Streetwise Professor

October 14, 2019

Syria: To the Victor Goes the Spoiled

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:00 pm

The shrieking and rending of garments du jour emanates from Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the path of a Turkish-backed invasion of northeastern Syria.

What, pray tell, is the US supposed to do? Resist a vastly superior force armed with heavy weapons, artillery, and air support with 1,000 light infantry and support troops? Did these people attend the George Armstrong Custer School of Warfare?

Oh, I forgot. Custer didn’t have air support at Little Bighorn. The US has the most powerful air force in the world. Maybe if we ask really nice the Turks will allow us to use the Incirlik airbase to launch bombing strikes against them.

Or is the US supposed to go large, and bulk up its forces sufficiently to fight Turkey in northern Syria? Riddle me this, military geniuses: just how would they get there?

Putting aside their tactical and logistical inanity for now, the critics of Trump’s move focus on two issues: the betrayal of the Kurds who fought ISIS in Syria, and the supposed surrender of American strategic interests in Syria.

As for the first issue, with respect to ISIS, the interests of the US and the Kurds of the YPG were aligned: both were enemies of ISIS. Yes, the YPG assisted in the US in its fight against ISIS, but it is equally fair to say that the US assisted the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. It was an alliance of convenience, and completely transactional.

That alignment of interests does not extend to supporting the Kurds in their conflict with Turkey. Yes, Erdogan’s Turkey is a colossal pain in the ass, and is at best a frenemy to the US, but it is not in US interests to engage in an outright war with Turkey, either directly, or by proxy, to advance the interests of the Kurds in their generations-long conflict with Turkey.

Along these lines, the key thing to keep in mind in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular is: everyone sucks. Everyone. Everyone is awful. Sometimes the interests of awful group X align with the US, and we work with them (often to our regret). But that doesn’t change the fact that they are awful. This dew-eyed romanticism about the Kurds ignores this cardinal rule.

With respect to the second issue, I read drivel like: “Now that Trump made the US a bystander in Syria, Turkey and Russia are in the driver’s seat.” Or “US allied Kurds strike deal to bring Assad’s troops into Kurdish areas, dimming prospect for further US presence in Syria.”

They say this like these are bad things! Bystander sounds good to me, given the alternative of wading in. Syria is a dystopian hellhole that makes Westeros (after Daenerys’ flyover!) look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I want to stand as far away from that as possible. Who in their right mind thinks otherwise?

Seriously: I want someone to make a coherent case that lays out the American national interest in Syria, and what is the price of achieving it. The first principle of war is “the objective.” So, just what is the American objective in Syria?

Destroying ISIS was arguably a legitimate interest. The current chaos may work to ISIS’s advantage, but is addressing that issue even possible given the potential for force-on-force conflict between Turkey and Syria, and thus potentially between Turkey and Syria’s patron, Russia? Who are we going to fight? Turkey? Russia? Syria? All of the above?

Are you people using a single brain cell?

This crowd is also freaking out that Putin and Erdogan may benefit from the US withdrawal. I seriously find it hard to imagine how both would benefit, precisely because they are on the opposite side of what is going on at this moment, with Syrian army forces moving to confront Turkish-backed forces. If they succeed, what will Erdogan do? Most likely, by reinforcing his proxy forces with Turkish formations. If they fail, what will Putin do? Probably reinforce Syrian forces with Russian ones, and provide heavy air support. Which will certainly kill Turks. Thus, the most likely outcome will be conflict between Russia and Turkey.

So how are Erdogan and Putin both going to come out on top? How are both going to be in the driver’s seat?

Apropos Henry Kissinger and the Iran-Iraq War: it’s a shame they both can’t lose. But maybe Kissinger is wrong, and they both will!

And we really shouldn’t care who “wins.” For here, to the victors will go the spoiled. Syria is a wrecked country with few prospects of seeing peace, let alone prosperity, in the foreseeable future. Or forever.

I laughed out loud when I read some idiot write that Putin desires eastern Syria’s oil riches. Some riches. Before the recent unpleasantness, in 2010, Syria produced a grand total of 385,000 barrels per day. Compared to Russia’s ~10 million. Syria has always been an oil pygmy. And the meager resources it had before the civil war have been wrecked, and will take billions of dollars to restore.

Yet it is this kind of “analysis” that we hear repeatedly.

If Putin and Erdogan and Assad want to fight over this rotted corpse, why should we care?

Let’s say the US magically vanquishes Assad, Russia, and Turkey. Then what?

