Good News, for a Change: Trump Quits Syria
Nothing brings the media and political establishments together like an imperial question.
It’s this subject, more so than any other, on which, like some terrible bloodthirsty cult, they all share the same defective brain. When the president, whoever and however unpopular he may be, uses violence to expand the empire’s global reach, laurels spurt in from every direction. See every major US military action in recent history. On the other hand, should the president neglect to add to our imperial adventures or, horror of horrors, roll them back a tad, he’s sure to reap a whirlwind of frenzied opposition. The public observes this and becomes conditioned: aggression is good; inaction is bad. By and large, this is how the empire maintains itself.
Having announced plans to take the boots off the ground in Syria, where their presence is a crime, Trump finds himself on the wrong end of the equation. According to Bob Woodward, Trump never forgave himself for letting the generals talk him into deploying more troops in Afghanistan, a pointless war if ever there was one. He wanted out, but they badgered him into staying. Now he’s paying them back. In one of his unwonted lucid moments, Trump outlined the rationale behind the pullout heard round the world:
“Does the USA want to be the policeman of the Middle East, getting nothing but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight.”
For that, he’s in the doghouse, the empire’s errand boys descending on him like an army of (war) hawks. Reading quickly through the numerous reports, op-eds and editorials churned out by the mass media over the past twenty-four hours, it’s plain to see that everyone is working from the same script, as if a talking-points memo had been issued from on high. They all hate Trump’s decision, and they all hate it for the same exact reasons.
Reason number one: ISIS isn’t dead yet. Every article I read emphasized the fact that, according to military analysts, there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in Syria and elsewhere. Of course there are. While the caliphate was crumbling, experts on the region like Patrick Cockburn were warning that, rather than vanish into thin air, ISIS would adjust its tactics and mutate into a guerrilla force, which is what it has done. America’s track record against guerrilla units isn’t very impressive—they’re notoriously resilient and difficult to root out. Besides, ISIS isn’t merely a militia: it’s an ideology (exported by our good friends and allies in the Gulf), and you can’t kill an ideology with bombs. We tried that, remember? Before Dick and George launched their War on (sic) Terror, global terrorists of the ISIS variety were dwelling in a few obscure pockets of the Middle East. Seventeen years and two invasions later, they’re everywhere. It’s called cause and effect. We have yet to learn about it. If we ever do, we might want to give the late William Blum’s anti-terror formula a try:
If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize—very publicly and very sincerely—to all the widows and the orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. I would then announce that America’s global interventions—including the awful bombings—have come to an end. And I would inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state of the union but—oddly enough—a foreign country. I would then reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to pay reparations to the victims and repair the damage from the many American bombings and invasions.
Speaking of Israel, that’s another reason to oppose Trump’s Syria withdrawal. If we pull out of Syria now, we’ll be hanging Israel out to dry. So goes the talking point. Behold: Trump “promised to protect Israel, but that nation will now be left to face alone the buildup by Iran and its proxies along its northern border.” That’s from the Washington Post editorial board. Here’s how the New York Times editorial board formulated it: “The American withdrawal worries Israel, anxious about Iran’s robust military presence in Syria …” And the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal: “Israel will have a harder time stopping Iran’s military and militia buildup in southern Syria …” Uncanny! One paper ought to sue the others for plagiarism.
Want more? Let’s go to the op-eds. The Post published a whole heap of them, all pushing the same point of view. Born-again liberal Max Boot (pictured) says that a “US withdrawal from Syria will entrench the Islamic Republic of Iran on Israel’s doorstep,” while the winsome Jennifer Rubin submits that Trump’s directive “confirms we have no coherent policy for containing Iran. Israel may finally discover that slavish praise of Trump … won’t help keep Iran at bay.” Over at CNN, Emmy-winning correspondent Nick Paton Walsh tells us that an American withdrawal “threatens Israel.” Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. What I’d like to know is why American citizens should care at all about whether or not Israel feels threatened by Iran’s presence in Syria. What has Israel done for us lately? What has Israel ever done for us? (Answer key: nothing; nothing.) We’re constantly fed scare stories about how the big, bad mullahs are coming for the poor Israelis, with their stock of undeclared nuclear weapons, but no one ever bothers to explain why that matters. Worse, almost no one bothers to ask. The sooner we start demanding answers to these questions, the better off everyone will be.
As if selling Israel down the river wasn’t bad enough, Trump is reportedly giving a “gift” (it being December) to everyone we’re supposed to hate: anti-Semitic Iran, genocidal Assad and, last but certainly not least, the evil, hegemonic Russians. “Tehran and Moscow will celebrate … As will Bashar al-Assad, who proved that genocide pays in the end.” That’s Rubin, who goes on to lament that “our” enemies are not the same as Trump’s. By “our” she means “my.” After all, Bashar al-Assad is no more an enemy of the American people than Israel is a friend. Our enemies are the corporations, the bought-and-paid-for politicians, the police state, and people like Jennifer Rubin, who try to convince us otherwise.
