Trump, the Deep State, and U.S. Policy Towards Syria: No End to ‘Forever Wars’
Donald Trump’s abrupt decision following an October 6 telephone call with Turkish PresidentRecepTayyipErdogan to endorse Turkish military operations against the United States’ Kurdish allies and effectively surrender large areas of northeastern Syria to Turkish, Russian, and Syrian Army forceshas deepened Syria’s humanitarian crisis and thrown the entire Middle East (and potentially Europe) into further turmoil. The decision arose not so much from geopolitical motives and putative interests but rather Trump’s attempt to fulfill a campaign pledge to end “forever wars”in the Middle East.
Trump presides uneasily overgrowing right-wing anti-war and anti-interventionist sentiment, unprecedented (since the 1930s) and a central factor in his political support and survival. Almost two-thirds of U.S. veterans believe that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “were not worth fighting.” Trump’s decision thus raised his longstanding war with the American“deep state,” a term that has now entered mainstream discourse– to an even higher level.It introduced further confusion into Washington’s already chaotic decision-making process, increasing the possibility of armed conflict among outside forcesin Syria.
Twice before during his presidency Trump sought unsuccessfully to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. Declaring in July 2018 that U.S. wars in the Middle East over the past 17 years had cost $7 trillion while leading only to “death and destruction” he announced his intention to withdraw fromoil-rich and fertile areas of northeastern Syria which they have occupied in alliance with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) following the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), only to abandon the effort in the face ofstrong domestic pressure. Six months later in December 2018,Erdogan reaffirmed his intention to launch a full-scale assault on the Kurds. Trump initially agreed to this, reportedly telling Erdogan that “We are all done; its yours.” Yet, faced with massive resistance from the deep state, including the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and pressure from Middle Eastern and European allies, Trumponce again reversed course.
While events on the ground in Syria following the recent U.S. (partial) withdrawal and subsequent Turkish offensive preclude a return to the status quo ante, they have created what is arguably an even more dangerous situation, arising not only from a new and far more volatilebalance of forces in Syria but also the actions of an increasingly erratic and unpredictablepresident under siege at home. The withdrawal of1000 U.S. soldiers from northeast Syria—symbolized by the self-destruction of its own military base at the Lafarge Cement Complex on October 16 and documented through video footage of Russian soldiers entering the abandoned U.S. air force base at Taqba—enabled Turkish forces to establish a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border and displace hundreds of thousands of Kurds, potentially allowing Erdogan to resettle the region with millions of Syrian Arab refugees now living in Turkey. In the wake of the SDF’s retreat many hardened ISIS prisoners escaped. Their locations are unknown and it is unlikely that Turkey, itself utilizing extremist jihadi groups in Syria, is able or willing to recapture them. At the same time, the U.S. withdrawal also allowed Damascus to reoccupy large areas of the northeast, thereby establishing the conditions for the reassertion of sovereignty over most of the country in cooperation with Russia.
Taken by surprise by these events and unable to reprise its blocking actions of April and December, 2018, the deep state reacted furiously. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a close ally of Trump, declared the troop withdrawal “the biggest mistake of his presidency.” Former CIA Director Leon Panetta considered it “the most disastrous foreign policy blunder I have ever seen a president make.” Marco Rubio called it “a grave mistake that will have severe consequences beyond Syria. It risks encouraging the Iranian regime…..” Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led an unannounced, bipartisan delegation to Jordan and Afghanistan described as “outreach to allies after Trump’s decision on Syria.”Notably—and ominously– current and former military leaders have begun openly to criticize the president.
Trump responded to his domestic antagonists with confusion and concessions. Reflecting his own contradictory attitude to militarism and responding to “deep state” fearsthat he is turning the United States into a “second class power,” he protested lamely that “I’m trying to get out of wars. We may have to get into wars too, OK? If Iran does something, they’ll be hit like never before.”On October 17 Vice President Mike Pence was sent to Ankara, where Erdoganand (implicitly) the SDF) agreed to a ceasefire allowing the SDF to retreat from the border area and a reduction in the size of the Turkish “security zone.”At the same time, Trump announced the lifting of modest sanctions on Turkey. Erdogan and Vladimir Putin then agreed on October 22 that Turkey and Russia would jointly clear the border area up to 30 km.
Seeking to press Trump to adopt a forward strategy, Lindsay Graham and retired General Jack Keane, a former 4-star general and Fox news commentator reportedly showed him a map of Syrian oil fields, emphasizing their proximity to Iran. As a result Trump appears now to be contemplating an invasion from Iraq of the southeast province of Deir al-Zor, the center of Syria’s oil industry and reserves. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has announced “A purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others who may benefit from revenues that could be earned.”
The attempt to deprive Syria of oil would represent not only a blatant violation of international law, but also a clear provocation to Syria, which will rely on its own (limited) oil and gas for post-war reconstruction. It would require the introduction of heavy armor into Syria for the first time along with increased air power and almost certainly more than the several hundred U.S. troops said to remain in Syria at the present time. The United States would alsoencourage displaced Syrian Kurds to move to the area, thereby indirectly facilitating Turkey’s ethnic cleansing. The occupation of Syrian oil fields would also increase the potential for conflict among U.S., Syrian government, and Russian forces. In February 2018 U.S. forces inflicted heavy casualties on Syrian government and Russian paramilitary forces in the battle for the Conoco gas facility near Deir al-Zor.
Trump has renewed calls for cooperation with the SDF, and Kurdish leaders are reportedly set to meet with U.S. officials in Washington. However, the United States has less to offer than before, and it is hardly trustworthy. Reports also indicate that U.S. forces have been seeking to contain Syrian and Russian deployments in support of the SDF. The SDF has already come to agreements with Damascus and Moscow to protect them from the Turkish offensive. Recognizing that its exemplaryRojava project is no longer viable, at least at the present time, the SDF has agreed to integration within the Syrian armed forces. Renewed collaboration with the United States would endanger existing agreements with Moscow and Damascus and could provoke the intensification of the Turkish military offensive. The Trump administration is under strong pressure to reassert power in Syria, but its position has been weakened and its options short of military escalation are limited.