The tragedy of the Kurds in Syria is just another sad chapter in America’s unending wars
Bob Sheak, Oct 28, 2019
Trump’s infamous phone call
Our feckless, maliciously narcissistic president made a phone call and set off a series of events in northeastern Syria that are reverberating in that area and across the Middle East to the detriment of Syrian Kurds and to the geopolitical benefit of Turkey, the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, and to Russia. Reese Erlich reports that in a phone call between Trump and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 6, “Turkey’s president convinced Trump to pull back US troops based in northern Syria, in an area called Rojava by the Kurds, so Turkey could launch an invasion.” Erlich continues: “Once again, The Donald, trusting his ‘gut,’ made a spur-of-the-moment decision” (https://www.juancole.com/2019/10/trump-empire-crumbles.html).
On Monday, October 7, as reported by Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J.S. Davies, “the U.S. withdrew 50 to 100 troops from positions near Syria’s border with Turkey” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/22/trumpls’fake-withdrawal-from-endless-wars). Most of the other 1,000 US troops in northern Syria were also being withdrawn, bringing them back at the time not to the US but to Kurdish areas in Western Iraq (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-better-idea-endless-wars).
In a matter of days, Trump ordered the US troops to return to northeast Syria in response to the political uproar his decision and the ensuing humanitarian crisis of the Kurds and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Trump’s administration has more concern about Turkey’s interests than Kurdish interests
An example of an earlier US betrayals of the Kurds
In an article published on October 15, 2019, for Foreign Policy in Focus, Khury Petersen-Smith, points out that “the US betrayal of the Kurds with Trump’s announcement to withdraw US troops is “only writing the latest chapter in a shameful history” (https://fpif.org/trumps-betrayal-of-the-kurds-is-terrible-but-the-answer-is-not-endless-war). The US has long ignored “Turkey’s violence toward the Kurdish people inside and outside its borders, and its government’s escalating repression at home.” There have been other priorities. She gives an example of how the US betrayed the Kurds in Iraq.
“In 1991, after the US defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurds and others oppressed by the Iraq government to rise up and topple it.” However, Hussein, who remained in power, “crushed the rebellion…while “his forces mercilessly slaughtered tens of thousands. The US stood by and did nothing.
Chris Hedges provides more detail about the 1991 episode (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/10/21/pity-kurds). He writes: “It was December 1991, after the first Iraq war. Saddam Hussein had ruthlessly crushed a Kurdish revolt in the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat that spring by the United States and its allies. Two million refugees had fled toward Turkey and Iran in April 1991. Many froze to death in the snow-covered mountain passes as they tried to escape. The international community, responding to the heartbreaking images, created havens for their return in northern Iraq, forcing Baghdad to withdraw its troops.”
Noam Chomsky provides a broader view of past US betrayals of the Kurds in Turkey as well as in Iraq (https://truthout.org/articles/chomsky-trumps-actions-on-syria-reflect-the-foreign-policy-of-a-con-man).
“Much has been written and said about the betrayal of the Kurds, a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS (also known as Daesh). This isn’t, however, the first time that the U.S. has betrayed the Kurds and other former allies.
“Betrayal of the Kurds has been virtually a qualification for office since Ford-Kissinger abandoned the Kurds to the mercy of Saddam Hussein when they were no longer needed. Reagan went so far as to support his friend Saddam’s chemical warfare campaign against Iraqi Kurds, seeking to shift the blame to Iran and blocking congressional efforts to respond to these hideous crimes. Clinton’s method was to provide the arms for the murderous government assault on Turkish Kurds, which killed tens of thousands, wiped out 3,500 towns and villages, and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. (See Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Chapter 3. London: Pluto Press, 1999). Clinton’s flood of military aid increased along with the shocking crimes, as Turkey became the prime recipient of American arms (outside of Israel-Egypt, a separate category).”
Turkey is an important US ally and a recipient of and market for US military weapons
Petersen-Smith points to “the fact… that Turkey, a NATO ally that has long provided airspace and collaborated in various ways with the U.S. military [and] has been an important ally of the United States for years.” She adds: “According to the Security Assistance Monitor, from 2002 to this year, the U.S. has given Turkey more than $300 million in military aid. Through the ups and downs of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, the aid keeps flowing and joint operations between the countries’ two militaries have continued. As Turkey begins its offensive in northern Syria, it is likely doing so with American weapons.”
