To withdraw, or not to withdraw? That is the question Donald Trump, in his own inimitable way, has answered both ways.
First came the withdrawal. It was real, and had a significant effect. Trump ordered the removal of US troops from Kurdish areas, putting an end to the prospect of an independent Kurdish statelet, split off from Syria. Such a partition was always implausible, given the general balance of forces in the region and the specific refusal of NATO-member Turkey to accept any such thing. (Turkey had already invaded Syria in 2016, and the Obama-Biden administration ordered the Kurds to accept it.) It was also a lynchpin of the longstanding Plan B for dismembering the Syrian state. As I argued in a previous article, agreeing with ”the entire spectrum of US-imperialist politics and media,” Trump’s withdrawal decision “marked ‘a major turning point in Syria’s long war’ and has, indeed, ‘upended decades’ of imperialist and Zionist plans for the Middle East.”
But, as I also noted, Trump is impulsive, shallow, and weak, and “surrounds himself with neocon deep-state actors on whom he depends and who often ignore or actively oppose…his non-interventionist instincts,” and who “may yet get him to reverse that [decision] or over-compensate for it.”
And thus it came to be. Kinda-sorta.
We quickly saw what Philip Giraldi calls an “all too characteristic Trumpean flip-flop.” Under “pressure from congress and the media”—including powerful Republican senators like Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, and especially Lindsay Graham—”who were bleating over how the departure of U.S. troops was a grave mistake,” Trump turned “the greatly ballyhooed ‘withdrawal’ from Syria” into something “more like a relocation of existing military assets.” US troops ended up moving from Kurdish areas to “secure” the oil fields in eastern Syria. As Giraldi says, “the number of American soldiers in Syria may have actually been increased with armor units being transferred from their base in Iraq.”
Of course, the notion that the US military presence is there to protect the oil from ISIS, or to seize it for the financial benefit of the US, is a pitch that was crafted for the one-man gullible enough to believe it: Donald Trump. It was crafted by those whom Foreign Policy (FP) reporter Lara Seligman calls the “Iran hawks” who have “repeatedly sought to reverse Trump’s Syria withdrawal over nearly two years,” and “are still trying to persuade Trump to keep a residual presence in Syria.”
Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, speaking to NPR, calls them the “many elements of our foreign policy establishment that want to roll back Iran and want to stay in Syria for the long haul,” and who knew that “Throwing the oil wells in front of President Trump was a way … they could reanimate his interest in staying in Syria.”
The Washington Post (WaPo) cites a “US official” to the effect that: “Trump’s interest in the oil provided an opportunity for the Pentagon… to temper his insistence on a full withdrawal and allow counterterrorism operations and airspace control to continue. ‘This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce.’” In other words, per another “official” in FP, oil was an effective way “to play POTUS,” a phony pretext to get a weak and shallow Donald Trump, again, to undermine his own decision at the direction of the Deep State he defines as his own worst enemy.
Because, whatever sweet sauce Trump (or the US media) is inclined to swallow, the US military is not staying in eastern Syria to profit from the oil. The cost of keeping US forces in the area will far outweigh any possible profit.
First of all, as NPR reporter Scott Horsley points out: “experts say there’s not much oil there.”
Syria never produced more than about 380,000 barrels of low-quality oil per day. That quantity was trivial in the world market, but was crucial for Syria, providing about a quarter of the state’s revenue in 2010. But eight years of devastating war have reduced production by 90%. So, it’s now at 38,000/day, and the Syrian Army, alone and jointly with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), actually controls two areas accounting for 25% of that output. So, the US armed forces will control areas accounting for a meager 28,500/day of output (areas, by the way, which have nothing to do with fighting ISIS or protecting the Kurds). Furthermore, according to Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources, “it would require a lot of political stability and investment to bring [the oilfields] back” to their full productive potential.
To that must be added the cost of maintaining and supplying about a thousand troops in three different locations. (The Pentagon is saying somewhat fewer, and it’s lying. Special Operations Forces and contractors are never included.) These forces will now include “half of an Army armored brigade combat team battalion that includes as many as 30 Abrams tanks.” Foreign Policy notes that “experts” think maintaining such a contingent “when facing a multitude of threats is “incredibly risky” and “likely to be ineffective.” Land access to the “scattered and relatively small U.S. outposts” near the Omar oil field “remains insecure and difficult along desert tracks and dirt roads.” As Brett McGurk, a point man on Syria for both Obama and Trump, puts it: “It’s going to be a Fort Apache scenario.”
