This day was always going to happen.
On October 7, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Soon after, Turkish forces began moving south across the border to strike Kurdish forces which had been until extremely recently under American protection. Two days later the partial American withdrawal was upgraded to a full evacuation of all forces.
Wailing and gnashing of teeth across the American political spectrum quickly erupted, with many condemning the tactical and political aspects of the president’s decision. I’m of mixed minds:
On the one hand, the Kurds – whether in Syria or Iraq – have been America’s only reliable regional allies since America’s first major confrontation with Iraq back in the early 1990s. When we have asked, they have answered. Every single time. In many cases U.S. forces didn’t even do the heavy lifting, but instead relegated themselves to providing intelligence and materiel support. Without the Kurds’ assistance the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would have been far nastier affair, post-Saddam Iraq would have been far less stable, the defanging of ISIS and the destruction of the ISIS caliphate would not have happened. In Syria in specific, the Kurds habitually provided at least five times the forces the Americans did.
On the other hand, the United States was always going to leave Syria. If the Americans were unwilling to commit 100,000 troops to the overthrow of Syria’s Assad government and its subsequent forcible reconstruction, then there was little reason to become involved in a decades-long, grinding multi-sided civil war.
The primary reason American forces remain in Syria at this point is to limit Iranian penetration. That battle was lost six years ago when then-President Obama allowed the Syrian government to cross Obama’s own red line on the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama made it crystal clear that any U.S. military action would be small scale, focused on Special Operations Forces, and largely dedicated to backing up the Syrian Kurds. Whether under Obama or Trump, an American withdrawal has always been inevitable. It’s just taken seven years of Syrian-Russian-Iranian victories on the battlefield and the large-scale dismemberment of the ISIS Caliphate to make it imminent.
Aside from the Iranian vector, American national and strategic interests in Syria are utterly nonexistent. Syria – even backed up by Iran – is a military pigmy that Israel could easily shatter. If Jerusalem really wanted to, it could roll into Damascus in a long weekend. (Sticking around, of course, would be a barrel of shiv-wielding monkeys.) American interests in Lebanon are less than American interests in Syria. Jordan has been a de facto Israeli client state for years. And that is quite literally all she wrote.
The far more important fact – comfortable or uncomfortable depending upon your view – is that the evolving American view of Syria is really little more than a microcosm of an evolving American view of the Middle East writ large. American troop deployments throughout the region have been plunging for a decade and are now down to about one-tenth of their peak. America now has more troops in Afghanistan than the rest of the region combined, and that deployment is well on its way to a complete phase out. CENTCOM HQ in Qatar will almost certainly be closed soon (you don’t need a forward command center if there’s nothing to command). The Iraq advisory force is leaving. Kuwait, once the launchpad for multiple wars, has been reduced to lilypad status. The Turks are certain to eject U.S. forces from the Incirlik base within a year.
Within two years the total regional deployment figure will be in the low-to-mid single digits of thousands, at most one-fifth of what is there today.
That sounds shocking and, considering it wasn’t that long ago that the Americans had a quarter-million troops in-region, it kind of is. But take a step back and look – really look – at the region, and it actually isn’t all that mind blowing.
Iraq is falling apart. Mass unrest is now entering its third week and if it continues along its current trajectory it risks bringing down the government. That isn’t “bring down the government” European-style which would mean new elections, but instead “bring down the government” in the post-Arab Spring style, which means an extended period of mass chaos, violence, and very likely a return to some degree of civil war. While it is true that Iraq has experienced cyclical public unrest since 2015, never has the regional climate been more tenuous, with Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia openly involved in regional conflicts – meaning the normal balancing act between Iraq’s Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis (and their foreign backers) is over. Stabilizing this mess would require the Americans (re)injecting 100,000 troops. Far more likely, the Americans will remove the five-ish thousand troops which remain, taking the last thin reed of stability with them.
Iran is the regional bugaboo that most Americans fear. Since the end of the Clinton Administration American policy has held quixotic goals: we want the Iranian government gone, but we don’t want to use U.S. forces to do it. Under Clinton that meant the dual containment. Under W Bush it meant a forward blocking position in Iraq. Under Obama it meant trying to set up a regional balance of power. Under Trump it means economic sanctions backed by exactly zero military force.