William D. Hartung provides a detailed overview of the US military assistance and sales to Turkey (https://static.wixstatic.com/ygd/fb6c59_dc7c36f8003641b89efb7c0d5a8cb3.pdf).
Here are two examples. “The Turkish Air Force’s stock of combat aircraft is composed entirely of U.S” aircraft. Specifically: “Of 333 combat aircraft possessed by Turkey, 53 are older generation F-5 fighter planes, and 280 are fighter/ground attack planes that are all variants of the F-16, which is co-produced in Turkey. Turkey also has 31 U.S.-origin C-130 transport aircraft.” The US “has supplied the majority of Turkey’s more than 2,400 Main Battle Tanks, including over 900 variants of the M-1 and 850 older generation M-48s, which were purchased in the 1960s and 1970s and modernized in the mid-1980s. In addition, over two-thirds of Turkey’s more than 3,600 armored personnel carriers are U.S.-made M-113s.”
We mustn’t forget as well that the US has an important air base in Turkey called Incirlik Air Base. And, according to a report by Brian Terrell, there are “up to 50 B61 nuclear bombs stored in bunkers at Incirlik” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/10/18/united-states-air-force-incirlik-our-national-black-eye).
The US is committing war crimes
Legal expert Marjorie Cohn makes this point. She argues that “the United States is aiding and abetting Turkey’s war crimes,” as that country invades another country in violation of international law. That makes the US guilty of war crimes (https://truthdig.com/articles/why-wont-the-un-end-the-massacre-of-kurds). There are three elements in the making of a war crime and the US involvement with Turkey satisfies them all. I’ll quote her.
“First, Turkey is committing war crimes. Willful killing, targeting civilians, and willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The U.S. War Crimes Act defines grave breaches of Geneva as war crimes.
“Second, U.S. officials provided the means to commit war crimes. The United States is the primary exporter of weapons to Turkey. In 2017, the U.S. gave $154 million in aid to Turkey, the fourth highest amount provided to any country in Europe and Asia. And The New York Times reported that the U.S. furnished intelligence, including surveillance data, to Turkey that may have enabled its assault on the Syrian Kurds..
“Third, Trump knew that once the U.S. troops left Rojava, the Turkish military would invade it.”
Why be concerned about the Kurds?
For several years, a coalition of groups in northeast Syria called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of Kurds, provided the main ground force in defeating ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or simply the Islamic State, in that part of the country. Michael Safi reminds us that before SDF was formed in 2015, “the Kurds had created their own militias who mobilized during the Syrian civil war to defend Kurdish cities and villages and carve out what they hoped would eventually at least become a semi-autonomous province within Syria” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/14/what-is-the-situation-north-eastern-syria-turkey-kurds).
In 2014, Safi continues, the Kurds were fending off “an Islamic State siege of Kobani, a major city under [ISIS] control.” It was during this time that the US recognized the Kurds a reliable partner to help them fight Isis. Safi writes: “They had spent $500m training and equipping other Syrian rebel groups without success. In the Kurds – effective fighters, whose political leaders were secular and advocated modern values such as gender equality – they saw a group with whom they could ally.” Safi continues: “With US support, including arms and airstrikes, the Kurds managed to beat back Isis and went on to win a string of victories against the radical militant group. Along the way the fighters absorbed non-Kurdish groups, changed their name to the SDF and grew to include 60,000 soldiers.” The evidence strongly indicates that, without the SDF, “President Donald Trump could not have declared the complete defeat of Isis,” said Gen Joseph Votel, the American commander of operations in Syria who struck the alliance with the Kurds in 2015.”
Patrick Cockburn reports, “no Americans were killed [while] 11,000 Syrian Kurds were in the five year fight against ISIS” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/11/kurdish-fighters-always-feared-trump-would-be-a-treacherous-ally). The Kurdish fighters, along with their compatriots in the SDF, were mainly armed with only “light weapons like the Kalashnikov and the RPG (rocket propelled grenade) launcher and light machine guns.” They never received the lavish supplies of military from the US that Trump refers to. They drove ISIS out of their strongholds and captured and imprisoned nine to eleven thousand of them. The families of the imprisoned ISIS fighters live in supervised detention camps.