Anybody taken a look at Iraq lately? Yeah, that’s gone and is going so great we can surely magically heal Syria. There is no upside for the US in Syria. It is a distraction, and a potentially costly one, from the potential for peer conflicts with China, and yes, Russia. We’ve already pissed away trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wasted tens of thousands of American lives in those places. The last thing we should do is add to the butcher’s bill and the financial cost.

The problem with Trump’s critics on this–and other things, especially in foreign policy–is that they don’t evaluate the real choices, the real trade offs. They engage in nothing but magical thinking that bears no relationship to the ugly reality on the ground. They apparently have some ideal outcome in mind (the US vanquishes Putin and Assad and makes Syria a beacon of hope in the Middle East) but have no clue on how to achieve that outcome.

The fact is that Syria is a place where angels fear to tread. But we surely have a surfeit of fools who are willing to rush in regardless.

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  1. “Along these lines, the key thing to keep in mind in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular is: everyone sucks. Everyone. Everyone is awful. Sometimes the interests of awful group X align with the US, and we work with them (often to our regret). But that doesn’t change the fact that they are awful. This dew-eyed romanticism about the Kurds ignores this cardinal rule.”

    Yip yip yip

    The romantic story about the Kurds is that Saddam Hussein committed genocide against the Kurds. Because the Kurds were just sat there, minding their own business and he hated them and… oh no, that isn’t what happened. The Kurds were working with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein. And yes, gassing children is absolutely dreadful, but that’s how the game is played in the Middle East.

    What almost no-one grasps is the economics of the region. We have democracy, human rights and so forth because of industrialisation. You get rich by making a better vacuum cleaner than the one before. The middle east doesn’t have that. Outside of a few places like Israel, Egypt and some of Turkey, the money is about the oil in the ground and almost nothing else. 99% of the exports of Iraq are oil. You want to get rich in Iraq? You take the oil. The most ruthless forces win.

    Comment by Bloke in the UK — October 14, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful article,professor!I wanted to ask you about Erdogan’s threat to flood Europe with another millions of refugees.Is he really going to do it?And do Putin and Assad intentionally play a role in creating refugee crisis in Europe too?Are they trying to blackmail EU as well?

    Comment by mmt — October 14, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

  3. The first rule of warfare is surely: Don’t Lose.
    That applies to drugs, Nazis, Reds, Iranians, whoever.
    Winning takes longer and may be an unrealistic goal. See drugs, Iranians, etc.

    But the US had a modest military presence in Syria which acted as both trip wire and stabiliser. Casualties were nugatory (with all due respect to the victims) compared to the mass killing that will now take place.I admire Trump in many ways (I’m British, so not his voter) but here I think he’s thrown away America’s reputation as a reliable ally in exchange for a trivial saving in Western lives and an election promise that still won’t be kept.

    Comment by philip — October 14, 2019 @ 5:15 pm

  4. Thinking a bit further than my last comment, I come up with a conspiracy theory. (I love ’em, especially if they’re mine!)

    Trump withdraws from Syria. Coincidentally he reinforces US military in Poland, in return for cold hard cash (3 billion).
    This makes the US seem less of a protector and more of a protection racketeer.

    Minds are concentrated in dependent allies, especially middle eastern ones.
    The prize may lie further north. Former Soviet satellites are wary of reliance on the US, France (historically cosy with Russia) or the preposterous mooted European Defence Force.
    That eaves the UK as their only nuclear ally. Furthermore, their own history would make them sympathetic to the UK wish to leave the European Empire.
    So Trump helps out his buddy Boris, kicks sand in the ME, leaves Erdogan, Assad, Putin and various other nutjobs to fight over “A piece of land not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier”.
    Win, win, win. Though I doubt it’s as subtle as that.

    Comment by philip — October 14, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

  5. America was in Syria to fight ISIS? America helped ISIS to get off the ground, with finance, weapons and training. American dollars enabled ISIS to recruit members and grow. ISIS was easily winning in Syria until Assad got Vlad to join in. Syrian Arab Air Force missions against ISIS targets were interdicted by USAF until Vlad said, do that again and I’ll shoot.

    Assad is a dick. He deserves just as much as Saddam Hussein did to be hung up. But before Clinton’s war, Syria was a largely secular country where women could live like human beings. The cure is worse than the disease.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — October 14, 2019 @ 10:47 pm

  6. ” America helped ISIS to get off the ground, with finance, weapons and training.”

