Trump’s Latest Hedge on US Withdrawal from Syria is Only Postponing the Inevitable

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Written by Peter Ford; Originally appeared at 21st Century Wire

US withdrawal: on or not?

Every day that passes seems to bring fresh evidence that Trump’s decision is being walked back. But appearances can be misleading.

Trump’s ultra-hawkish National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is touring the Middle East apparently setting new conditions for the withdrawal with every stop he makes. We are currently told that U.S. troops will not leave until the remnants of ISIS are mopped up, until there is certainty they cannot re-merge, until Erdogan promises not to slaughter the Kurds, and until Israel’s security is absolutely assured.

It is certainly true that crushing those ISIS remnants could take some time, and as for ensuring that ISIS can never re-form that is a recipe for a never-ending US presence. The US allies, the Kurdish-dominated SDF, are currently retreating from parts of Eastern Deir Ez Zor because they are meeting hostility from Arab villagers, who resent the abduction of their young men and even children into the ranks of the SDF. While the departure of the sprinkling of 2000 US troops will hardly leave a vacuum as far as the fight against ISIS is concerned the departure of the SDF from certain areas certainly will. Only the government’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) could enter these Arab areas, and that is precisely what some clan leaders are calling for (calls ignored of course by our media).

Extracting assurances from Erdogan is also likely to prove difficult, especially if (like Bolton, no doubt) you will perhaps not strain every sinew to extract them. Erdogan however has already said that he will have no need to invade if the Syrian Army interposes itself in a 40 mile deep buffer zone. To guard against this possibility of receiving yes for an answer Ambassador James Jeffrey, presidential envoy for Syria, is being despatched to talk to the Kurds and deter them from pacting with Assad and the Russians.

The following video clip from this week features US President Donald Trump in Washington DC, before departing for Camp David, talking to the press on his planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria. ‘We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,’ said the President. Watch:

The irony here is that it is the very presence of the US (and UK) forces which prevents the US conditions for withdrawal being met. While the US refuses to cooperate with the Syrian Army and Russia in fighting ISIS the holy warriors will always have somewhere to hide. And while the US keeps promising protection to the Kurds, and the Kurds believe them, then the YPG will go on infuriating the Turks and the Turkish threat will not go away.

But will the Kurds believe Jeffrey? Will they put their entire existence at the mercy of Trump’s whims and a frayed US tripwire? It seems not, at least to judge by reports that Kurdish negotiations with Damascus and the Russians are well advanced.

In this game for the prize of Kurdish affections Damascus holds most of the cards. To begin with the Kurds have never fought or wanted to fight the SAA and never wanted independence. They do want a measure of autonomy which they would like to see guaranteed in a new federal constitution. Damascus will have difficulty swallowing that, not least because other restive areas like the South might also want autonomy. Assad will probably reckon that he can clinch a deal with a few concessions rather than a federal constitution: use of Kurdish language in schools, incorporation of the peshmerga into the SAA. He can afford to sit on his hands indefinitely: the small US presence in the remote Syrian Far East is no existential strategic threat to him, while the endless lingering will be a constant embarrassment to Trump. Most crucially of all, the Kurds know now, if they hadn’t realised it before, that one day the US tripwire will indeed be removed and they will get no deal at all from Damascus if they do not strike one now.

We can expect to see bluster, smoke screens, reversals and and posturing on all sides in the coming days but ultimately it must be considered likely that at some point the Kurds, when they judge that no more concessions can be extracted from Assad, could ask the US to leave. Ah! That would upend everything. Actually they won’t even need to ask. All they have to do is conclude a deal. Then it will be game, set and match to Assad and the Russians. The real issue may soon become how to save American face and here we can expect to see some adroit Russian diplomacy. There is already talk of drafting UAE and Egyptian forces into Manbij, the key town under Turkish threat.

Before we reach that point however we must address two loose ends. Firstly Trump’s statement, when he was under fire and needed an excuse, that the Turks were going to deal with ISIS. This idea is a total nonsense but Bolton on the Turkey leg of his tour must go through the motions of exploring it with Erdogan. He will be told that for Turkish troops to cross over a hundred miles of hostile Kurdish territory to deal with ISIS in Deir Ez Zor Turkey would need the support of more US resources than are in the area already. Turkish generals are horrified at the idea. It will be quietly dropped. Anyway the preferred plan is for the US forces with the SDF to use all this new time at their disposal to do the necessary (except that, as mentioned, the SDF is something of a broken reed).

