Trump must not let Manbij bombing derail Syria withdrawal
US President Donald Trump appears to be approaching a watershed moment as to whether anything will be left of his 2016 “America First” campaign pledge.
On the front burner domestically is the federal government’s partial shutdown and whether Trump will get money for his wall on the Mexican border, one way or the other. It’s a showdown he cannot afford to lose. As sometime ally, sometime adversary Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put it, if Trump backs down “that’s probably the end of his presidency.”
No less vital to maintaining his authority, and more fraught with catastrophic dangers if things go wrong, is whether he will stay the course on his decision last month to withdraw US forces from Syria. Trump is adamant that that’s been his preference all along.
No less clear is the fact that at every turn he’s been stymied by so-called “experts,” “the adults in the room.” As noted approvingly by Bob Woodward every time Trump has tried to assert his will on Syria and national security matters, his own appointees send him to “the Tank” and pelt him with all the reasons he’s wrong and why the US needs to continue with policies he disagrees with. In the end, he backs down.
That is, until his chat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on December 14. Despite being armed with the usual bad script, Trump reportedly discarded his advisers’ views in favor of – horror! – his own. Days later, Trump declared: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”
All hell broke loose. Who does this Trump fellow think he is – the President? On what basis does he consider his mere absolute, plenary constitutional authority as commander-in-chief good enough reason to order troops to do what he wants them to do, rather than heeding the wisdom of sages whose expertise in messing up the world spans three decades?
The immediate result was the resignation in protest of Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Special Syria Envoy Brett McGurk. Outside the administration, Republicans and Democrats alike, and virtually all the media except Fox News, rushed to trash Trump for his huge “gift” to Russia and Iran.
Critics compared the decision to Barack Obama’s “premature” withdrawal from Iraq (falsely pointed to as the cause of the rise of Islamic State) that would set the stage for “chaos” and for Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) to “reconstitute” itself.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, evidently unclear as to whether he or Trump is president, laid down new conditions for US withdrawal including Turkish guarantees for the Kurds’ safety and ensuring that IS is “gone.”
In Ankara, to sell his refinements to his boss’s plan, Bolton was rebuffed by Erdoğan, with the pro-government Daily Sabah posting a blistering editorial claiming that Trump was the target of a “soft coup,” with the implication that Bolton, a disloyal “rogue” courtier, was part of it.
While Trump conceded that the pullout may take longer than he originally hoped, there was yet no evidence he’d reversed course. The usual means to force him to change course had failed.
Then, on January 16, a “vote” was reported from another precinct. A bomb detonated in a marketplace in the Syrian city of Manbij, at the western end of the zone controlled by US and Kurdish forces, killing a number of people including four Americans. IS claimed responsibility. As described by former US Marine and weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the transparent purpose of the attack was not to spur the American withdrawal but to try to keep US forces in Syria:
“No war is over until the enemy says it’s over,” James Mattis, the former Marine Corps General and recently resigned secretary of state, is quoted as saying. “We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote…
“A U.S. withdrawal from Syria would set ISIS adrift, allowing the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, to defeat it and reassert its control over not only the territory currently occupied by ISIS, but also the hearts and minds of the Syrian Arabs whom ISIS needs for sustainment. By attacking the U.S. military and Manbij City Council on January 16, 2019, ISIS cast its vote in favor of the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Syria. Those who continue to argue in favor of a U.S. military presence in Syria are only giving credence to that vote.”
But with barely concealed glee over the attack as an opportunity to blame Trump, opponents of the withdrawal proceeded to do just that, in effect endorsing IS’s “vote.” “With macabre smugness, anti-Trump politicians and news media appeared to exploit the death of US troops in Manbij to score points against Trump,” writes Finian Cunningham.
For example, Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now at the neoconservative DC think tank American Enterprise, tut-tutted: “Sometimes reality catches up quickly with wishful thinking and political spin. Historians will likely file Trump’s tweets announcing the ISIS defeat and U.S. Syria pullout alongside Bush’s 2003 ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech and Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.”
“But the ISIS-claimed terror attack that killed four U.S. troops in the northern Syrian town of Manbij this week proved the hollowness of U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated claims of victory over the militant network in Syria and Iraq,” sniffed Joseph Hincks in TIME.
As we wait to see what Trump will do next, it’s important to keep two things in mind. First, despite what Trump may or may not have been told by his underlings, the purpose of having US troops in Syria was never primarily about defeating IS.
Rather, as former Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in a leaked recording of remarks in September 2016 at a meeting with Syrian “activists,” IS’s existence was seen as useful leverage to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad:
‘“The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [IS, formerly ISIS] was getting stronger,” Mr. Kerry said on the recording. … [The Islamic State] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth. We were watching. We saw that [the Islamic State] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened.
“We thought, however, we could probably manage. You know, that Assad might then negotiate,” Mr. Kerry said. “Instead of negotiating he got [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to support him.”’
Thus, because Washington didn’t want to see the complete elimination of IS, the real destruction of the erstwhile “caliphate” was the work mainly of the Syrian Army and Russian Air Force, with assistance from Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. But since, except for Iraq, these are the bad guys in the eyes of the Washington establishment, no one can admit that fact.
Second, despite dire warnings that Trump’s withdrawal would result in turmoil (“Iraq on steroids,” according to Senator Graham) there is no chance it would create conditions for IS to reconstitute.
Rather, with the US ceasing to play dog in the manger and IS “set adrift,” as Ritter put it, the group will be finished off once and for all. According to Col (ret.) Douglas Macgregor: “When the U.S. is gone any element left of ISIS would be annihilated by Russia, Iran or Syria.”
It appears Trump understands this. While sticking to the obligatory catechism that the US did the heavy lifting on defeating IS, in recent remarks he seems to have no problem with which side will win as the Syrian war, hopefully, draws near to an end:
“I’ve always said, who are we killing ISIS for? You know, the worst enemy of Russia, Iran, Syria, if you look at it, is ISIS. So we’re killing ISIS for people that aren’t necessarily always in agreement with us, let’s put it that way… We’ve done Assad a very big favor. We’ve also done our country a favor… We’re killing ISIS for Russia, for Iran, for Syria, for Iraq, for a lot of other places. At some point, you want to bring our people back home. I’ve been talking about this since the campaign.”
Still, Bolton, Graham, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and most of the media will continue try reverse Trump’s course. The ‘vote’ by IS in Manbij may not have been enough to do the job, but another incident can’t be ruled out. Whatever comes next let’s hope Trump follows the wise counsel of the sort that rarely appears in American establishment media, in this case Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky in NPR:
“The [Manbij] attack has also prompted many in Congress and the foreign policy community to express outrage and to call on the president to reverse his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. They are pressuring the administration to remain in the country until ISIS is permanently crushed…
“That would be a mistake. The decision to leave Syria is the right one, and the withdrawal should proceed in a safe, orderly and coordinated fashion. Leaving 2,000 troops there without clear and coherent objectives, and the means to achieve them, is a prescription for continued trouble — and for more unnecessary American casualties. [ … ]
“With no political support at home, outmaneuvered by Iran and Russia, and no real will to make a major commitment, Washington stood little chance of altering the political or battlefield balance. What seems to have finally dawned on an already risk-averse Trump administration is the painful but necessary realization that the standard for success in Syria has never been could we win, but when could we leave.”
Mr. President, let’s get on with it. Bring them home.
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