According to Erlich, amidst the war-time chaos, the SDF was building “its version of autonomy in northern Syria,” creating “local councils with women making up half the leadership. Christians, Arabs, and other ethnic/religious groups were guaranteed representation.” It had the potential to become a democratic and peaceful beacon in that part of the Middle East. News reports indicate that there are small oil fields and drilling in several parts of northern Syria. The SDF has been able to sell the oil to help pay for the development of their communities. While Trump has referred to northern Syria as nothing but sand on several occasions, his advisers have helped him understand that there are oil resources there as well. In his mind, this may be an opportunity for an oil giant like ExxonMobil to repair and update the oil facilities that have been damaged by the fighting between the SDF and ISIS. It turns out that this later became the main justification for ordering the US troops back from Iraq to Syria.
Erdogan wasted no time and three days after the phone call, on October 9, sent troops across the border to attack the Kurdish dominated SDF and commenced the forced and violent removal of Kurds living within 20 miles of the Turkey-Syria border to create a “buffer zone” with the questionable aim of preventing potential hostile acts by Syrian Kurds. Once the Turkey plan to cleanse this area of Kurds was completed, the plan was to have it patrolled and secured by Turkish and Russian troops.
The president of Turkey justifies the invasion in two ways.
One, the Turkish government claims controversially that there are links between the Syrian Kurds and the Kurds inside Turkey, especially links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within Turkey which has been labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the US, the UK, NATO, and others. What’s the connection? “Significant numbers of the Kurds in the SDF were also members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that fought an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 35 years in which as many as 40,000 people have died.” These are deaths of both Turks and Kurds. There is not a breakdown of the numbers to document the number of fatalities on each side. The PKK initially called for independence and the creation of a separate Kurdish state but has changed its goals to demanding greater autonomy for Kurds inside Turkey.
So there two issues here. The first is the claim that the PKK is a terrorist organization and the second that the Kurds in Syria are linked to it and pose a potential threat to Turkey. There is no evidence, or documented evidence, that Syrian Kurds have committed terrorists acts or represent a potential terrorist threat to Turkey.
On the first and only issue, the PKK in Turkey had for decades been involved in violent acts or clashes with the Turkish military in attempts to win their own Kurdish state independent of Turkey. Though this long conflict, Erlich points out that, unlike ISIS and Al Qaeda, the PKK has never engaged in the massacre of civilians. There is indeed some controversy over whether PKK is a terrorist group.
In March 2019, after nine years of proceedings, a Belgium court acquitted 36 Kurds and companies from charges of terrorism. Apparently, any state associated with NATO can take up accusations of terrorism against individuals or organizations, even when such acts or alleged acts are said to have occurred against another NATO state. According to Wladimire van Wilgenburg, “The Belgian Chamber of Indictment blocked prosecution against all those standing trial in the [terrorism] case, ruling that the conflict involving the PKK in Turkey is an ‘internal armed conflict’ and, as such, the group cannot be considered a terrorist organization” (https://www.kurdistan24.net/3n/news/93c71fbc-6634-4d2c-8729-2d2ea1f0bdd8). The European Court [of] Justice had earlier ruled on November 12, 2018, Wilgenburg writes, “that the listing of the PKK on the EU terror list in 2014-2017 was unlawful, [and] should ultimately lead to a reconsideration [of the listing] of the Kurdish freedom movements and its leaders.”
Two, there are three and half million or more Arab Syrian refugees living in camps or cities in Turkey. Erdogan wants to resettle 1 million of them quickly to the twenty-mile buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syrian border. For some years, the Turkey government had an open border policy toward the refugees from Syria, reflecting Islamic religious values. But the refugees, non-Kurdish Arabs many of whom fled from the onslaught of Syrian government forces, Russian aerial bombardment, and ISIS terrorism, have come to represent a significant drain on Turkey’s budget and, in a poor economy, many Turkish citizens want the refugees out of Turkey. The change in refugee policy, one from open border to removal, also reflects a change in the political situation in Turkey, one that is now dominated by a nationalist discourse that wants the refugees out of the country. In short, these are the forces that are driving Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds from the Turkey-Syrian border in northeastern Syria.
As of October 23, 2019, there were four immediate effects of the Turkish invasion.
#1 – Kurds are subjected to atrocities as they flee Turkish bombing and US supported and trained “crazy militias”
In an article for The Guardian, Michael Safi reports that by October 14 “the SDF has lost much of its territory [to Turkey forces] and appears to be losing its grip on key cities such as Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/14/what-is-the-situation-north-eastern-syria-turkey-kurds).
