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Trump’s Syrian Withdrawal: an Act of Political Realism

President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria is being denounced by an impressive range of critics claiming that it is a surrender to Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran – as well as a betrayal of the Kurds and a victory for Isis.

The pullout may be one or all of these things, but above all it is a recognition of what is really happening on the ground in Syria and the Middle East in general.

This point has not come across clearly enough because of the undiluted loathing for Trump among most of the American and British media. They act as a conduit for the views of diverse figures who condemn the withdrawal and include members of the imperially-minded foreign policy establishment in Washington and terrified Kurds living in north-east Syria who fear ethnic cleansing by an invading Turkish army.

Opposition to Trump’s decision was supercharged by the resignation of Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis which came after he failed to persuade the president to rescind his order. Mattis does not mention Syria or Afghanistan in his letter of resignation, but he makes clear his disagreement with the general direction of Trump’s foreign policy in not confronting Russia and China and ignoring traditional allies and alliances.

The resignation of Mattis has elicited predictable lamentations from commentators who treat his departure as if it was the equivalent of the Kaiser getting rid of Bismarck. The over-used description of Mattis as “the last of the adults in the room” is once again trotted out, though few examples of his adult behaviour are given aside from his wish – along with other supposed “adults” – to stay in Syria until various unobtainable objectives were achieved: the extinction of Iranian influence; the displacement of Bashar al-Assad; and the categorical defeat of Isis (are they really likely to sign surrender terms?).

In other words, there was to be an open-ended US commitment with no attainable goals in an isolated and dangerous part of the world where it was already playing a losing game.

It is worth spelling out the state of play in Syria because this is being masked by anti-Trump rhetoric, recommending policies that may sound benign but are far detached from political reality. This reality may be very nasty: it is right to be appalled by the prospects for the Syrian Kurds who are terrified of a Turkish army that is already massing to the north of the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

There is a horrible inevitability about all this because neither Turkey nor Syria were ever going to allow a Kurdish mini-state to take permanent root in north-east Syria. It existed because of the Syrian civil war in which Assad withdrew his forces from the Kurdish-populated regions in 2012 in order to concentrate them in defence of strategically vital cities and roads. Isis attacked the Kurdish enclave in 2014 which led to a de facto alliance between the Kurds and the US air force whose devastating firepower enabled the Kurds to capture a great swathe of Isis-held territory east of the Euphrates.

Turkey was never going to accept this outcome. Erdogan denounced the Kurdish political and military forces controlling this corner of Syria as “terrorists” belonging to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.

This is a good moment to make a point about this article: it is an explanation not a justification for the dreadful things that may soon happen. I have visited the Kurdish controlled part of Syria several times and felt that it was the only part of Syria where the uprising of 2011 had produced a society that was better than what had gone before, bearing in mind the constraints of fighting a war.

I met the men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) who fought heroically against Isis, suffering thousands of dead and wounded. But I always had a doomed feeling when talking to them as I could not see how their statelet, which had been brought into existence by temporary circumstances, was going to last beyond the end of the Syrian civil war and the defeat of Isis. One day the Americans would have to choose between 2 million embattled Kurds in Syria and 80 million Turks in Turkey and it dd not take much political acumen to foresee what they would decide.

Turkey had escalated its pressure on the US to end its protection of the Kurds and this finally paid off. A telephone conversation with Erdogan a week ago reportedly convinced Trump that he had to get US soldiers and airpower out of Syria. Keep in mind that Trump needs – though he may not get as much as he wants – Turkey as an ally in the Middle East more than ever before. His bet on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia as the leader of a pro-American and anti-Iranian Sunni coalition in the Middle has visibly and embarrassingly failed. The bizarre killing of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team in Istanbul was only the latest in a series of Saudi pratfalls showing comical ineptitude as well as excessive and mindless violence.

Critics of Trump raise several other important questions in opposing his withdrawal decision: is he not letting Isis off the hook by prematurely announcing their defeat and thereby enabling them to make a comeback? There is something in this, but not a lot. The Islamic State, that once held territory stretching from the Tigris River in Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is no more and cannot be resurrected because the circumstances that led to its spectacular growth between 2013 and 2015 are no longer there.

Isis made too many enemies because of its indiscriminate violence when it was at the peak of its power. Trump is right to assume in a tweet that “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others…will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us”. Isis may seek to take advantage of chaos in eastern Syria in the coming months, but there will be no power vacuum for them to exploit. The vacuum will be filled by Turkey or Syria or a combination of the two.

A further criticism of the US withdrawal is that it unnecessarily hands a victory to Vladimir Putin and Assad. But here again, Trump’s manoeuvre is more of a recognition of the fact that both men are already winners in the Syrian war.

Nor is it entirely clear that Russia and Iran will have greater influence in Syria and the region after the US withdrawal. True they have come out on the winning side, but as the Syrian state becomes more powerful it will have less need for foreign allies. The close cooperation between Russia and Turkey was glued together by US cooperation with the Kurds and once that ends, then Turkey may shift – though not all the way – back towards the US.

By denouncing Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, his opponents are once again making the mistake of underestimating his instinctive political skills.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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