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Why Trump Is Right On Syria

Why Trump Is Right On Syria

It's not American war to fight anymore.

Why Trump Is Right On Syria

2400 1600 Michael Petraeus

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early a year has passed since Trump first announced his intentions to pull American troops out of Syria. That decision was later softened but American contingent was nevertheless reduced from 2000 to 1000 troops by the middle of this year. It is, therefore, rather surprising how much backlash the US president is receiving for simply being consistent in his promises.

Infinite War

Trump’s critics lack coherent arguments. Why would American troops have to stay in Syria? What’s the purpose? To protect the Kurds? But why? And when does it end?

Military deployment makes sense only if there’s a defined goal that it can achieve.

In rare cases long-term presence may be justified wherever there are terrorist cells that have to be subdued but are difficult to defeat decisively – like in Afghanistan, whose local security forces are simply too poor and too weak to deal with various factions competing for influence in the country.

But Syria has stabilized. There are powerful players involved in the conflict – Syrian regime (backed by Russia), Erdogan’s Turkey and Iran. Surely they command enough military power to keep terror groups from rising again, while settling their differences without the need for American troops to be involved.

Since the US has not set a goal of a regime change in Damascus or any other finite aim – like creation of an independent Kurdish state (what might be very well impossible and could lead to another civil war) – then there is simply no need for Americans to stay there any longer.

The failure to justify this engagement lies solely with the bureaucrats and military commanders, who are used to asking for money to keep prolonging foreign presence beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Reagan’s joke that “there’s nothing that lasts longer than a temporary government program” can now be applied to American military as well.

It has morphed from one whose goal is winning conflicts into one whose goal is extending them into infinity, justifying more and more public expenditures.

American generals have mutated into bureaucrats, continuously petitioning both the executive and legislative branches, requesting more money to be sunk into their projects – from foreign conflicts to quite endless procurement of new weaponry, which usually turns out to be way over budget and way behind schedule.

In fact, it’s probably a good question to ask when was the last time that any defense project was done on time and within the allocated funding? How disciplined is American military if it continuously fails to deliver on its promises?

And now it has even failed to provide any meaningful goals…

Trump is dealing with these issues like a business executive that he is. He noticed that people he employs are milking the “company” while not doing their jobs, hiding behind bullshit excuses and throwing tantrums once they have been caught, trying to shift the blame on the management.

The Kurdish Issue

Some people will jump to say that America should defend its Kurdish allies, who have fought ISIS and lost 10,000 people in the process. Surely, left to Erdogan and Turkish military, Kurds will be decimated.

But here, again, we’re circling back to the original question – what is the ultimate goal? US has not committed itself to creating an independent Kurdish state because it would mean partitioning at least two other sovereign countries – Syria and Iraq. And since there’s no will in Washington to go to war with either of them – and alienating Turkey, which has been American ally since 1945 and one of the oldest members of NATO – there’s little more Americans can do for the Kurds on the ground.

Trump did, however, issue a warning to Erdogan to behave himself, knowing that he wields tools of economic policy which could cripple Ankara – without the need to send Americans to fight and die on foreign soil.

Whether or not the US president is going to follow through with these threats remains to be seen, of course.

But if the Kurds are not ready for American withdrawal they only have themselves to blame.

Trump has effectively given them a year to prepare, to forge alliances with other parties in the area – like Bashar al-Assad who is no friend of Erdogan. In fact, ever since winning in 2016, American president has made no secret of his intentions to withdraw American troops from needless and endless conflicts around the world. After three long years, current Kurdish claims of a “stab in the back” are really rather laughable.

Many Western observers have romanticized Kurds and their struggles, while conveniently forgetting that the main reason why they have no state of their own is that they are internally divided.

There are many factions within the Kurdish population across four countries – Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran – with different political goals and separated even by different languages. Many of them have for decades been locked in conflicts with each other – including civil wars that cost thousands of lives (like the clashes between PUK and KDP in the mid 1990s).

Few people are aware that Turkey has for long extended a lifeline to Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, reinforcing its autonomy by permitting crude oil exports from Kurdish fields via port in Ceyhan, away from control of the federal government in Baghdad.

In fact, the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party assumed power after its leader, Massoud Barzani, reached out for help to Saddam Hussein during the war with PUK in 1996 and was later aided by Turkish incursions into Northern Iraq which targeted PKK and PUK (which were supported by Iran) in 1997.

This may sound like ancient history by now but consequences of these divisions reverberate across the region until today – despite a brief spell of unity, when the competing PYD and KNC Kurdish parties in Syria signed in Iraqi Erbil – with a blessing from Barzani – an agreement to cooperate in the face of devolving situation in Syria in 2012. It didn’t last long. Kurdish Supreme Committee, which was supposed to govern all Kurdish lands in Syria in unity, collapsed within a year (2013).

By 2014 Barzani’s KDP was digging trenches along the border with Syrian Rojava.

Competition between dominant PYD (which has asserted itself in Rojava and formally announced its autonomy and new constitution in 2014) and opposition parties is continuing until this day, with violent clashes, assassinations and kidnappings of political opponents – what led the Human Rights Watch to issue a demand to all parties in Kurdistan to release their political prisoners in 2017.

Kurds are often presented in the media as if they are one, fairly unified group of people who simply want to live in peace and autonomy from all the countries that are oppressing them today. The reality is that their internal fragmentation is the main reason for their weakness and inability to establish strong, organized governance.

One exception to this is KRG, enjoying a quasi-state status, largely autonomous from Iraq – but it too overplayed its hand and the failed Kurdish referendum on independence held in 2017 only soured its relationship with Turkey, while prompting Baghdad to take control over oil fields in Kirkuk, up to that point controlled by KRG, greatly reducing its financial inflows from crude exports.

Given the complexity of the Kurdish situation across multiple countries in the area, it is no surprise that Donald Trump doesn’t see any reason to keep the military contingent on the ground, while ISIS is no longer posing an immediate threat.

When asked by Bloomberg, whether this move casts doubt on American reliability as an ally in the region, George Friedman founder of Stratfor and, currently, Geopolitical Futures, accurately replied – “ally of whom?”.

From a geopolitical perspective American alliance with Turkey is far more important than supporting largely incoherent goals of a divided, minority ethnic group which can’t even come to a common agreement.

Ankara has been in alignment with the US for 70 years and its recent deviation towards more friendly relations with Russia is far more problematic to Washington than what happens to Syrian Kurds, who keep fighting each other.

American cooperation with Kurdish forces was one of convenience to both sides – and now the reason for it has been extinguished while Kurds may have wasted the few years they have been given. Instead of forming a common front formidable enough to build alliances with other parties – what could guarantee their survival – they embarked on a campaign of spiting each other in a quest for political relevance which may soon be erased by another Turkish intervention.

But it’s not American problem to deal with.

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Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

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