    You would have to substantiate that statement. Freedom of opinion never means freedom of facts.

    Comment by LL — October 15, 2019 @ 5:49 am

  7. Trump’s actions are defensible (even if many regret the harm it does the Kurds). The problem is that Trump, while being a master at Twitter and manipulating the media short term, is not someone who can argue and guide long term policy debate. He lacks that skill entirely.

    The US preference for Syria would be a united, secular, democratic country without Assad where the Kurds are protected in their ethnic interests. That is not going to happen. Our goals are mutually exclusive. Any democratic Syria would not be secular as we understand it, and the non-Sunni religious minorities would be at a disadvantaged. The most likely people to remove Assad would be even more tyrannical than him. And the Kurds are more or less screwed because the Arabs would never give them any kind of autonomy. To give the Kurds what they need, there would need to be a partition. To force any of these results, the US would need to invest a lot more money and energy than the political class will tolerate. The fact is, we have no easy solutions and need to make hard choices on what we want to accomplish with the means we have.

    The big problem with US foreign policy is that most of it is legacy from a different world political order, and that our Middle East policy in particular is incoherent and contradictory. The postwar world order of 1945 is dead even though everyone acts as it still exists. We don’t know yet what a stable international order will look like for the 21st Century, and that makes the world very dangerous.

    US foreign policy today is like where the UK was in 1945 immediately after WWII. All the British politicians were intent on securing the empire and retaining Britain’s role as a leading power on par with the US and USSR. In reality, changes in British economy and international reality should have pointed them to a much different policy – accept the Empire was over and jettison it as soon as possible, concentrate on reviving the economy and take a leadership role in Europe, and scale back its foreign policy ambitions. The British political class were just not able to do that because of pride and vested interests, and therefore Britain began its decades long decline. The US is at that same stage. Unlike Britain in 1945, we have a lot more resources at our disposal. But we are avoiding the debate of what to change because there are too many vested interests that want to retain current US policy despite it being incoherent, unaffordable, and puts us at a tactical disadvantage with rising threats because we’re overextended.

    Comment by Chris — October 15, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

  8. I posted a link to this blog post elsewhere and got this response,

    “This is a piss poor article It shows a sadistically evil mindset, and it is one that will trigger further terrorist attacks and wars where innocent people die. It also ignores the principles that founded NATO.”

    I asked if the poster was willing to die or send troops to die for a free Kurdistan. No response. This left wing panic has zippo, zero, nada, nothing to do with support for the Kurds. They just think they have another cudgel to hammer Trump.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 15, 2019 @ 4:44 pm

  9. @The Pilot–Ah, evil sadist. I’m so proud!

    Uhm, how would fighting a Nato ally advance the principles of Nato?

    Terrorist attacks. Sure. Whatev.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 15, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

  10. Our troops and air power are in Syria to fight ISIS. The actual territory holding capability of ISIS has been defeated, but as a terrorist group, they are not. There were 12,000’ISIS prisoners in camps guarded by the Kurds. Who knows where they are now.
    Our job was not yet done, and this precipitous withdrawal has made both Turkey and the Kurds mad at us.
    It didn’t have to go down so incredibly badly.

    Comment by AndyEss — October 15, 2019 @ 8:08 pm

  11. I read Austin Bay’s StrategyPage link that the Professor linked to in his Twitter feed, and it is an excellent summation. It occurs to me that what the Turks want with the buffer zone is quite reasonable. What’s more, their desire to pour all the refugees transiting through their country into the buffer zone is an excellent idea, and it is something Europeans should support: most of those refugees would only want to get to Europe, anyway.

    We know that these refugees consist of the best and the brightest of Syrian civil society (when they had one), who tend to middle-of-the-road politics, are horrified of violence, and only want decent lives for themselves. However, in the future, they will be needed for the rebuilding of Syria, when the killers get tired of killing and start thinking of other options. Their presence is needed in Syria, and what better place than in an Arab buffer zone strip between the Turks and the Kurds, under a security umbrella provided by the Turkish military.

    A wonderful solution, thanks to the Turks!

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — October 15, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

  12. Apart from that, Turkey is soon going to be under severe sanctions anyway, now that Erdogan bought Russian air defence to the detriment of NATO. Or something. Hard to keep up with the great and unmatched wisdom.

    Comment by Ivan — October 15, 2019 @ 10:03 pm

  13. You’re being logical, Prof. Which I applaud. But …

    … ‘they’ are being rhetorical. They want either 1. Trump to keep the US military in all corners of the Middle East, for whatever reason, or 2. to bash Trump, because they hate him and think he can do nothing right. Logic isn’t what they’re interested in.