So there’s already talk of building one or two new US bases and “expand[ing] a small airfield” in the Deir Ezzor area, which is “remote and inaccessible except by three border crossings from Iraq, two of which are controlled by Iranian-backed Shiite militias” on the Iraqi side.
It’s an expensive proposition.
The revenue from oil production would not be enough to pay for such a deployment, and it is not intended for that anyway. The economic objective is not, as Trump imagines, to get a windfall profit for the US, but to deny the Syrian government a significant part of the crucial funds it needs to rebuild its country.
In the doubtful case there is any significant production and revenue, none of it will be going to the US Treasury; it will be used to pay off whatever proxy Kurdish or jihadi fighting forces the US can keep stringing along, and whatever “contractors” and corrupt distributors they use to smuggle the oil. See the Russian Ministry of Defense report of how Syrian crude oil has been “massively smuggled outside of the country ‘under the strong protection of the US,’” with “the revenue from the illegal oil trade …ultimately land[ing] in the hands of the ‘American private military contractors and the US security agencies.’”
Indeed, “smuggling” it is. As McGurk acknowledges: “It’s not really possible for us to exploit those oil resources unless we want to be oil smugglers.” Because the other little problem for Trump’s new “We’re keeping the oil” mantra is that the oil he’s talking about belongs to the Syrian government, and, succinctly, per law professor Laurie Blank: “International law seeks to protect against exactly this sort of exploitation.”
That’s not the dispensable objection Trump thinks (and his neocon advisors pretend to think) it is. As John Kiriakou and even “senior U.S. service leaders, administrators and politicians” acknowledge, Trump’s plan is “pillage”—a black-letter war crime. And everybody outside of the US media bubble knows that the Russian Foreign Ministry is absolutely correct in stating that “Any actions whatsoever… that the United States undertake to keep themselves militarily present in Syria are unacceptable and illegal from our point of view and under international law.”
Especially as embodied in the personality and rhetoric of Donald Trump, ignoring that truth introduces a severe weakness in the US position.
First of all, it means that Trump is not going to “make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.” Adding the legal issues deriving from such blatant imperial theft to the “the modest size of the resource [and] risk of conflict” makes it a very unattractive “deal” for any major oil compangy. As Giraldi says: “The petroleum production is not enough to pay for the occupation, even if the oil is successfully stolen and sold, by no means a certainty as the rest of the world minus Israel regards it as the property of Damascus.”
Trump’s flat-out declaration that the Syrian military mission is “an oil grab…what many in the Middle East have long suspected is the purpose of U.S. wars” devastates any pretense of US imperialism’s ethical and legal legitimacy. Even Hillary’s sidekick, Senator Tim Kaine, knows that it’s “not only reckless, it’s not legally authorized.”
(Of course, though the Democrats will snipe at Trump in these terms, they would never actually do anything to prevent this crime or punish Trump for it, preferring instead to pass a bipartisan resolution condemning the withdrawal of US troops from an illegal presence of foreign territory. Remind me again how progressive the impeachment inquiry is.)
His crass oil-grabbing rhetoric is another example of what I’ve called the salutary Trump-effect we should all welcome—his inability to coat US imperialism with the patina of a “humanitarian mission,” which undermines the possibility of widespread domestic or international support that was possible with a smooth-talker like Obama.
As the man says below, Trump is a transparent imperialist. What undermines US imperialism more than the whole world listening to this and knowing that it is irrefutable?
“I say that he is the best American President, not because his policies are good, but because he is the most transparent president. All American presidents perpetrate all kinds of political atrocities and all crimes and yet still win the Nobel Prize and project themselves as defenders of human rights and noble and unique American values, or Western values in general. The reality is that they are a group of criminals who represent the interests of American lobbies, i.e. the large oil and arms companies, and others. Trump talks transparently, saying that what we want is oil… This is the reality of American policy. What more do we need than a transparent opponent?”
But Trump’s “oil grab” rhetoric also demonstrates his childish simplification about what the US imperial project in the Middle East is about. The US military is not staying in Syria to grab the oil, any more than it is, or ever was, in Syria to protect the Kurds or to defeat ISIS.
It’s about continuing the regime-change, state-destroying program the US has been pursuing in the region since at least 2003, on behalf of Israel and with the support of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and other Gulf monarchies.