Max Blumenthal writes of how “the US has backed 21 of the 28 ‘Crazy Militias’ leading Turkey’s brutal invasion of Northern Syria” (https://thegreayzone.com/2019/10/16/us-backed-crazy-militias-turkeys-invasion-syria). These are Syrians, some of whom had been provided support by the US with weapons and logistical assistance to fight against the Syrian regime of Assad. They fled the war to find a haven in Turkey. In a story missed by much of the media, Blumenthal refers to video footage showing members of Turkey’s mercenary “national army” executing Kurdish captives as they spearheaded the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. This visual imagery touched off a national outrage, provoking US government officials, pundits and major politicians to rage against this brutality. Blumenthal refers to a Washington Post story of how “a US official condemned the militias as a ‘crazy and unreliable.’” And: “Another official called them ‘thugs and bandits and pirates that should be wiped off the face of the earth.’ And: “Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the scene as a ‘sickening horror,’ blaming President Donald Trump exclusively for the atrocities.” Blumenthal writes that these reactions are appropriate but also miss the tragic historical context of how the US supported and trained these militias in Syria in efforts to overthrown Assad’s government. Here’s how he describes it.
“But the fighters involved in the atrocities in northern Syria were not just random tribesmen assembled into an ad hoc army. In fact, many were former members of the Free Syrian Army, the force once armed by the CIA and Pentagon and branded as ‘moderate rebels.’ This disturbing context was conveniently omitted from the breathless denunciations of US officials and Western pundits.
“According to a research paper published this October by the pro-government Turkish think tank, SETA, ‘Out of the 28 factions [in the Turkish mercenary force], 21 were previously supported by the United States, three of them via the Pentagon’s program to combat DAESH [ISIS]. Eighteen of these factions were supplied by the CIA via the MOM Operations Room in Turkey, a joint intelligence operation room of the ‘Friends of Syria’ to support the armed opposition. Fourteen factions of the 28 were also recipients of the U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank guided missiles.” (A graph by SETA naming the various militias and the type of US support they received is at the end of this article).”
He adds the following observation. “In other words, virtually the entire apparatus of anti-Assad insurgents armed and equipped under the Obama administration has been repurposed by the Turkish military to serve as the spearhead of its brutal invasion of northern Syria.”
#2 -A humanitarian disaster
Jake Johnson provides additional evidence on atrocities being committed by Turkish forces and their Syrian Arab militias, citing an Amnesty International report “based on video footage, medical records, and witness testimony from journalists and aid workers,” which details “numerous appalling instances of Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies indiscriminately bombarding residential areas, abducting civilians, and committing murder in cold blood” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/18/trump-downplays-attack-kurds-amnesty-details-turkish-war-crimes-and-utterly-callous). Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, is quoted: “The Turkish military offensive into northeast Syria has wreaked havoc on the lives of Syrian civilians who once again have been forced to flee their homes and are living in constant fear of indiscriminate bombardment, abductions, and summary killings….Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives.”
Writing for Truthdig, Marjorie Cohn reports on the findings of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “a UK-based monitoring group,” that found evidence “that the Turkish military has killed at least 436 people since its offensive began on October 9” (and) “The Kurdish Red Crescent puts the number of civilians killed at a minimum of 235.” The sources indicate that between “160,000 and 300,000 people have fled from their homes” (https://truthdig.com/articles/why-wont-the-un-end-the-massacre-of-the-kurds).
In another article by Patrick Cockburn, readers are informed that the turmoil unleashed by the Turkish invasion will affect “up to 2 million Kurds in the vast triangle of land which the Kurds call Rojava in northeast Syria” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/11/kurdish-fighters-always-feared-trump-would-be-a-treacherous-ally).
#3 – The geopolitical fallout
The Kurds look for support from Assad and the Russians
Safi reports: “After four days of relentless bombardment from the Turkish side, the SDF on 13 October struck a deal to allow Syrian army forces to enter their territory from the west.” SDF leaders chose this course of action to protect themselves from the heavily armed Turkish forces were driving them out of their communities. He continues: “The agreement puts Syrian soldiers on a collision course with Turkish troops and their Syrian militia allies. It is not clear if their fighters will actually clash.” The situation remains in flux. It is still not clear, according to Safi, “how much formerly Kurdish-held land the Turkish side and Syrian government respectively will seek to claim.” In the meantime, Erlich also points out that “the SDF made a quickie deal with the Syrian and Russian governments to jointly block the Turkish offensive.”To limit the Turkish advances, “Syrian army troops quickly deployed to several important cities near the border with Turkey” while “Russian military police began patrolling the strategically located town of Manbij” and other areas.