None of it has worked. None of it was ever going to work. The Shia clergy is the Iranian political elite, giving the Iranians the deepest bench of political leadership in the region. You’d literally have to kill 10,000 mullahs to induce a shift. Nor is Iran revolution-prone. The first task of the country’s infantry-heavy military is to occupy Iran to ensure domestic unity. There are solid reasons why Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution” was over in under a month.
Nor is knocking Iran off feasible. Iran is a mountain nation, granting it a defensibility which partially obviates the sort of air and tank warfare for which the Americans are renown. Moreover, Iran’s population in 2019 is over triple that of Iraq in 2003. Overthrowing the government would necessitate a force over twice as powerful as the one that took down Saddam’s Iraq, followed by an occupation force three times as large. No thank you. The U.S. military and public has exactly zero interest in putting 400,000 troops back into the Middle East to fight another grinding war of occupation.
What about America’s “allies”?
Qatar is the perfect example of a friends-like-these ally. In per capita terms it is almost certainly the top financial supporter of Islamic terror groups in the world (I say almost certainly since Qatar doesn’t disclose their terror accounting). On the nicer end Qatar fundees include the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, ramping up to more knifey groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Doha also has a nuanced-to-positive relationship with Iran for various reasons, not the least of which is its gas wealth stems from the shared North Dome/South Pars gas field. Qatar has hosted the operational headquarters for most U.S. warfighting in the region for the past two decades despite being a place that is in part responsible for the Americans needing to do the warfighting in the first place.
That’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia. A half century from now when today’s headlines are parsed for the history books, the world will remember Saudi Arabia’s current de facto leader – Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) – as one of the evilest individuals in modern history.
The sheer volume of public support, money, arms and ideological cover given to religiously-tinted fighters – that’s jihadis or terrorists based on your politics – by various Saudi citizens and royals alike has boomed in step with the Kingdom’s regional ambitions. (Qataris have been implicated in plenty of terrorist financing schemes, but fewer than a relative handful have taken up arms themselves; 9/11 shows that the same cannot be said for Saudis.) Saudi Arabia habitually backs the most extreme, violent interpretation of Islam and regularly exports it far and wide at the end of a gun or leading wave of an explosion.
MBS has taken things further. Once he realized the Americans were serious about leaving the region, he shifted tact and instead of simply seeking destabilization of his enemies, he now seeks to burn down the pillars of civilization across the entire field of competition. Much of the Sunni Islamic extremism in Syria can be laid at his feet, as can much of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are MBS’ actions limited to the battlefield. About a year ago on MBS’ orders, a hit squad suffocated and dismembered a Washington Post columnist in Istanbul, transported his remains to the Saudi consul general’s house where they were incinerated in a custom-built “barbeque pit” just before the consul hosted a massive party that utilized the same pit to help degrade any lingering forensic evidence.
MBS is not a friend, nor is Saudi Arabia an ally. America used to have to put up with this sort of activity from the Saudis during the Cold War because without Saudi oil, the global trading system would have collapsed and taken the American alliance network with it. Courtesy of America’s shale revolution, those days are over.
Rhetoric aside, even President Trump doesn’t see the bilateral relationship as all that close. Last month the Iranians launched a drone and missile attack on Saudi energy facilities, taking some 5 million barrels of daily output offline. Under normal circumstances that would have prompted massive American military retaliation. Instead, Trump’s response to MBS’ call for assistance was something along the lines of, “sorry, I have a fundraiser.” For those of you who think oil is a globalized commodity and so the U.S. remains vulnerable to price swings, think again. The president has preexisting authority to limit U.S. crude exports. Should global prices get too crazy, an executive order can keep U.S. shale output at home, splitting the North American energy market off from the global market. The Saudi headache is now optional.