Secondly, and this is even more absurd, Bolton says the US is not going to withdraw its ‘a couple hundred’ troops from the ‘key’ Al Tanf enclave which straddles the Syrian/Jordanian/Iraqi borders, because of its strategic position blocking completion of the fabled ‘land bridge’ which we are told links Iran with Syria and Lebanon. It is quite simply grotesque that anyone with pretentions to being a strategist can appear seriously to believe this and that the media dutifully regurgitate the US talking points on it without question. While it is true that Al Tanf has been an important crossing point, all we are talking about here is bit of inconvenience. There are other crossing points a few miles to the North East. Anyway Iran airlifts most of its supplies to Damascus and Beirut and wouldn’t dream of ferrying sensitive equipment through Iraqi territory, pullulating with US troops and agents. Don’t they have maps in the Pentagon? It can perhaps be most charitably assumed that the Al Tanf gambit is part of the face-saving which has to be done, this time to be able to claim that the US has ensured that Iran will not become more ‘entrenched’ (what does this much bandied about word mean? They never tell us) and Israel’s concerns are not being overlooked.

Assad will not care less if the US wants to stay on in Al Tanf. The only settlement is the Ar Rukban encampment housing about 60,000 displaced persons, many of them ISIS and their families who fled from Raqqa. The US troops do not dare enter this encampment. Assad will be perfectly happy for the US to keep holding this tar baby and can lambast the US for blatant breach of international law, because after ISIS is gone the last vestige of any legal excuse for the US presence will also be gone. (Bolton tells us that the US constitution is basis enough, so now we know.)

Syria comes in from the cold

Meanwhile Syria’s rapprochement with much of the Arab world has proceeded apace. The President of Sudan visited. The UAE reopened its embassy. Bahrain says it will follow. Flights to Tunisia have resumed. It seems likely that Assad will be invited to the Arab Summit in March in Beirut and Syria will be readmitted to the Arab League. Italy is said to be close to reopening its embassy. The British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has sourly accepted that Assad is going to remain President ‘for a while’. Although reports that the British Embassy are being refurbished may turn out to be a false dawn, the day can surely not be far off when the UK informs Damascus that it proposes to reopen. However the issue will not be what concessions Syria must make to receive this favour but rather what concessions the UK must make if it is not be even more totally excluded from the diplomacy around the Syrian question than it is already. The Syrians would be remiss not to require a lifting of sanctions as a minimum.

The economic war

The most important aspect of these rapprochements is the economic one. Syria’s immense battle ahead is economic recovery. The gains on the battlefield may be eroded if the government fails to get the country on its feet again. The problems seem never ending. One small example: 84,000 children are fatherless, the offspring resulting from rapes and forced temporary marriages by jihadis.

The Western media gleefully reckons that Syria needs $400 billion for reconstruction. The Western powers currently set their faces against contributing anything to this and indeed seek to push Syria deeper into the mire with punitive sanctions. A surer way of creating the conditions for a resurgence of ISIS could hardly be imagined.

Hence the importance of rapprochement with the Gulf countries. While Trump’s claim that Saudi would pay for recovery was probably another of Trump’s mis-statements, it is not fanciful to imagine the big Gulf development funds – the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Arab Development Funds, and some of the UAE funds – providing enough to make a good start. Syria in any case could not absorb huge amounts to begin with. Not least it would generate massive inflation.

Idlib

The Idlib issue, presently on hold, gets worse rather than better. Hayat Tahrir Ash Sham (HTS), the group everyone (except Qatar) considers terrorists, have fought and displaced other armed groups from a string of towns, some in the buffer zone which the Turks were supposed to have cleansed of the most radical groups. The groups in Idlib mount regular forays or artillery attacks into government-controlled areas, attracting air raids in retaliation.

Lest we forget

Within two days of each other John Bolton and Jeremy Hunt publicly reminded Syria that it must not run away with the idea that it could get away with more chemical attacks now that it seems to be in the ascendant. This seems to be the last lingering hope of all those who can never have too much Western military intervention in Syria, that an incident can be manufactured to justify heavy bombing. Unfortunately for them, the Syrians and Russians appear to be a step ahead: only the Russians seem to be doing any bombing. While a compliant media would dutifully echo possible Pentagon claims that any planes or helicopters were Syrian rather than Russian, or that black is white, this tactic does make that a tad more difficult.

Author Peter Ford is the former British Ambassador to Syria (2003-2006) and Bahrain (1999-2002).

A previous version of this article was originally published at Tim Hayward’s blog.

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  • Blatttman

    Peter Ford, I only wish you were still out ambassador to Syria.
    Alas our foreign office seems utterly degraded and corrupted. But then it does represent our government.

  • Lupus

    Bolton looks like a clown in a bad theaterplay. In fact….he is

  • Snowglobe

    “…….and until Israel’s security is absolutely assured.”

    I can almost hear the sound of Bolton’s choke chain being snapped.