Russia’s influence grows
John Feffer says, as many have, that the fallout from Trump’s decision now allows Russia “to take the place of the United States” as the principal moderator in northeast Syria. It will serve, with Turkish forces, to maintain the twenty-mile buffer zone that now extend from the Turkish border into northeastern Syria. And it will have the role of trying to keep Turkish and Syrian government forces from attacking each other (https://www.fpif.org/trump-endless-wars). It’s also worth noting that Russia has been a major ally of the Assad regime, which the US had hoped to oust from power. It remains to be seen whether Russia has the capacity to keep Turkey and Syrian government forces from fighting over their respective and conflicting interests in northeastern Syria.
The US role is confused and shortsighted
One outcome appears to be clear, that is, that the US role in the northeast area of Syria – and in all of Syria – has been significantly diminished. As observed earlier, this does not mean that the US is pulling out its military forces out of Syria permanently or bringing the troops home to America. Whatever, Trump’s decisions have left the region in even more chaos, with even more chances of war, and has done great harm to the Syrian Kurds and their allies. While all of this is transpiring, there is little talk in official US circles about calling for a United Nations peacemaking force to secure the border or for the US government to stop giving and selling weapons to Turkey. Trump and his advisers disdain the UN and the Trump supported US military-industrial complex wants the profits.
#4 – The resurgence of ISIS?
The SDF has put nearly 11,000 ISIS fighters into detention camps and prisons across north-eastern Syria, and “tens of thousands of their wives and children” are being held in detention camps. Now under assault by Turkish forces, the SDF does not have the capability to secure the imprisoned ISIS fighters. Thus, it has been pleading for international assistance from the US and other countries in securing these prisoners. Safi sums up the situation as follows.
“SDF leaders have warned they cannot guarantee the security of these prisoners if they are forced to redeploy their forces to the frontlines of a war against Turkey. They also fear Isis could use the chaos of war to mount attacks to free their fighters or reclaim territory…. On 11 October, it was reported that at least five detained Isis fighters had escaped a prison in the region. Two days later, 750 foreign women affiliated to Isis and their children managed to break out of a secure annex in the Ain Issa camp for displaced people, according to SDF officials…. It is unclear which detention sites the SDF still controls and the status of the prisoners inside.”
John Feffer offers this quote from a New York Times’ article: “Over the past several months, ISIS has made inroads into the sprawling Al Hol tent camp in northeast Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters” (https://www.fpif.org/trumps-endless-wars).
In a news story for the New York Times, David D. Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt report that, prior to Trump’s announced withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, “American forces and their Kurdish-led partners in Syria had been conducting as many as a dozen counterterrorism missions a day against Islamic State militants, officials said. That has stopped” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/world/middleeast/isis-syria-us.html). In addition, there are other signs of how ISIS is regaining momentum. Kirkpatrick and Schmitt identify the following developments.
“Those same partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, had also been quietly releasing some Islamic State prisoners and incorporating them into their ranks, in part as a way to keep them under watch. That, too, is now in jeopardy.
“And across Syria’s porous border with Iraq, Islamic State fighters are conducting a campaign of assassination against local village headmen, in part to intimidate government informants.
“When President Trump announced this month that he would pull American troops out of northern Syria and make way for a Turkish attack on the Kurds, Washington’s onetime allies, many warned that he was removing the spearhead of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“Now, analysts say that Mr. Trump’s pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects. With American forces rushing for the exits, in fact, American officials said last week that they were already losing their ability to collect critical intelligence about the group’s operations on the ground.
“‘There is no question that ISIS is one of the big winners in what is happening in Syria,’ said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a research center in London.”
Separate from the developments in Northeastern Syria, there are, according to Kirkpatrick and Schmitt, “as many as 18,000 [ISIS] ‘members’ dispersed through Iraq and Syria, including about 3,000 foreign fighters, who “blend in with the larger population or … hide out in remote deserts and mountains.” While Trump announced on October 27, 2019, that the ostensible leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed by US special forces, there is still a question of whether the scattered, but large, ISIS forces will wither or be strong enough to continue recruiting new members and have the operational strength to mount terrorist actions. The conditions seem conducive to the continued existence and operation of ISIS and other terrorist groups, given the millions of refugees in the region, poor economic conditions, the ethnic and religious divisions, and the weak states. Kirkpatrick and Schmitt point out that ISIS forces have continue to mount terrorist attacks without the guidance of Baghdadi, giving these examples.