Not to be outdone, Victoria “Yats is the guy” Nuland (another enemy – pictured) roved way off the reservation and declared that, once US troops vacate Syria, “The Kremlin will proceed as it has long planned, consolidating control over the rest of Syria for Assad until 2021 and then rigging an election for a new figurehead.” Who will the Kremlin select as its 2020 figurehead in Washington? Submit your requests at the Russian consulate nearest you. Ultimately, Vicky moans, “Putin will have achieved his long-held dream of restoring post-Soviet hegemony in the heart of the Middle East.” Considering the outcomes of American hegemony in the Middle East, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to step aside let someone else have a turn. Putin couldn’t do any worse if he tried.
Slightly less alarmist, but no less goofy, was David Ignatius’ take for, again, the Post. “What’s truly distressing,” Ignatius writes plaintively, “is that until Trump’s sudden turnabout, the United States had something of a virtuous cycle going in the region.” A virtuous, not to be confused with vicious, cycle. Interesting. Let’s take a look at some of the American military’s virtuous activity over the past few years. In a report titled “War of Annihilation,” about the US-led coalition’s campaign to liberate Raqqa from ISIS, Amnesty International writes [my emphases]:
The wholesale destruction wrought upon every almost street in Raqqa as a result of artillery and air strikes stands in stark contrast to Coalition claims about precision strikes. UN experts, Amnesty International’s researchers who conducted the investigation, and seasoned war correspondents found the level of destruction in Raqqa worse than anything previously witnessed in other wars. In April the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency stated that “the UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.”
US Army Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell stated that “In five months [the coalition] fired 30,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets … They fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa, Syria, than any other Marine artillery battalion, or any Marine or Army battalion, since the Vietnam War.” Airwars estimates that no less than 1,300 civilians were killed in Raqqa by the US-led coalition in four months—about eleven people per day. According to UN officials, eighty percent of the city was destroyed by a combination of airstrikes and artillery fire, and is now uninhabitable. Virtuous or vicious?
In Mosul, Iraq, government forces backed by US air power fought ISIS for nine months between October 2016 and July 2017. Like Raqqa, much of the city was flattened by coalition airstrikes. Civilian infrastructure, including residential areas, was demolished. Last December, the Associated Press reported that 9,000 to 11,000 civilians were killed in the fighting. “Of the nearly 10,000 deaths the AP found, around a third of the casualties died in bombardments by the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi forces.” Another third were killed by ISIS, “and it could not be determined which side was responsible for the deaths of the remainder.” More than 3,000 killed by the virtuous guys.
Then there’s Yemen, where shrapnel from US-made bombs has repeatedly been found at the sites of war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Not to mention the mass famine and widespread disease (85,000 children have died of starvation since the war began in 2015; millions more are at risk). According to David Ignatius, “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates wanted to help contain Turkish power and create a more stable Syrian state.” Now, thanks to the big pullout, they’re no longer in a position to do so. A crying shame.
Obtuse as these analyses are, a few started to wander in the right direction before stopping and turning back. Ignatius, for example, notes that Trump has “ceded power in northern Syria to Turkey and its proxies, which have made a ruinous mess everywhere in Syria they’ve tried to control.” The Wall Street Journal mentioned the Turkish connection too: “Mr. Trump made his withdrawal decision soon after a phone call with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” So did the NYT: “In recent days he has vowed to launch a new offensive against them in the Syrian border region. Mr. Trump discussed his withdrawal decision in a telephone call with Mr. Erdogan on Friday.” The Post went furthest, writing: “The autocratic Turkish ruler appears to have extracted favors from Mr. Trump in recent days, including the sale of U.S. Patriot missiles and a promise to re-examine the possible extradition of his rival, Fethullah Gulen, from Pennsylvania. If Mr. Trump received anything in return, he hasn’t disclosed it.”
Is the Post being coy, or are its editors really unable to connect the dots? Trump and Erdogan agreed to a quid pro quo. In exchange for the US stepping aside and looking the other way while Turkey invades Syria and attacks the Kurds (again), Erdogan will stop pretending to care that a Washington Post columnist was murdered on the orders of Mohammed bin Salman. You won’t be hearing the name Khashoggi (pictured) very much in the future. That scandal, such a nuisance for Trump, is as good as dead.
In any case, pulling out of Syria may be a loss for the American empire, but it’s a win for the American republic. Next up, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Niger, Somalia, et al.
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*(President Donald Trump speaks during the 9/11 Observance Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2017. Image credit: James N. Mattis/ flickr)