I've noted President Trump's decision to withdraw US forces from Syria
, and the outcry that's followed
. You'd think this country was abandoning poor, innocent people to the mercies of Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags, to read and listen to all the fuss. It's nowhere near that simple. Consider these points.
In the first place, the President is right. ISIS has
been defeated on the battlefield. Can it come back? Sure it can - just as ISIS itself was merely the latest variation on the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist theme to arise in the Middle East over a long, long period. ISIS was nothing new except that it formed a territorial entity and called it a 'caliphate', a name with deep roots in Islamic history. Its braggadocio 'caliphate' is no more. It's part of the dust of history, that's thick and deep in the Middle East with the ruins of other such grandiose proclamations. ISIS may return under that name, or in another incarnation - but you can bet your bottom dollar, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism will
return to the Middle East in some highly visible form before too long. That's just the way it is in that part of the world.
That said, let's be under no illusions about the quality of ISIS' opponents. Turkey calls some Kurdish movements 'terrorist' - and they are
. The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK
(whose roots are Marxist/Leninist, like so many other terrorist movements) has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Turkey and on its borders as part of its agenda. It's listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department
. There are other Kurdish groups who've supported Al Qaeda
. Remember 9/11? Yeah. That
Al Qaeda. Not all Kurds are equal, ethically or morally speaking. There are as many terrorists among the Kurds as there are 'good guys'. Sometimes it's very hard to distinguish between them, and the people they're fighting
Yes, from the US perspective there are 'good Kurds' (read: pro-Kurdish, anti-terrorist, anti-fundamentalist Islam, anti-Iran). They're (rightly, IMHO) disturbed and upset
at the prospect of no longer having an American security umbrella over their heads. On the other hand, let's be blunt. 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston
, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger echoed those sentiments
in our own time.
The USA has interests,
rather than eternal friends, in the Middle East. They change over time. For example, prior to 1948, we had no "interest" in Israel, because Israel did not exist. Since its independence, US interests there have fluctuated in accordance with the policies of the Administration in power. President Obama had a very different perspective on them than does President Trump - indeed, he actively and openly and unashamedly tried to interfere in Israeli domestic elections, to defeat the incumbent government
. Personally, I think that was morally and ethically wrong . . . but morals and ethics have little to do with realpolitik
as she is practiced today. That's why I'd make a lousy politician.
The USA can and should pursue its interests, just as any other nation should; but it dare not allow the pressures in one part of the world to overwhelm its equally (or even more) pressing interests in others, or at home. Syria is one problem out of many we're struggling to deal with - for example, China, North Korea, Venezuela, Libya, Ukraine, and so on and so on ad nauseam
. Dare we allow Syria to absorb so much of our attention, and so much (and potentially much more) of our military effort, compared to the others? Dare we allow our support for the Kurds to enmesh us in military conflict in Syria for years to come, perhaps at the cost of many American lives?
Is that in our best interests? You tell me. I think there are other ways of achieving the same end, even without troops on the ground. (For an example, remember what happened to the "Russian mercenary" attack on a Kurdish town not so long ago?
. Troops would have been superfluous, except to clean up the mess afterwards.)
Take a good, hard, objective look at the mess in Syria today. Thanks in no small part to the Obama administration's interference there
, urged on by neocon interventionists
in the US, Iran expanded its involvement in Syria to prevent the overthrow of its client, President Assad, and Russia threw its weight behind its only remaining Arab client state. That, in turn, has ratcheted up the threat to Israel, which has struck Iranian positions in Syria, attacked Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and indirectly caused embarrassment to President Putin by operating with apparent impunity in the face of the best air defenses the Russians can offer. Israel cannot and dare not allow Iran to further extend its dominance in Syria, and is very likely to increase its own involvement there as a result - carrying with it the real danger of an armed confrontation with Russian forces.
I ask you: what vital US national interest will be served by leaving our armed forces in the middle of that cauldron of conflicting interests?
Please tell me. I can't see one. Protect the Kurds? We haven't (officially) been doing that - we've been fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda. If we're suddenly there to protect the Kurds, why? What are our war aims? Why have they not been clearly, categorically, unequivocally defined?
If we don't know why we're there, how on earth are we going to know when we no longer need
to be there? At the moment, it seems to me that US armed forces in Syria are on a mission in search of a problem. Define the problem, and you'll know when you've solved it. Leave it undefined, and you'll go on chasing your own (and every potential enemy's) tail until you're dizzy.
Some would argue we're there to support Israel: but Israel can't expect the US to pull its chestnuts out of the fire whenever necessary. Besides, it's far and away the dominant military power in the region. It's more than capable of taking care of business for itself. Iran has threatened it with nuclear annihilation. That was very, very stupid, because after the Holocaust, Israel takes such threats seriously. It won't surprise me in the least to see Israel turn parts of Iran (and possibly the parts of Syria where Iranian forces are concentrated) into radioactive, glass-topped parking lots if the need arises. Again - why should US forces be anywhere nearby, if and when that happens?
This is part of the larger question of why the US has so many troops stationed in so many countries. President Trump has reportedly been asking pointed questions
about why they're there, the cost of keeping them there, and whether the US would be better served by bringing them home. He did so even before he became President. That predictably provoked a strong negative reaction
from neocons and the establishment that's grown up over decades to support and defend a US military presence overseas. Nevertheless, it's a perfectly good question. If we keep troops overseas to support a particular policy, and we never succeed in achieving or implementing that policy, then why are we continuing to support failure by our expensive military presence?
Einstein famously defined insanity
as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Isn't that a pretty good description of much of this country's foreign and military policy in recent decades?
We have troops, and interests, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and beyond. Our armed forces are currently serving in over 150 countries and territories
. Syria is just one of them - and our troops there are far from our largest foreign military presence. I don't think the presence, or absence, of between 2,000 and 4,000 US military personnel (depending on whose figures you trust) is going to make the difference between the survival or genocide of the Kurds, or the rise or fall of the Assad regime, or anything else. I think those troops amount to not much more than a tripwire if Syria goes full Monty, and a four-cornered war breaks out between Syrian, Iranian, Turkish and Israeli forces. The Kurdish question, and ISIS, will be no more than side issues if that happens.
Frankly, I think President Trump has made a good call. On the balance of US priorities, interests and commitments, we don't need to be in Syria
. Let those on the scene handle what needs to be handled, and back up our
interests with other measures if necessary.