Even Israel isn’t what it once was. Within the next decade the country’s mostly-Palestinian Muslim population will become the majority, although about 90 percent of them have no political rights in the Israeli system. The two-state process that sought to generate a country for the Palestinians has been dead for years and we have already seen the Israelis implement a very successful separation plan more than a bit reminiscent of South Africa’s Apartheid.
In fact, Israeli ultranationalists in private conversations even welcome the comparison to Apartheid, because they think Apartheid was gentler than what modern Israel has achieved. Under Apartheid, the black South Africans could travel to white-controlled zones for work. Under the Israeli program the Palestinians languish behind 35-foot-tall concrete walls in what are little more than open air prisons with the Israelis controlling Palestinian access to power, food and water. As the thinking goes, who cares if this radicalizes the Palestinians if they are radicalized on the other side of a wall. Arguably, places like Tunisia or Pakistan are now “more equal” democracies than Israel. (Ugh, I’m going to get so much hate mail for these last two paragraphs.)
Turkey and the United States have been pulling apart for three decades. In a world where Soviet containment is the end-all be-all, the alliance was everything. Remove the Soviet threat, however, and the Turks have interests in the Balkans, Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia and the Levant that have next to nothing to do with American interests. Turkey is reasserting itself as a major regional power, and since the American military position in places like northern Iraq and Syria are largely dependent upon supply routes through Turkey, there is no long-term American strategic position in these regions without express Turkish assistance. That assistance has been removed, so the Americans – regardless of domestic policy preferences – have no choice but to leave.
That just leaves the Kurds, a mostly mountain people. That makes them a fractious bunch whose fractured leadership has traditionally been willing to fight to the last Kurd to determine who is in command, while enabling more homogenous ethno-sectarian groups on all sides to easily demonize them, oppress them, and play them off one another. They are the largest ethno-sectarian group in the world without a country, and their entire land-locked population is split among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. For those familiar with West Virginia, Switzerland or Chechnya, squabbling oppressed mountain people make great fighters, and since they lack a country they have little to lose by allying with, well, anyone. No wonder the Americans depended on them so much.
But the Kurdish dream of independence was never going to be more than a dream. Landlocked and partitioned, the only way a real Kurdistan could emerge would be if one of the four countries which house Kurds actively sponsor it. That’s just not in the cards. The Kurds are a lost cause; They were never more than an ally of the moment.
They are hardly the only ally of the moment the Americans have abandoned. At the end of the Vietnam War the Americans left the Hmong – another fractious mountain people who allied with the Americans – in the lurch. Their massacre at the hands of the Vietnamese is the stuff of legend. Something similar is about to happen to the Syrian Kurds at the hands of the Turks. The biggest difference between the two groups is there are too many Kurds to resettle them to Minnesota.
So why all the noise back in the United States? Aren’t the Americans exhausted with the Middle East? Shouldn’t they be celebrating?
In part it is because the extreme unpopularity of Donald Trump means any decision he makes is going to be parsed for negative sound bites, and there is no end of hypocrisy in play. My personal favorite are the former Obama team talking heads hitting the airwaves who only now find Syria’s murder and mayhem worthy of American military action.
In part it is because abandoning an ally is bad form, particularly if you think the U.S. should play a role in preventing genocide, promoting human rights, stymieing traditional rivals, or keeping a hand on the throat of the global economy. Even if you think none of this is the U.S.’ business, you’ve got to admit a lot of stuff happens in the region, and having a finger in the pot does prove useful from time to time. In the grand scheme of things, 2000 troops in Syria isn’t that big of a deal.
A deeper (and IMO far more substantive) issue is the fate of America’s national security professionals. Trump initially liked the generals because of their “yes sir” and “can do” attitudes. After all, civilian supremacy means the president is in charge, you do what you are told and if you have a problem with the president’s policy you don’t undermine him, you leave. Well, two years on, pretty much all of them have left.
The break has become so extreme that Trump now considers national security-minded Republicans to be greater ideological foes than the Democrats. One of the big outcomes of the 2018 mid-term elections was the wholesale ejection of that faction from Congress as well as from the Republican Party leadership itself. For many of this group, Syria is the prefect example of poor leadership: Trump’s policy not only betrays a loyal ally, it abdicates an American role throughout an entire region. We can debate the pros and cons of that abdication, but for folks in the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities this is a step that unwinds a half-century of painstaking military, intelligence and diplomatic efforts paid for with untold resources and blood. You don’t have to view the world their way to understand why they’re pissed.
That doesn’t change the simple fact that if not for the seemingly bottomless volume of TrumpDrama in America these days, most Americans would probably be sighing in relief right now. If the Americans really don’t have an interest in maintaining a global Order, then the Middle East is barren of American national interests and it can now firmly be someone else’s problem. It isn’t nice. It isn’t responsible. It won’t be pretty. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Of course the road from here to there is neither straight nor level. There are still plenty of land-mines to dodge:
- The evacuation of U.S. forces has been ordered, but it has not been completed. That evacuation has to proceed through the Turkish advance and through Turkey. Things are already looking dicey. Shortly after the initial withdrawal order some Turkish forces apparently (intentionally) dropped some artillery near remaining American outposts, forcing the remaining Americans to scramble lest they find themselves in a shooting war with the Turks. The U.S.-Turkish alliance is over, but based on how events unfold in the next couple of weeks a U.S.-Turkish hostility may emerge.
- The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are both armed and trained and experienced and on the edge of statehood. Just because they (especially the Syrian Kurds) are doomed to fail does not mean they are doomed to fail today. How they fight back and/or seek alignment with Syria and/or Iran and/or Russia will determine the region’s next set of battle lines. This matters the most for the Turks. The Turks are out of practice, having not fought a meaningful military campaign since World War I. If they perform badly it will reshape their regional ambitions. If they perform well there are lots of regional players – Armenia, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind – who will be extremely worried.
- Of those, by far the most important one is Russia. Like American forces, Russian forces can really only operate in Syria with Turkish acquiescence. With the Americans gone and the Turks ramping up, it’s probably the Russians’ turn to GTFO of the region. If they don’t, a direct Turkish-Russian clash that leaves the Russians on the wrong side of all their backup will ensue. The climbdown and/or massacre would be globally humiliating.
- One smallish bit of good news is that the ISIS Caliphate is definitely gone, and the ISIS militant movement is broken and on the run. Many have opined that without the American-Kurdish alliance ISIS in any form would have never been defeated. That is true. But that’s not the same as saying that ISIS is doomed to rebound. Historically, the territory that comprises eastern Syria and western Iraq – the ISIS heartland – has been on the bleeding edge of useless. Rain doesn’t happen and the only crops grown are those in the Euphrates floodplain. In most places that band is less than 20 miles across. Civilizing this region is wildly expensive, and so the powers of the region tend to ignore it…until some wackadoo group like ISIS starts causing problems. Then one of the region’s powers invades and burns everything to the ground. From 2003 until 2018 the region’s powers were non-functional: Iraq and Syria had civil wars, while Turkey was gun-shy. The fact that the ISIS Caliphate lasted as long as it did was testament to how abnormal the region had become. Well, Turkey is now invading. It will burn everything to the ground. The atrocities the world is about to pin on the Turks mean we are returning to something a lot more normal.
- Europe is… screwed. It is one thing to have to deal with a prickly Turkey who stays at home. It is quite another to have Europe’s largest land army deploying in force in a way that most Europeans have publicly condemned. With the exception of the French, no European power has the capacity of independent power projection to the region. And now Turkey is publicly threatening to herd millions of Syrian refugees to Europe’s doorstep unless the Europeans shut up about Turkey’s new military campaign. After the United States, Turkey ties with Russia for being Europe’s most important partner. Expect those ties to burn in the months to come.
- Finally, there’s Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, the Saudis have paid the Americans to deploy 3,000 troops to the Kingdom. Two things from this: First, sooner or later the Americans will internalize just how messed up the Saudis are and will evacuate everything at once, precipitating a whole new regional crisis. Second, the Americans going pseudo-mercenary is about to be the new normal. If you cannot provide something shiny to bait the Americans into your region (cash is shiny), then you are on your own. That development will reverberate far beyond the Persian Gulf region.