Donald Trump, the President of the United States—who, like most Americans, does not understand the rigorous logic driving these “ridiculous endless wars”—made a decision to finally get out of one, and he was prevented from carrying through on that decision by massive neocon pressure. That pressure came essentially from “Israel and its friends in Congress and the media [who] will, to say the least, be disappointed if the war is now truly ended and the U.S. military is withdrawn.” That pressure was successful because Trump—like most Americans—shares too many of the unexamined premises of US (and Israeli) exceptionalism, and because he has repeatedly brandished a silly “transactional” urge to “take the oil,” which the neocons played like a fiddle.
These neocons—the “Iran hawks in the upper echelon of the administration”—don’t give a damn about the oil; it means nothing, and they know it. For them, the issue is Israel and Iran: “The real reasons for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria all have to do with Israel, which has long supported a fracturing of that country into its constituent parts …to weaken it as an adversary”—and to hobble any strategic alliance between Syria and Iran that might support the effective resistance of groups like Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon or impede the constantly threatened military attack on Iran itself. US military intervention in Syria, like all the “ridiculous endless” wars in the Middle East since 2003, only, and do, make sense in the context of the US-Israeli strategy revealed by Wesley Clark to “take out seven countries… starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran.”
That’s why “Iran is the reason most often cited by both Washington and Tel Aviv for American interference in Syria.” “Iran” is practically every other word from Lindsey Graham’s mouth when talking about Syria. It’s why “the Democrats, having denounced Trump with one voice, were joined by Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and the ever-versatile Lindsay Graham, all dedicated to the continuation of an interventionist foreign policy.” And it’s why Trump’s “original announcement that he was removing ALL U.S. troops from Syria made powerful new enemies in the Israel Lobby…which has never really liked or trusted him,” despite all he’s done for them.
Though Trump has been an enthusiastic enabler of Zionist colonialism—moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—and though he absolutely shares the Israeli-neocon antipathy to Iran, the fear is that he, like most Americans, doesn’t understand how the war in Syria fits into the transcendentally virtuous and important unified imperialist-Zionist mission. Trump sees his withdrawal ending Obama’s “Assad must go!” war, which he doesn’t care much about. The neocons see it, more correctly, as a retreat in the larger project that’s central to “our”—Israel and America’s (indistinguishable to them)—“national security.”
The fear is that fantastically self-absorbed Trump is too inclined to see Syria, Iran, et. al.., as discrete counterparts with whom he can pull off some transactional deals via his “great and unmatched” wisdom, and that he really does have a strong instinct to avoid “ridiculous endless wars.”
Indeed, the Israeli paper Haaretz proclaimed that “Netanyahu’s Iran Policy Has Collapsed” (his policy to “to bring down the Iranian regime,” that is) because of Trump’s decisions not to attack Iran and to withdraw from Syria, which “are warning signs to Israel, that it cannot count on Netanyahu’s friend in the White House.” In other words, from the perspective of Zionist warmongering, as another Israeli journalist says, “Trump has become unreliable for Israel.”
I say again: Before his Syrian withdrawal decision Trump forewent three golden opportunities to attack Iran, including one in which he actually cancelled the military strike he had ordered with “10 minutes to go,” “flabbergasting” and outraging his closest advisers and key Republican allies. There has not been a presidential decision more radically anti-interventionist and more blatantly in defiance of imperialist doctrine since JFK refused to provide air support at the Bay of Pigs. Look where that got him.
And I’ll say again: This, and only this, is why Trump is more vulnerable to impeachment than parsing Ukrainegate and counting Republican senators might lead one to believe. There are now powerful, permanent-state, supra-partisan lobbies and interests who find him unacceptably unreliable, and who can change votes with a snap. Wasn’t it amazing how Ambassador Sondland suddenly revised his testimony? Watch what John Bolton does when his turn comes, which it will. He’s the bellwether. He’s got the knife.
So the neocon Borg went to work on Trump over Syria, led by James Jeffrey—the other John Bolton, who has worked in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, but has stayed in the shadows and stays on as Special Representative for Syria Engagement. Jeffery, who has “floated the idea of a counter-Iran presence in Deir ez-Zor for some time now” and has promised that “we will not leave Syria before we kick Iran out of Syria,,” managed, with his colleagues, to “un-collapse” the US-Israel policy as much as possible, using Trump’s childish ignorance to “sneak in a long-term U.S. military presence in southeast Syria.”