“Last month [September 2019], as if to prove its continued vitality, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a minibus bombing that killed a dozen people near t he entrance to a Shiite pilgrimage site in the Iraq City of Karbala.” [And] “…within hours of Mr. Trump’s announcement almost two weeks ago that American forces were moving away from the Syrian border with Turkey, two ISIS bombers attacked a base of the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Syrian city of Raqqa.”
Outrage in the US about Trump’s decision
Bipartisan outrage in the US House of Representatives
Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J.S. Davies pen an article on Counter Punch in which they report on the bipartisan vote of 354-60 in the US House of Representatives on October 16 condemning “the U.S. redeployment as a betrayal of the Kurds, a weakening of America’s credibility, a lifeline to ISIS, and a political gift to Russia, China and Iran.” Benjamin and Davies welcome the congressional vote but point out that “this is the same Congress that never mustered the integrity to debate or vote on the fateful decision to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in Syria in the first place. [And] This vote still fails to fulfill Congress’s constitutional duty to decide whether U.S. troops should be risking their lives in illegal military operations in Syria, what they are supposed to be doing there or for how long. Members of Congress from both parties remain united in their shameful abdication of their constitutional authority over America’s illegal war” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/22/trumps-fake-withdrawal-from-endless-wars).
As the Trump administration attempts to juggle a chaotic situation of its own making, the concerns are real, that is, that Trump decision has had a tragic impact the Kurds and others living in Northeastern Syria, led to the increase in Russian influence and to the return of regular Syrian military forces of the Assad regime to this region. On the last point, recall that one of the original reasons for the US military entry into the Syrian conflict was to support anti-Assad forces in the country to overthrow Assad’s regime. Trump’s decision not only reflects how that US project has ended in failure but has given the Assad regime new opportunities to regain lost territory.
Trump is not bringing the troops back to the US from Syria or the greater Middle East
There is another issue raised by Benjamin and Davies. They emphasize that the withdrawal, as it turns out to be a temporary withdrawal, of 1,000 US military forces from this area should not distract attention from the many thousands of US troops and US bombers that are still in action in the region. Indeed, rather than bringing US troops home from the Syria and other parts of the Middle East, the Trump administration has increased its deployments of troops to the greater Middle East by 14,000 since May. The evidence compiled by Benjamin and Davies is eye-opening. They write: “There were already 60,000 troops stationed or deployed in the region, which the Congressional Research Service described in September as a long-term “baseline,’ so the new deployments appear to have raised the total number of U.S. troops in the region to about 74,000.” They also refer to more detailed troop estimates from the Congressional Research Service, namely:
“…14,000-15,000 (plus 8,000 from other NATO countries) in Afghanistan; about 7,000, mostly U.S. Navy, in Bahrain; 280 in Egypt; 5,000-10,000 in Iraq, mostly at Al-Asad air base in Anbar province; 2,800 in Jordan (some may now have been relocated to Iraq); 13,000 in Kuwait, the fourth largest permanent U.S. base nation after Germany, Japan and South Korea; a “few hundred” in Oman; at least 13,000 in Qatar, where the Pentagon just approved a $1.8 billion expansion of Al Udeid Air Base, U.S. Central Command’s regional occupation headquarters; about 3,500 in Saudi Arabia, including 500 sent in July and 2,500 more since September; 1,000-2,000 in Syria, who may or may not really be leaving; 1,750 at Incirlik and Izmir Air Bases in Turkey; and more than 5,000 in the UAE, mostly at Al Dhafra Air Base.
And, under Trump, there has been an escalation of US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In Trump’s first 32 months in office,“he is responsible for dropping 17,100 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan and 48,941 on Iraq and Syria, an average of a bomb or missile every 20 minutes.” All these developments indicate that, despite his endless promises to end these wars, Trump has instead been dropping more bombs and missiles on these countries “than Bush II and Obama put together.”
Getting back to the congressional outrage over Trump’s initial troop withdrawal decision. On this, Nicholas Kristoff, columnist for the New York Times, fulminated that Trump “is corroding the entire 75-year-old American postwar international order, built on American credibility and values. Everyone knew that the United States did not always live up to its rhetoric but also that its ideals and commitments counted for something. Until now” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/19/opinion/sunday/trump-turkey-military.html).