    These two Venn circles of malcontents intersect in a ‘Coalition of the Unwilling’ – as The Pilot says, it’s not like they’re personally going to rally to an International Brigade to help the poor Kurds over whom they are splashing their crocodile tears, is it? It’s always the US equivalent of Poor Tommy Atkins who is asked to satisfy their blood-lust at risk of his own neck.

    By the way: Imagine the conversations in the royal palaces of Riyadh at the moment. The US is either pulling out (Syria) or determined to be non-committal (Houthi-Iranian attacks on Saudi and Sunni shipping), and anyone who imagines his scrotum knocking between his knees in this new environment – say, Erdogan and Khamenei – is going out with a pile of stakes, pushing the locals out of the way and marking new territory. No wonder Trump had to send a battalion to Saudi to calm some jangled nerves.

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — October 16, 2019 @ 12:53 am

  14. It may be something entirely different in reality but it surely looks like a betrayal and a show of weakness. Now Erdogan has gotten his buffer zone, Assad and Putin have retaken control of Rojava, the Kurds have lost their autonomy, and the US has signaled its inability and/or unwillingness to stand by its allies. Even if the American pullout from northern Syria is part of some grand bargain, broken reputations aren’t easily restored.

    Comment by Alex K. — October 16, 2019 @ 2:07 am

  15. I agree on the reputations argument, BUT nations and individuals should be clear on what they are staking their reputations on. Obama was pretty clear he would paint red lines but wasn’t willing to back them up with sufficient means. Congress was also clear—stop ISIS and game over.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 16, 2019 @ 7:20 am

  16. So, the House passed a resolution condemning Trump’s withdrawal (there’s two normally unassociated words) plan in Syria. As if, a majority of the House approve a declaration of war there. In other news, GWB wants his foreign policy back.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 16, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

  17. Everybody, mostly Trump haters, are still following the Tony Cordesman, ABC TV Gulf War narrative, about moving troops here and there blah, blah, blah- those days are over.

    There are other ways to beat the enemy, so when Trump tweets “I will destroy the Turkey economy” it is not a joke.

    Comment by TomHend — October 16, 2019 @ 2:38 pm

  18. “he’s thrown away America’s reputation as a reliable ally”: a brisk bit of British sarcasm is always congenial.

    Comment by dearieme — October 17, 2019 @ 8:23 am

  19. Hi Craig, I’m sitting here in Beirut and have to say this analysis is spot on. When I turn on the American media (CNN mainly which I get here) it’s like I’ve entered Alice in Wonderland. The same people who were marching against Bush Jr’s Iraq war are now pillorying Trump nonstop for trying to reduce the U.S. military presence here. I’m not a fan of Trump generally but this reaction is ridiculous.

    Comment by Steve — October 19, 2019 @ 4:56 am

  20. As I said here in 2015, Putin prevented Gibbering Wahabi Lunatics taking over Syria, an action swp scorned at the time.

    It’s good your thinking on Syria evolved, swp

    Comment by rkka — October 19, 2019 @ 5:26 am

  21. BS. It was the Kurds and the Americans who destroyed ISIS. Putin and Assad were fighting Assad’s enemies, not all of whom were even Islamist.

    Moreover, I am still not sure if the sudden success of ISIS in 2014 right at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not just a coincidence. There are old links between the Russian intelligence and the former KGB types who rule Russia, and the so-called “national-liberation movements”.

    Comment by LL — October 19, 2019 @ 11:32 am

  22. @rkka-According to my memory,professor was indifferent to Putin’s operation in Syria.He said that it would be good if Russia spent its blood and treasure in Syria.And I don’t think that supported by Putin Shiite lunatics like Hezbollah and IRGS are better than Sunni.

    Comment by mmt — October 19, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

  23. “According to my memory,professor was indifferent to Putin’s operation in Syria.He said that it would be good if Russia spent its blood and treasure in Syria”

    He was scornful of their chance of success in averting the defeat of the Syrian gvt.

    “And I don’t think that supported by Putin Shiite lunatics like Hezbollah and IRGS are better than Sunni.”

    How many non-Wahabis were on those airplanes on 9/11? In 2017, the four terrorist groups inflicting the most fatalities were the Islamic State, Al Qaida, Boko Haram, and the Taliban. All Sunni.

    Comment by rkka — October 19, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

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