Thus, to be sure, Donald Trump’s “decision” to withdraw US troops from Syria turned out not to do that at all.
The war in Syria continues; we cannot say it has ended until and unless every US soldier and piece of military hardware leave Syria. The residual military presence that the neocons have persuaded Trump to keep in Syria continues to deny the Syria government full control of its own sovereign territory and maintains redoubts from which the rump US and proxy forces threaten the Syrian government—economically for certain, and potentially militarily.
And the war in which Syria is embedded—the ongoing state-destroying war across the Middle East, aimed ultimately at Iran—certainly continues, with Donald Trump enabling it, however fitfully. Any US forces that remain in Syria are also there to act forcefully in the region-wide military conflict that will erupt if and when the decision to pull the trigger on a military strike on Iran comes.
But Trump’s sudden rearrangement of US forces in Syria has weakened the US position in that country, both militarily and politically, which is why it was so hated by staunch imperialists and Zionists—i.e., nearly every major US politician and news media personality.
As National Interest reporter Matthew Petti recognizes, for all the reasons mentioned above, “the U.S. presence in southeastern Syria may not be sustainable in the long run.” And, as a senior Pentagon and White House official under Obama sums it up: “This is a sensitive gunpowder barrel of a mission… U.S. forces are being sent with only the shakiest possible legal authorization, knowing their commander-in-chief may change his mind as he has multiple times in the past.”
Unsustainable, but being sustained. The US remains as a kind of zombie aggressor in Syria—not wanting to accept how badly it has been defeated (Even Robert Ford, an “architect of the Islamist insurgency,” knows it!), and capable of doing enormous damage in refusing to accept that.
How is it that Robert Ford, one of the architects of the Islamist insurgency in #Syria and a man who tirelessly campaigned for the Al-Qaeda tied Ahrar Al-Sham to replace the Assad government, is now being so realistic and actually talking sense? (Interview Oct 10, 2019) pic.twitter.com/0ZWrndjbWK
— Ibn Walid (@walid970721) November 6, 2019
So, the neocons are restaging the US armed forces in a precarious “Fort Apache” from which they can’t regime-change Syria but will continually threaten to. They are not giving up on their program for the Middle East, but they do now have to account for the fact that the US military in Syria is a rump force.
We might see this as part of the welcome yet worrisome evolution in the balance of forces in the world—in which the US is losing what seemed to be its uncontested prerogative to use military force, while being tempted to reverse that process with dramatic military action that re-asserts its absolute hegemony.
But, for the moment, it’s also important to see and resist how US imperialism is adapting, by shifting its focus to economic aggression, where it still holds key levers of power. The most devastating attacks on independent countries like Syria, Iran, and Venezuela come through the US’s control of international banking and payments systems, which allows the US to mount an economic siege designed to deprive people of the necessities of life. Even Human Rights Watch has denounced the US’s “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran as “pos[ing] a serious threat to the Iranian people’s right to health and access to essential medicine.”
Regarding Syria, a report from Ben Norton reveals the testimony of Dana Stroul, the Democratic co-chair of the bipartisan Syria Study Group, Senior Professional Staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and longtime permanent-state operative who’s spent years formulating Middle East policy—another other, less conspicuous, John Bolton.
Stroul insists that “the conflict is not over; it’s entering a new phase.” That’s the phase of “holding the line on diplomatic isolation, preventing embassies from going back into Damascus,” intensifying the “economic sanctions architecture,” and “preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.” She wants to revive an alliance with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by channeling all aid and “stabilization assistance” to it, while “keep[ing] the rest of the country in ruins until it achieved its goal of regime change.” All this will be accomplished by using US control of “the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans.”
As Norton says: “It is beyond debate that this approach will lead to massive suffering, privation and even the deaths of masses of Syrians.”
That’s true, and it’s also true that this project will not go as planned. It betrays the same American hubris about the ability to fix and control outcomes that succeeded so well in the Syria war as a whole, and which Robert Ford pegged in the tweet above. In her fevered imperialist imagination, Stroul seems to think that the US can start the same Syrian regime-change operation all over again from the Deir Ezzor oilfields. Ain’t gonna happen. There is no possibility that the SDF will overthrow the Syrian government. That could only happen at this point via a direct attack by US forces against the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian and Iranian allies—a walk in the proverbial park for which even Stroul reticently acknowledges “there’s limited [!] appetite domestically.”
