One of the biggest stories of the day, and indeed into the future, is the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. There is a lot of misinformation being bandied about in an effort to support whichever narrative one seeks to promote, but with a little digging and some basic analysis, we can sort through the nonsense to get to the heart of the matter. And that’s exactly what I aim to do here. I don’t intend to educate the reader on every nuance of foreign policy related to that region. It would take a very long time and, frankly, it’s not really necessary to understand the most important aspects of this story.
Thus, we’ll cover some meat and potatoes and try to establish a big picture view going forward.
Number of Troops Redeploying
Depending upon who one reads, the withdrawal from northeastern Syria involves everywhere from 50 troops to 100 to 10,000. The actual number of troops being “withdrawn” ranges from 50 to 100 special operators (those are the badass commando types you see in movies).
Many on the conservative side have seized on this number to argue that this withdrawal isn’t a big deal after all. Cos I mean, what difference could 50 guys make anyway, right? The truth is the number of guys being redeployed to other areas is largely irrelevant. The special ops on the ground were never the ones holding off a Turkish invasion, although their presence definitely factored into the types of targets being hit within the area (you kill a US Green Beret, you’ve had a very bad day). Additionally, the very idea that troops are withdrawing from Syria is very misleading. Those operators were more or less just shuffled around to different areas in the region.
The primary deterrent to a Turkish invasion was our larger contingency force in the area and our commitment to ally with Kurds on the ground for whatever battle comes their way. We provided real-time intelligence as well as air support for any major threat to the Kurdish forces on the ground battling ISIS on our behalf (including the ones wielding American rifles).
The true “withdrawal” happened when President Trump told Erdogan he could proceed without worry of American intervention. That’s the big deal, not the number of troops we had on the ground advising Kurds. America is not toothless in the region in the aftermath of a few dozen operators switching base camps. It’s the policy, people. Not the troops.
The biggest vulnerability in the Trump withdrawal plan is the prospect of ISIS prisoners being set free to cause whatever chaos and misery they may in the name of Allah. Predictably, this fear has come to fruition in recent days with the release of scores of jihadists in the region. I do not currently have a solid figure for just how many have escaped, but I do have reliable intelligence that says at least three detainment camps have been emptied, which could mean anything from 500 -1000 fighters.
Trump suggested yesterday that Kurdish forces had released ISIS-related prisoners to bait him back into northeast Syria. While that suggestion is by no means far-fetched, it’s not supported by the intel I’ve gathered from people who are currently working the region, which I stand by with high confidence. According to my best information, The Free Syrian Army, a group of Arab militants in Syria backed by Turkey, are deliberately releasing ISIS detainees amid the chaos of the border invasion.
In my estimation, this is the Trump administration’s biggest failure of planning in the entire operation. Trump gave Erdogan the go-ahead on a Sunday night to start his invasion, which began a mere two days later. Needless to say, that’s not nearly enough time to plan accommodations for the thousands of jihadists under Kurdish control. At the very least, the administration should have made a public attempt to coordinate a plan to secure these fighters with our European and Middle Eastern allies. If such a plan failed, he would have at least have the leverage of saying an attempt was made, then promise to wipe them out like cockroaches should they be let loose.
Instead, the operation went forward almost instantaneously and completely on Erdogan’s terms. While there was a successful last-second effort made to secure a few of the worst ISIS monsters, the overall optics are bad for the Trump administration. Remember, Trump’s argument for this move is that we’ve defeated the ISIS caliphate and thus should now turn our attention to domestic issues. That’s a potent argument for a war-weary nation, and one that has great potential for effectiveness should we demonstrate that ISIS is truly no longer an issue. By allowing these prison breakouts, Trump has handed his opponents all the propaganda they need to show that he didn’t defeat ISIS after all. If we lose our perceived victory over ISIS in the eyes of the public, the Syria withdrawal will be seen not only as a hastily executed abandonment of allies on the ground, but one done without benefit for the United States. That’s a tough narrative to combat.
The deployment of another 1000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia also makes it hard to carry on the “stop endless wars” narrative, but that’s another topic for another time.
Another major problem with how this operation is being undertaken is the mixed messages delivered daily. On one hand, Trump have Erdogan the go-ahead by phone and even made the argument for why it’s in our best interest just to go ahead and let the Turks and Kurds fight. It’s a battle that predates America, after all. The problem is, the Trump administration is placing sanctions on the Erdogan regime for what they consider to be an illegal incursion.