  • Willing Conscience (The Truths

    About time, now the truth is starting to emerge.
    All my post for 12 months now on SF have been saying everything this article has just confirmed, I love it.
    Every single thing this article has told you, I’ve also been telling you all for the last 12 months now, every single little thing with not even one exception. And not one thing I’ve said in my posts on SF has been disputed by this new article, the only thing it does is confirm every single detail I’ve posted on SF.
    But I’ve been posting what I have for 12 months now in some cases, some things less than that, but still some things 12 full months before you read it here in this article.
    All my posts are archived on SF and disqus to prove my assertions, there’s hundreds of them, I’m a prolific poster.
    So I’m not actually going to comment on this article, I’ve already done it in 12 months worth of posts here on SF, this article is only telling you the same things I’ve been telling you all.
    So as much as I know a lot of you will choke on my assertion I’ve already told all my fellow SF readers every single little detail this article does in my posts on SF [YES I DID SAY EVERY SINGLE LITTLE DETAIL], up to 12 months before this article did, I’m more interested in the responses of those who will also choke on this article and it’s assertions, the truth hurts sometimes, especially when you can’t accept it.

  • Carol Davidek-Waller

    It’s not Trump’s hedge, it’s the idiot Bolton. He thinks he’s Napoleon. A firing offense, hopefully.

  • S Melanson

    We are going to soon find out as Trump is making a nationally televised announcement tomorrow night 9pm regarding a national emergency i.e. martial law. Finally formalizing what has been in the making for years.

  • Pave Way IV

    “…While it is true that Al Tanf has been an important crossing point, all we are talking about here is bit of inconvenience. There are other crossing points a few miles to the North East…”

    A little over nine hours Baghdad to Damascus on Iraqi Hwy. 1. Almost thirteen hours going up Iraqi Hwy. 12 (through all the little towns on the Euphrates) via al Qaim and Deir Ezzor to Damascus.

    The ‘bit of inconvenience’ is the U.S. occupying a border crossing in a different, sovereign nation with the intent of preventing passage of legal traffic through that crossing. At the same time, Blackwater-linked Olive Group was awarded a shady contract to rebuild Iraqi Hwy. 1 over the Baghdad – Amman route, collect tolls and provide armed security for convoys using it. The plan is to hire 5000 or so ex-ISIS/al-Qaeda from Anbar as highway security guards. Anbar was originally planned to be SDFistan East, further cutting off Syria from Iraq.

    The fake justification for preventing Iranian weapons or whatever from getting in to Syria is bogus. Part of the U.S. economic war against Syria is to strangle any trade, commerce or oil transport into or out of Syria. We’re occupying the crossing for the same reason we won’t ever ‘allow’ the Kirkuk – Tripoli pipeline we bombed to reopen, and for the same reason we (the U.S.) are continuing economic sanctions against Syria and potentially adding more.

    None of this has anything to do with security of U.S. citizens. Hell, we won’t even occupy and close our own border crossing points with Mexico. The at Tanf occupation and seizure of the border crossing is to make Syrians suffer until they overthrow Assad. They won’t, of course. But that will never stop the U.S. from the ongoing economic war against them.

  • Jens Holm

    Amd forgotten again.

    USA also has told the SDF and the rest of the world, that we by the Coalition will stay as long as Damaskus is no threat.

    And again its forgotten, that USA insisted in comming there NOT because of ISIS but to remove or to remove Damaskus into something smaller and better.

    TOTAL MEMORYLACK.

    • Tommy Jensen

      Sure. But it started with ISIS anyway.

      ISIS shot and killed into the colour revolution. Assad was blamed and UNSC/US was involved to make the same trick as in Libya.

      US and Allies invited all bad guys to Syria with free money and weapons and were almost ready to take over Damascus when Putin fired his Kalibr missiles from the Caspian Sea into Syria, and the US Coalition didnt liked it anymore.

      • Jens Holm

        Yes, feet on the ground did, but the first hope was the many deflected making FSA and some few jihadists. They ceratinly was armed and also got some military advicers.

    • PZIVJ

      dansk abe :)

      • Jens Holm

        As you see danish is not far away from the english ape even all the english speel it wrong :)

        Its “danske abe”, if You insist or a danish ape “En dansk ape” telling I am only one = En. B

        But close enough for me before shawing Abu Jens.

  • RichardD

    The Syria war is at a tipping point. And the Jews are trying to push it in their favor by maintaining air superiority over Russia to continue their Yinon plan regional destabilization operations and walk back the US withdrawal. Since the SADF upgrade to close to peer Russian domestic standards. The IAF has carried out 2 airstrikes that have been reported on by credible sources. The SADF failed to deter either airstrike, which proved that the upgrades didn’t have any deterrence value to prevent those strikes.

    This failure needs to be put in context though. Since the deaths of the Russian airmen on September 17th almost 4 months ago. There have only been those 2 airstrikes. In comparison to before the IL-20 shoot down when there were a reported 200 airstrikes over 2 years averaging 2 airstrikes a week. So from that perspective the SADF upgrades have had a deterrent effect. Though with every subsequent uninterdicted airstrike where IAF fighters return to base undamaged. The deterrent value value of the upgrades is further eroded. And with it Russia’s reputation as an arms provider, ally and security guarantor. As well as Russia’s national security.

    The purpose of these Jew airstrikes is not only to bring about the cancellation of the US withdrawal. But also to fuel the anti Russia campaign that the Jews and their sycophants are the primary architects and administrators of. By showing that Russian equipment is inferior. And that Russia will sell it’s allies out to the Jews when pressured to do so. Stopping the Jew airstrikes on Syria is at the top of the list of tasks that can be done to insure the US withdrawal from Syria, win the Syrian war, improve Russian national security, and dissipate the anti Russian campaign against Russia that these airstrikes are a primary means of fueling.

    • RichardD

      If the Jews continue airstrikes on Syria. IAF planes should be shot down, and IAF bases in Israel destroyed on an as needed basis to insure that the IAF airstrikes on Syria are stopped and there is no escalation by the Israelis in the event that they do start losing planes to the SADF upgrades. Escalation is the threat that the Jews are using against Russia to prevent their aircraft from being interdicted. Assuming that the recent SADF upgrades are actually capable of interdicting modern NATO fighters. Which is an open question at this time. Because these top end Russian systems have never been proven to be combat effective up to this point in time.

      Managing any escalation attempt by the Jews in the event that they do start losing planes to the SADF upgrades. Is a primary consideration in the decision making process of whether to start taking these planes down if the Russian systems are capable of it. Another consideration is tech transfer of unknown tech upgrades if they are contained in the new SADF upgrades.

      If the NATO fighters can be taken down with equipment where the technology is already know to NATO. Then secret tech transfer isn’t an issue or impediment to using the SADF upgrades to interdict the IAF planes. If these upgrades do contain secret tech unknown to NATO. Then the use vs non use benefits and detriments of using it against the IAF needs to be weighed. The same goes for any systems used to destroy IAF bases that the attacks are originating from.

      • RichardD

        The escalation issue is a two fold consideration. Escalation by the Israelis, and escalation by the Israelis with additional US military intervention. If the IAF planes can be efficiently interdicted and IAF bases destroyed by means that the Israelis have no defense against. Then Israeli escalation options are very limited. An armored invasion by the IDF against the Syrian government coalition to destroy the SADF systems where the Syrian government coalition has air superiority and national military assets present to deter it has little chance for success. And it’s unlikely that the IDF would attempt such a campaigned that is doomed to failure. Any air escalation would just be wasting IAF assets on missions that also wouldn’t correct the air superiority deficit if the SADF upgrades are effective. It’s one thing to lose 90% of the munitions deployed. It’s a completely different matter to lose 90% of the launch platforms.

        This leaves NATO Jew3 FUKUS intervention as the Jew’s go to backstop. That’s by no means guaranteed. And in the face of demonstrated inferiority of NATO fighters against SADF upgrades. Is something that would meet a lot of resistance in FUKUS military deliberations given the SADF Russian backstop and extensive Russian co-operation of SADF systems with Russian personnel present in a lot of these facilities. As well as the likely possibility that other NATO systems would also be proven in combat to be inferior to Russian counter measures. Given Trump’s often stated intention to get the US out of the Jew world order global hegemony project permanent war program. The likelihood of any meaningful US intervention on the Jew’s behalf is pretty limited in my opinion.

  • gustavo

    It looks like that USA can stay wherever and whenever it wants, and as long as it wants, but Russia and China.

  • verner

    turkey won’t try to lay a claim on any syrian territory – it would just be a too big hassle to bother with. the problem turkey, syria, iraq and iran faces is the kurds even though they aren’t really a problem and they will soon be back in the fold as ‘leaseholders’ of certain areas in the borderlands, just like before. the most moronic states of a is performing a charade, not for the kurds but for the israelis so that they will feel safe when the moronic states leave for leave they will. and the kurds, once again left at the altar with no groom.

    and trump will leave syria, like it or not bolton, and reduce the number of soldiers in afghanistan and probably do the same in iraq, and there won’t be a war against iran, however much the iraelis would pay for it and however much the son in law would advice for it and then trump goes on to a second term and being the unchallenged commander in chief.

  • Carol Davidek-Waller

    It isn’t Trump’s Hedge, it’s President Bolton with the bit in his teeth.
    Bolton, the draft dodger who peddled wars like they were Carmel apples. Erdogan schooled Bolton when refused to meet with him or his Entourage when took his foreign policy to Ankara on recent days. That was followed by a scathing speech against US interference and coup de grace, an equally scathing article in the New York Times.
    Now Turkey is calling for Iran and Russia to manage the US exit from Syria and is refusing to deal with anyone but Trump. Trump 1 Bolton 0.