The criticism stemming from President Trump’s decision to remove US troops from northeastern Syria and allow Turkey to move forces into the area should come as no surprise. The Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions have been under fire since 20 January, 2017. Pundits, former diplomats, retired military officers, and politicians have second guessed practically every move the administration made, as well as the reasons behind the decisions. In some instances the criticism was motivated by politics, in others by the simple fact that Trump’s foreign policy was, and continue to be a mystery to many inside and outside of the Beltway.
As far as Syria goes, there should be no surprise, or for that matter, criticism surrounding the move by the president. Outside of defeating ISIS, the United States had no other vital interest related to the Syrian conflict. ISIS has been removed from the board so there is no other compelling reason for the US to keep troops in the area. Even humanitarian reasons aren’t enough to justify a longer commitment.
Syria is in the process of being Balkanized by its erstwhile allies and supporters. Assad’s victory was a pyrrhic one in every way imaginable. The post-conflict phase is now getting underway. The corpse of Syria remains on life support, allowing just enough circulation and heart activity for Turkey, Russia, and Iran to start partitioning sections of the country off. What’s left of Assad’s government, and the territory it controls will become a vassal state beholden to Russia. Iran is busy attempting to craft southern portions of Syrian into a forward operating location where it can springboard operations against Israel. Now Turkey is getting into the act, and with tacit US approval is preparing to move forces into northeastern Syria and establish a security/buffer zone. Erdogan has been seeking this opportunity for years, and with good reason. For a nation-state, security is always linked to expansion.
President Trump has been eager to pull the US out of its open-ended military engagements in the Middle East. His efforts have met with some success, and some failure. Contrary to what some pundits, and politicians on both sides of the aisle claim, Trump is not abandoning the Kurds, or giving Turkey a blank check with regards to Syria. If the Turks move against the Kurds or take action viewed as being outside of the parameters of the arrangement, there will be repercussions.
We will discuss this, as well as Turkey’s coming operation in Syria around midweek.
The beginning of the week has been a volatile one across the world from the Middle East to Asia. I am coming off of a long weekend and feel the best way to begin the week on here is with a brief on some of the world’s brightest flashpoints at the moment.
The Indian government has decided to fully incorporate the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into the nation. It will become a union territory and the central government in New Delhi will assume considerably more control over the state’s affairs. The Kashmir region has enjoyed almost full autonomous authority since 1949. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the section of the document allowing J&K to conduct its own affairs, will be scrapped. Last week, a buildup of army troops, and paramilitary police in Kashmir, coupled with government warnings for visitors to leave the region immediately, foreshadowed Monday’s announcement. Unrest is expected and will likely occur. The growing concern in the region and around the world is what Pakistan’s reaction will be to India’s move. It will likely intensify tension between the rivals, who have fought multiple wars over the Kashmir region in the past. The Pakistani government has called for a joint session of the nation’s parliament today, and the military leadership has begun discussions on ‘regional security.’
Turkey Prepares for Syrian Offensive
Turkey has started moving forces onto its border with northwestern Syria as a major offensive against the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in that area becomes likely. A military move against the Kurds by Turkey will significantly ramp up already high tensions between Ankara and Washington. A delegation of US military officials is presently in Turkey and conducting talks aimed at heading off the Turkish offensive. Whether or not the Turks heed the US warning remains to be seen.
US-China Trade War
Following a sudden, and sharp drop of the yuan against the dollar, the US Treasury has designated China as a currency manipulator. The exchange is the latest as the US-China Trade War shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. The US viewed the drop in the yuan’s value as a deliberate move by Beijing to make China’s products cheaper on the international market and circumvent US tariffs. Stock indexes around the world reacted negatively to the Chinese action, and the US label, especially Wall Street which saw its worst trading day of the year. Today, China’s central bank set the yuan’s official position above the 7 yuan-to-the-dollar mark, bringing it out of currency manipulation territory and calming world markets. It is becoming clear, however, that the US-China Trade War will likely escalate further before it calms.
Disentangling the United States from Syria is proving to be far more difficult than President Trump has anticipated. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s snub of National Security Adviser John Bolton yesterday in Ankara serves as a warning of the difficulties that lay ahead. Bolton’s insistence that Turkey agree to safeguard the US-supported Kurdish militia in northern Syria before a US troop withdrawal begins struck a nerve with Erdogan. He refused to meet with Bolton following the remarks, claiming what Bolton proposed was in direct contradiction to the deal Erdogan and Trump agreed to in December. The Turkish president also made it clear he would prefer to communicate directly with Trump instead of through an emissary like Bolton. Until this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all involved parties, the US troop withdrawal from Syria will likely be put on hold.
Trump is determined to pull US troops out of Syria quickly, and for good reason. Syria has no strategic value for the United States. Critics of the proposed withdrawal are quick to point to the notion that leaving Syria will embolden Iran and undercut US efforts to contain Iranian influence in the region. This is simply not true. The US has been very successful in containing and challenging Iran on multiple fronts across the Middle East. The same critics also argue that a US presence in Syria is needed to counter Russia’s expanding influence and power there. Again, not true. Syria has historically been a Russian ally and therefore Moscow regards the survival of Bashir al-Assad’s government as vital to its national interests.
The United States cannot say the same. Yes, there is a humanitarian disaster going on in Syria. However, after the debacle that post-Gaddafi Libya became, it’s unlikely that Washington will ever mix foreign policy, military action, and humanitarian goals together again. This particular combination has proved to be volatile, especially in the Middle East.
If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.
Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.
The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.
Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.
Thursday’s remarks by President Trump regarding a possible US withdrawal from Syria coming ‘very soon’ has sparked concern in Washington and beyond. US involvement in Syria has been a hotly debated issue among Trump’s advisers and aides. Some feel that if the US is to withdraw from Syria, it needs to be phased, and staggered to reduce the risk of creating a vacuum, similar to what happened in Iraq after Barack Obama withdrew US forces in 2011 which contributed to the rise of ISIS. Other administration members support an immediate, and complete removal of the US presence in Syria. For weeks the president has been hinting to his advisers about his desire to pull US troops out of Syria, a major turn from the administration’s supposed current Syrian policy. Trump’s remarks might be based on the presumption that with the war against ISIS in Syria is nearing an end there is no other purpose for keeping US troops in Syria. Many Pentagon and State Department officials believe otherwise, pointing to the worsening situation in northern Syria and a desire to use US forces and other means of support to help in stabilizing the region.
With the Easter holiday upon us, I’m cutting this update short, but will return to the subject Tuesday morning. Syria is heating up again, and not only because of President Trump’s remarks.