Syria: “Great and unmatched wisdom”

Summary: Donald Trump is not being as inconsistent over the Middle East as the news flow may have you believe.

Trump’s handling of Syria is perhaps the clearest example yet that his preferred chess gambit is to knock over the table and spill the pieces on the floor.

His betrayal of the Kurds, even more blatant than when the George H.W. Bush administration urged them to rise against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War and then left them to be massacred, will be seen by the USA’s allies in the Middle East as a warning to them all.

Those who believe the US intervention in Syria was illegal and impolitic will nevertheless wish that the US could have worked out a less destructive way of ending it.

US forces begin their withdrawal from Syria – ANHA

We are again grateful to Alastair Newton for the article below. He worked as a professional political analyst in the City of London from 2005 to 2015. Before that he spent 20 years as a career diplomat with the British Diplomatic Service.

Just what is going on in Washington?

This morning’s headlines — and not only in the US — focus once more on seeming contradiction and confusion over Middle East policy in the Trump Administration. The Economist Espresso summed up the relevant developments of the past two days or so as follows:

“America announced an abrupt withdrawal from northern Syria, exposing its own Kurdish allies to a Turkish military offensive. The Kurds have been crucial to quashing Islamic State. Turkey, however, regards them as terrorists. Against complaints within his own party, President Donald Trump promised to keep Turkey in check with a threat to ‘destroy and obliterate’ its economy, should it overstep.”  

So, just what is going on in Washington?

Let us start by reverting to yesterday’s headlines. One good example, which I posted on the Arab Digest Facebook page yesterday, comes from The Guardian and reads as follows:

“US to let Turkish forces move into Syria, dumping Kurdish allies”.

The spur for what was a clear change of policy relative to the agreement reached between the US and Turkey in August 2018 to create a ‘safe zone’ on the Turkey/Syria border under the terms of which the US-backed Kurdish-led Quwwāt Sūriyā al-Dīmuqrāṭīya (Syrian Defence Forces, SDF) withdrew from the border area, appears to have been a phone conversation between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The subsequent White House statement, issued late on 6 October and making no mention of that agreement, reads as follows:

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria. The United States armed forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area.”

Consistent with this, reports from SDF sources (principally its Kurdish component, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or YPG) claimed yesterday that US forces in the border area were already withdrawing describing the change in US policy as a “stab in the back”.

Importantly, the Kurds were not alone in their dismay over the surprise announcement. Adverse reaction in the US Congress was equally as strong, including from close Trump allies such as Senator Lindsey Graham who summed up Congressional sentiment as follows on Fox News:

“This is a big win for Iran and Assad, a big win for ISIS. I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey if they step one foot in northeastern Syria. That will sever my relationship with Turkey. I think most of the Congress feels that way.”

In contrast to what we saw in December 2018, when Mr Trump first announced a US withdrawal from Syria and it took some time (and the resignation of then Defence Secretary James Mattis) before he (largely) reversed his decision, the President’s reaction was immediate in the form of a (typically!) tweeted ‘clarification’ as follows:

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!” 

This tweet, in my opinion, goes right to the heart of the matter as far as Mr Trump is concerned by highlighting two points.

First, Mr Trump campaigned strongly in 2016 on getting the US out of foreign wars. As he said to reporters, defending the initial announcement, just yesterday morning:

“I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as quickly as possible.”

Indeed, as his announcement of US withdrawal from Syria in December and his (faltering) efforts to reach a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan demonstrate, he has been remarkably consistent in his personal adherence to this pledge, which remains popular with at least a significant proportion of his base.

This latter point is critical. As has been clear for at least six months now, every move Mr Trump makes — and will make over the next 12-and-a-bit months — is largely determined by what he and his campaign team believe best serves the all-important objective of winning a second term come 3 November 2020. Delivering on his 2016 pre-election pledges (on which he actually has a pretty decent record overall) is a key element in this strategy, especially since his 2020 campaign is based largely on the same issues and commitments.

Second, Mr Trump has also been very consistent in his belief (which is shared by many, if not most, Americans) that allies are taking undue advantage of the US as far as security-related burden sharing is concerned — another recurrent theme during his 2016 election campaign. His Administration has been pressuring European allies in particular for months to take back Islamic State fighters (and families) who are their nationals and who are currently detained in camps run by the SDF. As, again, he said to reporters yesterday:

“We said, ‘Take them back’ and unfortunately, like NATO, they take advantage”.

He was even more explicit on Twitter earlier in the day, as follows:

“I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out , and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood.’ They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

And:

“The Kurds fought with us but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so”.

Needless to say, neither of these points takes account of seemingly deeply held concern within the US Administration that, in the event of Turkish forces crossing the border into Syria, the SDF would be forced to abandon the detention centres where the IS fighters are being held in order to defend its territory. Furthermore, there appears to be little faith among expert opinion in Washington that the Turkish military is capable of effective counter-terrorism were it to take control of the area currently administered by the SDF; or, indeed, is even capable of securing the IS prisoners (numbering around 10,000 including 2,000 foreign nationals), as Mr Trump reportedly demanded of Mr Erdoğan in the event of a Turkish invasion.

This, in turn, takes us to a third point of consistency about Mr Trump, ie his general disdain for ‘experts’. it is presumably no coincidence that The Atlantic chose to publish late yesterday a (clearly long-researched) article by security expert Mark Bowden reflecting on the US Commander-in-Chief’s relationship with the US military. Acknowledging that senior military figures with whom he spoke during his research did not agree on everything, Mr Bowden nevertheless identified five points of consensus, at least four of which bear, in my view, on the events of the past two days, as follows:

    • Mr Trump “disdains expertise”, which (as is borne out by his long track record of surprise announcements via Twitter) results in a related disdain for ‘process’ which Mr Bowden (rightly, in my view) thinks may be “the defining trait of his leadership”;
    • “He trusts only his own instincts”, firmly believing “that his gut feelings about things are excellent, if not genius” — see, eg, the first presidential tweet quoted above;
    • “He resists coherent strategy”, consistent with his pre-election pledge to make US foreign policy “unpredictable” and seeing (presumably based on his business experience) unpredictability as a virtue in itself;
    • “He is reflexively contrary”, consistent with his distrust of ‘experts’ and faith in his own instincts.

Indeed, it would, in my view, be fair to say that all four of these characteristics have consistently been on display in all policy areas during Mr Trump’s tenure to date in office.

So, why, in that case, the sudden about-turn yesterday?

I certainly don’t dismiss entirely the impact of ‘expert opinion’ around Mr Trump which will certainly have pushed back against Sunday’s decision. But my personal view is that the issue which is even higher on Mr Trump’s radar screen right now than reelection next year will have played a significantly greater role, ie possible impeachment.

Mr Trump knows full well that the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives is now very likely to impeach him, with the consequence that he will stand trial in the Senate. If he is to survive that process, Mr Trump cannot afford to lose his grip over Senate Republicans. As things stand, the two-thirds majority in the Senate which would be required to remove him from office (ie all the Democrats plus 20 Republicans) appears to be out of reach. But such is the strength of feeling against the President’s initial policy switch among at least the majority of Republicans in the Senate (the maverick Rand Paul is a rare exception) that Mr Trump’s survival instinct has, I believe, prevailed over his ‘gut instinct’. For now at least.

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