Kristoff’s outrage reflects the very limited attention by him and the network media generally, overlooking the large historical and contemporaneous context in which US military interventions have shattered the political and economic systems of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and contributed to the devastation of other countries. Historian Andrew J. Bacevich has documented and analyzed this larger picture of US interventions in his books. Here is a paragraph from the book America’s War for the Greater Middle East.
“In Washington, one subject in particular remains off limits: the overall progress and prospects of the U.S. military project in the Islamic world. Thirty-five years after Jimmy Carter had issued the Carter Doctrine, that project appeared further removed from completion than when it has begun. By almost any measure, the region was in greater disarray than it has been in 1980. Not only were American purposes unfulfilled, they were becoming increasingly difficult to define with any sort of specificity” (p. 356).
Trump brings the Troops back to northern Syria
Then, as a recent manifestation of this disarray, Trump flipped on his withdrawal decision and decided to bring back the US troops recently moved to western Iraq back to northern Syria. He did this not to protect the Kurds against the Turkish-orchestrated invasion or to reclaim the territory overrun by the Turkish-supported militias, but to protect the small oil fields in various parts of the region and hope there may be potential deals for ExxonMobil or other mega oil corporations.
He earlier flipped on the sanctions he had imposed on Turkey. Here is Erlich’s take on the sanctions. “Trump allowed the invasion, then reversed course by imposing sanctions after the fact. He raised tariffs on Turkish steel imports, halted negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal, and cut several Turkish government ministers off from global banking. None of these measures came close to the US sanctions imposed on Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran—nor were they likely to have any serious impact on the war.” Then “On October 17, Vice President Mike Pence and Erdogan announced a five-day ‘ceasefire,’ during which Kurdish forces would withdraw from an area designated by Turkey” and sanctions would be lifted. Erlich adds that “the Kurds were not part of the negotiations, and as of press time, it seems unlikely they will pull back their fighters.” As it turns out, the Kurds do not have the firepower to contest Turkish forces, so 160,000 to 300,00 Kurds have already been displaced from the 20-mile buffer zone.
No apologies pass his lips
Another stomach-churning point. Trump does not apologize for the havoc he has created. Jake Johnson captured this aspect of Trump’s antics regarding the situation of the Kurds and the SDF in northeast Syria. Trump made light of the humanitarian catastrophe by comparing the conflict between Turkish and Kurdish forces to a “parking lot scrap between ‘two kids.’” The president bellowed at a campaign rally in Dallas, Texas, “Sometimes you have to let them fight. Like two kids in a lot, you gotta let’em fight, then you pull’em apart.” The supporters at the rally probably had no idea that the president “is talking about genocidal slaughter and hundreds of thousands of war victims like it’s a playground squabble” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/18/trump-downplays-attack-kurds-amnesty-details-war-crimes-and-utterly-callous). Rather, his followers eat it up believing they are watching a president who is shaking up Washington and draining the swamp. But around the world he is viewed as an impulsive, ego-driven, and dangerous ignoramus.
US foreign policy is unlikely to change in the wake of the tragic events unfolding in northeast Syria. The US presence in that part of Syria will continue, though it will not be nearly as influential as before and will afford less protection to the Kurds. US military force levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East will not be reduced overall. Indeed, the Trump administration is itching for a justification to bomb Iran, which would likely ignite an uncontrollable war and a massive infusion of US forces. And the very influential US military-industrial complex is growing and arguably more powerful than at any time since WWII. The US government has not renounced a first-use policy on nuclear weapons and is in the process of building “usable” tactical nuclear weapons to be available for regional conflicts.
If Trump wins the presidential election in 2020, the present militaristic foreign policy will be given an even more lasting boost. But even if Trump is defeated by a “moderate” Democrat, little will change.There are strong nationalistic sentiments and patriotic rituals abroad in the country that encourage an unquestioning acceptance among millions of Americans for the need to have a huge military force to protect them from terrorism and all sorts of foreign “enemies.” And millions of work in for the Pentagon, military contractors, and at military bases.
US soldiers, whether they have seen combat or not, are viewed as heroes just for putting on the uniform and then getting an honorable discharge. For these reasons and others that don’t come to mind, we can anticipate more of the same kind of militaristic foreign policy coming out of Washington, cheered on by major segments of the American population. Those who speak for peace and diplomacy are marginalized – and always have been. The end of the Vietnam War came mostly from the courage and fighting of the Vietnamize people, and only secondarily from the domestic peace movement.