There is another, and potentially very effective, tactic the US will use to continue the war in which Syria is embedded, to maintain the pressure on Syria and ultimately Iran, and to reinvigorate the US-Israeli-Saudi state-destroying project. That is to infiltrate, co-opt, selectively finance, and eventually arm, favored sectors of the mass movements that are now in the streets in Iraq and Lebanon.
In both countries, masses of angry people have come into the streets with absolutely legitimate grievances about the lack of jobs and services and about rampant corruption and clientelism—exacerbated in Lebanon by the “confessional” political system that is itself the product of Western imperialism. In both countries, it is also absolutely the case that the US has strong resources, and will try—no, is trying—to turn these movements into “color revolutions” directed against Iran.
In Lebanon, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (the main financial patron of the Hariri family and the Sunni elite) are determined to destroy Hezbollah—because Hezbollah is allied with Iran, because it has proved itself as an effective fighting force against both jihadis in Syria and against the Israeli Army, and because it has built great political legitimacy for itself in Lebanon across sectarian lines. It will be impossible to sideline or break the power of Hezbollah without igniting a new civil war.
And that is exactly what the US/Israel/KSA are willing to do. Do not forget: For them, chaos is preferable to tolerating any resistance to Zionism, US imperialism, or Saudi control of Sunni Lebanon (and the greater Middle East).
A truly progressive movement that can replace the confessional balancing system in Lebanon with a fully secular, universal system must be built very carefully. It needs to be done with the participation of all the social and religious groups, and with the socio-economic needs of the working-class and poor Lebanese given primacy. It needs to be done in a way that’s not beholden to Saudi or US purse-strings. It needs to be done independent of paradigms being peddled by arrogant, hypocritical US-embassy-NGO “humanitarians” and “democrats” (neo-liberals and Zionists, every one). It’s very difficult to see how that can happen. And it’s impossible—It’s civil war!—without Hezbollah.
It’s even more difficult because it needs to be done under the explicit and imminent threat of attack from Israel, which is absolutely determined—with the support of the US and at the risk of a “Middle East conflagration,” to enforce its own definition of what Lebanon can be, which must exclude Hezbollah.
Lebanon is historically and politically, as well as geographically, close to Syria. They were formed out of French Mandate after the First World War. Syria was pulled into the Lebanese civil war from the 70s to the 90s. Under any circumstances, chaos in Lebanon would inevitably and seriously affect the Syrian state.
Furthermore, Hezbollah and Iran have been formidable allies in Syria’s fight over the last eight years, and will continue to provide crucial support for Syria’s territorial integrity and social reconstruction. They cannot be abandoned. Syria cannot survive their destruction. Thus, the machinations of the US, Israel, and KSA in Lebanon are potentially much more damaging to Syria than the sale of Deir Ezzor oil.
Iraq is a big and important neighbor of Syria. The social problems that are driving angry young people into the streets now, and the government that has killed at least 100 of them are all products of the US invasion, which destroyed Ba’athist socialism and privatized the economy, creating a new class of corrupt elites. The US invasion also, as everyone knew it would, increased the influence of Iraq’s large and powerful neighbor, Iran. After all, the US claimed to be acting on behalf of Iraq’s Shiites, who had close ties to Iran.
The rise of Shiite militias in Iraq was also predictable, and they became crucial both in resisting the US military presence and in the fight against ISIS. But now the US is trying to turn popular discontent about the lack of jobs and services into a revolt against “Iranian influence,” and will stoke any sectarianism and chaos to achieve that. This also would be enormously damaging to Syria.
So, as he does not seem to, we must understand the impact of Trump’s see-sawing in Syria in the context of the larger Israeli-American-Saudi project to break the increasing political and military power of, and alliances among, Iranian-supported countries and groups—a goal which, the neocons know, can only be achieved by breaking the power of Iran itself. Trump’s “withdrawal” from Syria, half-assed as it turned out to be, did weaken that project—and earned him a new level of bipartisan contempt and mistrust that weakens him in the face of the impeachment assault.
But the state-destroying project continues against Syria and any other recalcitrant actor in the region, a project whose necessary requirement and ultimate goal is destroying Iran. At this point, economic siege, financial sanctions, and the hijacking of mass movements of popular discontent are emerging as weapons much more dangerous than any oil revenue from Deir Ezzor.
In the melee of punches thrown and missed, you gotta know where the deadly knives are.