How is it that our president issues stand-down orders to our military for a Turkish mission he personally approved, then turns around and admonishes Erdogan for his actions in the same breath? The White House even went so far as to release a statement giving control of ISIS to Turkish forces (without so much as working with the Kurds to facilitate a peaceful handover). And now he’s punishing them for doing exactly what he was on board with the entire time?
The whole situation gives the impression that President Trump knows what he wants in the end, but is willing to just make it up as he goes along to get there. These contradictions in his stances are not small and/or inconsequential, though. He’s trying to play both sides of an issue in which there aren’t two sides to be had. He either cares about the Turks having control over ISIS, or he doesn’t. If his DoD is openly contradicting him without his approval, he needs to fix that now. The Turks are enemies of ISIS, to be clear, so if Trump wanted to make the argument that they could be trusted to take control over detainee camps, he could make it. But that case hasn’t been made. When a president speaks, it carries a great deal of weight….until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, God help us. Presidents must say what they mean and mean what they say. Otherwise, good luck assembling a reliable coalition to face geopolitical crises in the future.
So Where Are We Now?
My last segment was spent detailing where Trump went wrong with the withdrawal. But remember, I’ve never maintained that the withdrawal was a mistake. I’ve always felt that Trump was correct regarding the bigger picture of our presence in the Mideast and what it means going forward. So now that we’ve discussed the mistakes that have been made along the way, let’s examine what all of this (could) mean going forward.
Two big things have happened in recent days. First, as predicted, the Kurds have aligned themselves with Assad’s forces to the south in order to get help against the invading Kurds. Secondly, Putin has moved Russian forces to the northern border region where most of the clashes between Kurds and Turks are taking place. They’re taking our place as the new “babysitters,” doing their best to act as a buffer between the two sides so as to limit fighting.
A Russian presidential envoy to Syria said today that Moscow had brokered the deal between the Kurds and the Assad government – and that Russia would not let a Turkey-Syria clash happen. Do you see what I’ve been saying now? Give Russia control of Syria and guess what — they have to deal with all this nonsense. Neocons believe this transfer of responsibility makes the US look weak. Of course, those neocons, like Bill Kristol, for instance, have never deployed to a sectarian war to look “strong.” Their ideas of strength and weakness are formulated from the comfort of their Manhattan offices.
But I digress.
Putin has a very tough task ahead of him, to be sure. Mr. I-Control-Syria-Now must somehow find a way to broker a peace deal between the Kurds and Turks, even though Erdogan recently told Trump in no uncertain terms that the would never declare a ceasefire in Northern Syria. Maybe Putin is a better negotiator than Trump, who knows.
Ok, you’ve heard my assessment of where we’ve gone wrong and where we are currently. Any objective observer would agree that it’s a #BigFatMess. However, that doesn’t mean a #BigFatMess can’t be part of a larger plan. In many ways, this is a mess was unavoidable for the endgame we’re trying to achieve, although the mess could have been reined in somewhat by better planning. Nevertheless, more logical and peaceful days are on the horizon.
As you know, there are many different interests from many different countries at stake in the region. Assad wants to stay in power and has aligned with Putin to ensure that happens. The Kurds want to stay alive in the face of Turkish aggression and have aligned with Assad to make that happen. Russia wants to act as an overseeing mediator in order to further establish themselves as the big dogs on the block, replacing the ugly Americans.
The disparate aims of all the countries involved are what make the overall strategy so brilliant. Russia, Iran, Turkey, & Syria all have one thing in common: none of them benefit from a thriving ISIS. Putin and Assad have been fighting jihadists for decades. Iran is run by their own Islamist regime, but it’s of a Shi’a strain, which puts them at odds with the largely Sunni insurgents who seek to remake the Middle East (and indeed the world) into a caliphate in their image. Turkey was actually the first country to designate ISIS a terrorist organization after suffering attacks on their soil as far back as 2013.
So what we have here are our four major players all wanting and needing to kill ISIS should it rear its ugly head once again. Of course, they ultimately needed our help last time to get it done, but the point is, there is no waiting sanctuary from which they can re-establish their caliphate in short order.
Now for the brilliant part. While those four countries share a mutual enemy in ISIS, their competing interests loom much larger. What the Shepard Smiths of the world have failed to inform the public is that Turkey isn’t merely interested in the land immediately to their south. Rather, like everyone else involved in this scenario, they’re interested in what’s under it.
