No Reason to Oppose Trump’s Withdrawal from Syria

There are many reasons to oppose Donald Trump and to seek his fall from power. His current stance on Syria is not one of them.

I’ve long feared that the campaign to topple Trump, so apparent in the CNN and MSNBC coverage of everything pertaining to Trump, will strengthen the dangerous, ugly, irrational Russophobia that after a decade of dormancy (in the 1990s) has re-surged especially since 2004. That’s the year when NATO, an anti-Russian military alliance, the most powerful military alliance in world history, expanded by seven nations. This violated an agreement by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev whereby NATO would not expand “one inch” eastwards towards Russia made in 1989. NATO has expanded by three nations since, including tiny Montenegro. Of course Moscow is pissed.

This is the main source of U.S.-Russia tensions. I’ll wager the average north American, if presented with the raw facts (a tale about an expanding alliance with an annual military budget over 10 times greater than the country it surrounds) would, all other things being equal, feel sympathetic with the country being cornered and threatened. At present there is no ideological issue between Russia and the U.S.; they share the same system. The Moscow oligarchs have no interest in bringing down U.S. capitalism; they just don’t want it crushing them.

Russia’s response to NATO’s expansion, and plans for further expansion (to include George and Ukraine) has been swift military action. In 2008 Russian forces invaded Georgia to punish it for an attack on the separatist republic of South Ossetia, and followed up by recognizing South Ossetia (and another separatist republic, Abkhazia) in an apparent tit-for-tat for the U.S.’s recognition of Kosovo, a Serbian province wrenched away from the country by NATO in 1999 and transformed into a vast military base. Russia forces re-established Russia control over Crimea in response to a U.S.-backed coup in Kiev in February 2014, the same coup that provoked the Russian speakers of the Donbass region to declare regional autonomy.

Russia has been assisting its Syrian ally against a armed opposition dominated by al-Qaeda and its spin-offs since September 2015. Syria after all has been a Moscow ally since the 1970s and Russia maintains two military bases there. Fortunately the fighting has gone well; Damascus has been spared the fate of Palmyra. The Hillary Clinton policy was to use the Kurds (or anyone at all) to bring down Bashar Assad, in a period of perceived vulnerability, during the “Arab Spring.” Aid has been provided to the Kurds, not due to any U.S. commitment towards their emancipation (in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, or Iran) but due to their transient utility. If Trump withdraws it now, he will simply be repeating the U.S. betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds after a period of military support in 1975.

But “shame, shame” cry the TV commentators, including loads of liberals. Suddenly the Syrian cause (buried in under-reportage) is a heroic cause.

Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC noting that the story had been “under the radar” (Duh…why is that, Steph?) expresses moral outrage that the U.S. is withdrawing forces. Princeton’s Center for African-American Studies professor Eddie Glaude is damning Trump for disrespect for the U.S. soldiers who’ve already died in Syria. Trump’s impulsiveness is foregrounded; his advisors’ own opposition is noted; the Russian media’s praise for the decision is deployed as an indication that yes, Trump is over Putin’s barrel.

If the capitalist-imperialist system were a single mind capable of thought, it might be thinking now: Trump has ceased to serve the interests of the whole system, and must fall, doomed by his personality and provocation of multiple powerful parties. But if his fall can be accompanied by a strengthening of anti-Russian sentiment—-getting lots of liberals like Glaude on board—it will all be worthwhile.

If the media (of which airhead Ruhle is representative) can help depose Trump while saturating him with accusations of Russian “collusion” including in foreign affairs, it will only be setting the nation up for actual conflict with Russia, such as “Goldwater Girl” Hillary was willing to risk in Ukraine or Syria. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, who are there illegally, is a good thing. (Even if the Peshmergas’ cause is just, and even if some U.S. Special Forces have genuinely bonded with them in their nationalism, the fact is, the legitimate Syrian government has never authorized their deployment and their presence violates international law.)

The depiction of their withdrawal as a sign of Trump’s allegiance to Russia or indication of U.S. weakness is a bad thing. It’s a call to mainstream liberals and even clueless progressives to embrace U.S. exceptionalism and endorse U.S. imperialism to better express their contempt for the idiot-president. There are better, more rational ways to express that contempt.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: