Lost in the din of outrage attending President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria is the question of the administration’s larger anti-Iran agenda. The United States has also withdrawn from the JCPOA, President Barack Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran and partner countries, and, listening to his words during Tuesday’s press conference, Trump shows no sign of regretting that imprudent step. In addition, Washington is waging an economic war against Iran that, under the traditional criteria of international law, would be considered an act of war.
Because of this anti-Iran agenda, the United States is carrying water, as Obama did before, for Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and illegal war in Yemen.
With his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Trump has wounded, perhaps mortally, the neoconservative plan to use the Kurds as a lever against both Turkey and Iran. But don’t believe for a second that the great game is over. Grand pronouncements that Trump’s Syria decision signals a departure from the Middle East are to be viewed with the greatest suspicion. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that this retreat by Trump on one anti-Iranian front will be attended in the future with an advance on another.
From the beginning of Syria’s civil war, the Obama administration took the position that “Assad must go,” placing the U.S. on the side of the Syrian opposition. Unfortunately, that opposition came to be dominated not by freedom-loving insurgents but by freedom-loathing jihadists, as the war drew in tens of thousands of fanatics from abroad. With Washington committed to Assad’s removal, America was forced into an informal alliance (reprobated in theory, existing in fact) with the jihadists. The United States did not create ISIS or the Nusra Front, but it did pursue policies in Syria, together with its allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that contributed greatly to jihadist power.
After ISIS’s spectacular victories in 2014. Obama opened two new fronts in the war on terror, one in Iraq and the other in Syria, one legal and the other illegal, one justifiable and the other not. In Iraq, there were good reasons to support the government, as the U.S. did. In Syria, however, other motives were at work. The official imperative to work for Assad’s overthrow conditioned and essentially dictated the U.S. effort against ISIS. Because the United States would not work with Assad and Russia, it had to collaborate with the Kurds. And indeed the Kurds, with some 10 percent of the population, became the only real support within Syria for U.S. operations. That had the very bad effect of enraging the Turks and extending Kurdish territorial control over non-Kurdish regions, all of which was doubtless attended by American promises of future support for the Kurds.
A U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria is highly desirable, and breaking those pledges to the Kurds at some point might have been unavoidable (we don’t really know what was promised). To do so abruptly and without explanation, however, is difficult to justify. A responsible policy of disengagement—a course seemingly favored neither by Trump nor by most domestic critics, with the distinguished exceptions of Steven Simon and Joshua Landis—would be to work with Russia, Syria, and Turkey to secure an autonomous Kurdish region within the context of an armistice or peace settlement. A U.S. withdrawal would then proceed in steps so as to lessen the danger of a bloodbath.
How all this will be unscrambled remains to be seen. Trump, after consultations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 23, has extended the troop pullout deadline to 120 days. It could yet shift again. Turkish forces appear restless.
According to Trump’s establishment critics, the worst thing that Trump has done in announcing a withdrawal from Syria is to concede defeat to Russia, Iran, and Assad. The Blob takes it as a certainty that these three are working insidiously for objectives that are uniformly vile. The record shows the truth is less black and white.
Russia acted for itself, but also for international order, when it came to Syria’s aid against the insurrectionaries that the U.S. cozied up to, the misnamed “moderate rebels.” The U.S. quasi-alliance with al-Qaeda was about as bad as it gets on the score of moral turpitude, threatening the further destruction of Syria and the sacking of its capital Damascus. Russia intervened in 2015 at the invitation of the Syrian government to beat back that specter, and helped arrange the countless truces and separations of combatants that lifted sieges across progressively larger areas over the last two years. It also sponsored the Astana talks to resolve the crisis with the Turks and Iranians, the most recent of which was in November.
The desirability of a peaceful settlement to the Syrian war should be obvious. The more the return of refugees is facilitated, the lesser the burden will be on Western countries. The costs of the war were horrific; a yearning for normalcy is the emphatic wish of the exhausted survivors. Assad is popular in the Syria he controls, with more in the way of popular legitimacy than most world leaders—something that seems inconceivable to those in the grip of Assad hatred but that is attested to by numerous observers. (The reason is simple: he won the war against the insurrectionaries, who for five years took communities hostage and rained their mortars and bullets on besieged towns, and whom the people came to hate.)
Yet the Trump administration, along with the rest of Washington, is resolutely set against Syria’s reconstruction. Despite the troop withdrawal, Trump seems likely to cling to the three no’s: no real support for the return of refugees, no recognition of the regime, and no reconstruction funds, from the U.S. or anyone else. Let them suffer. That seems to be the general idea.
A constructive policy would see the U.S. join the Astana peace process, recognize the Syrian government, and work to bring the war to an end. The joint objective of Russia and America would be autonomy for the Kurds under the Syrian flag, on the condition of the withdrawal of Kurdish support for compatriots in Turkey. Assad would be accepted as the war’s victor, with Russia supervising de-confliction and the protection of estranged populations.
Obstacles to Syria’s economic reconstruction would be lifted, in return for which Hezbollah and Iran would reduce their presences. Something other than a slaughterhouse would be devised for Idlib, where so many irreconcilables remain. Those are the outlines of a plausible settlement. There are plenty of devils in the details, but why not work for these objectives diplomatically? Why not work for peace?
The Blob knows why not. If you cooperate with Russia, the sky will fall. Assad is evil and must be overthrown. If U.S. forces get out of Syria, who will block Iran? Whatever victories Assad registers at home, we are to understand, must be resolutely opposed abroad, and a determined effort made to prevent Syria’s reconstruction.
This is a cruel policy of collective punishment that is actually counterproductive in furthering U.S. interests. Even those critical of the Blob and supportive of responsible withdrawal, like Congressman Ro Khanna, demand that Assad be removed to the Hague for a war crimes trial, a stance that seems indistinguishable in practice from the three no’s.
Trump is most unlikely to break from that consensus. He says “we’re done”; in all probability, we are not done. Trump has announced a withdrawal of forces from Syria, but his administration is still wedded to the breaking of the regime and an economic war on its people. And Syria aside, Trump is still actively engaged on the other anti-Iranian fronts. He will be under intense pressure to show his mettle on that question, and he may think it to his advantage to do so.
David C. Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018).