Syria has significant amounts of undiscovered oil reserves—as much 3.15 billion barrels—as well as 6.9 billion barrels of discovered reserves. These reserves would meet domestic consumption demands for eighteen years. The majority of these oil fields are located in…..wait for it…..the northeast, where almost 65% of Syria’s Kurds reside.
The first attempts to drill oil in northern Syria date back to 1936, when the French-controlled government decided to look for the black gold. Those endeavors, however, were derailed in 1941 by the start of World War II. But the formal discovery of commercial oil was declared in 1957. The major oil fields were located in areas along the borders with Turkey such as Rumeilan, Qarachook and Swediyeh (approximately 600 miles from Damascus). Smaller fields were discovered later further south in Jebessa and Shadadi, where Arabs form a significant share of a mixed population.
In 1969 the Syrian government finally decided to establish a two-year college in Rumeilan. Since then, approximately fifty-nine students graduate from the relatively small school per year—mostly children of Syrian Oil Company employees. Although Rumeilan’s fields are the richest in Syria, its school has never specialized in refining, and there is the glaring lack of a refinery in the area. Local experts reaffirm that the Baathist regime has deliberately resorted to this particular policy for two reasons: first, to deprive the Kurds of any potential investment and economic development in their region; second, to keep the locals from acquiring sophisticated knowledge of all oil-industry techniques in order to dispel any dream nationalist Kurds might harbor that oil could become their main source of revenue if a Kurdish state were created.
In other words, Kurds have been sitting on a goldmine of oil for decades and everyone around them has done everything possible to ensure they can’t do anything with it, mostly because everyone else wants to come in and bully them out of it. If the Kurds were to establish themselves as an oil power, it would give them autonomy in the region and represent a threat to the Turkish regime with whom they’ve been warring for eons. As for all the other countries, well, they just want the darn oil.
Despite the foreign interference in their own resources, the Kurds have managed to provide security around their most valuable oil fields and maintain de facto control of the reserves. That was after defeating the ISIS groups who were selling the oil on the black market before their defeat, of course.
The good thing about greed, though, is that it’s never limited to one party. Assad would also like to control the billions of barrels of oil on Syrian land, and Putin would like to use his control over Assad as leverage to get the oil for himself. When I say Russia wants to replace America as the big dog on the Middle East block, it’s not merely to win a decades-old pissing contest with the CIA (although neither are above it). It’s about resources, baby. And Russia’s entire geopolitical strategy hinges on it. You know the Uranium One deal? That was part of Russia’s larger strategy to gain power and leverage throughout the world via resource accumulation. His presence in Syria is nothing more than another aspect of that plan. Russia has been little more than a glorified gas station since the fall of the USSR, and now Putin wants to become a franchise.
So what does this mean at the end of the day? It means several countries maneuvering in Syria for their own interests with Russia having the most responsibility to keep things running smoothly. Iran wants that oil. Turkey wants that oil, too, but mostly so the Kurds can’t have it. Syria feels they deserve the oil since it’s on their land and Russia thinks Syria owes it to them for their helping Assad in his civil war. How’s that for a quid pro quo?
Simply put, by taking ourselves out of the equation, we’ve handed Russia their own Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all rolled into on; a quagmire sure to bleed Putin of blood and treasure at a rate he never dreamed. We’re headed in the right direction, we just need to smooth over the rough spots in that journey. Trump needs to go out of his way to assure the American people that ISIS is being dealt with, because his enemies are going to get a lot of mileage out of that narrative. Aside from that, the future is bright. Well, for non-interventionists anyway.
For all Trump’s missteps along the way, and there were many, the larger objective remains very much alive. If Putin wants Syria, he can have it, along with all the headaches that go with it. We fought for oil for many years and now we’re energy independent. It’s time for other countries to rot themselves from the inside out in pursuit of an illusory regional domination.
Have fun, Vlad. You want to be a big shot, enjoy the suicide blasts that accompany that designation. We were too dumb to let you bog yourself down in Syria. Instead, we armed jihadists to run you out while making problems for ourselves down the road. We repeated that mistake under Obama, when we armed jihadists in Syria to take out your puppet Assad. Now, by the grace of God, we have a president who is intent on breaking this cycle of stupidity and hand you the ropes from our necks to use in your own hanging. Syria is yours now, comrade. We’ll be focused on our own borders.
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