created in the country,” said Zina Rose Kiryakos, an attorney for Christian victims of IS and an advocate for Middle Eastern Christians.
She cites reports that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces tried to get Christians to leave the area by subjecting them to beatings, arbitrary arrests, the closing down of Christian schools, assassination attempts on a Syrian Catholic bishop and the intimidation of any Christian who spoke out on what was happening.
The announcement might be one of Trump’s impulses that change daily, although he is consistent in his distaste for any kind of protracted foreign entanglement. The irony is that he is committing exactly the same blunder that he blamed Obama for: Withdrawing without stabilizing Syria means creating a vacuum that will soon be filled by either Iranian-backed militias or IS — or both.
Yet, what Trump has done in the long term is far more catastrophic than withdrawing US troops. He has sent a message that will destroy any trust local fighters worldwide will ever have in the US to join forces fighting to eradicate terrorism. He has, in a sense, signed a death warrant for potential military partnerships and alliances.
The contemporary world is a time of conflict fueled on many levels by terrorism. When the US wants the support of local militias in conflict-ridden areas such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia or the Sahel in fighting terrorists, they will look long and hard at the lesson of the Kurds and what they got from the US.
Trump’s tweet is telling them: “Help us, but at your own peril. We will abandon you whenever we so desire.”
During the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum’s third leadership summit on Aug. 31, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that the US wants to partner with the other members of the Quadrilaterial Security Dialogue — Australia, India and Japan — to establish an organization similar to NATO, to “respond to ... any potential challenge from China.” He said that the US’ purpose is to work with these nations and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region to “create a critical mass around the shared values and interest of those parties,” and possibly attract more countries to establish an alliance comparable to
On August 24, 2020, the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, made an important statement: “The Pentagon is Prepared for China.” Going forward, how might the Department of Defense team up with Taiwan to make itself even more prepared? No American wants to deter the next war by a paper-thin margin, and no one appreciates the value of strategic overmatch more than the war planners at the Pentagon. When the stakes are this high, you can bet they want to be super ready. In recent months, we have witnessed a veritable flood of high-level statements from US government leaders on
China has long sought shortcuts to developing semiconductor technologies and local supply chains by poaching engineers and experts from Taiwan and other nations. It is also suspected of stealing trade secrets from Taiwanese and US firms to fulfill its ambition of becoming a major player in the global semiconductor industry in the next decade. However, it takes more than just money and talent to build a semiconductor supply chain like the one which Taiwan and the US started to cultivate more than 30 years ago. Amid rising trade and technology tensions between the world’s two biggest economies, Beijing has become
With a new White House document in May — the “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” — the administration of US President Donald Trump has firmly set its hyper-competitive line to tackle geoeconomic and geostrategic rivalry, followed by several reinforcing speeches by Trump and other Cabinet-level officials. By identifying China as a near-equal rival, the strategy resonates well with the bipartisan consensus on China in today’s severely divided US. In the face of China’s rapidly growing aggression, the move is long overdue, yet relevant for the maintenance of the international “status quo.” The strategy seems to herald a new