Observations of an ex pat: Syrian hypotheticals

Politicians hate being asked hypothetical questions. Or so they say. Journalists don’t. They love speculating, flying kites and pontificating about the consequences of the actions of their political masters. I am a journalist and Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria offers a near limitless range of hypothetical consequences. So I will indulge myself with a few of them.

American military promises:  Gone, kaput, up in smoke. It is now confirmed that carefully negotiated alliances bound with the blood of allies can be wiped out with a single Trumptonian tweet. Bringing the boys home is more important than world peace. Japan and South Korea should be worried. President Trump has already moaned about the cost of keeping 73,000 troops In those countries and turned a blind eye to North Korea’s development of short range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. As for the security guarantees for Taiwan and the support for Hong Kong Protesters, the Chinese are rubbing their hands with glee—and possibly cleaning their gun barrels.

The European members of NATO have been under attack from Trump since before he entered the White House. He wants them to shoulder more of the worldwide defence burden and he certainly wants to cut back on the 60,000 American troops deployed in Europe (including Turkey). He has repeatedly told advisers that the rich EU should send an army to the Middle East. At the same time he undermines the European Union by supporting Brexit and slapping tariffs on EU products. But most important of all, he fails to recognise that the EU does NOT have an army. You cannot send into battle an army that does not exist.

Syria, is, however, likely to act as a spur to greater European integration, including more European military cooperation. ~This will probably increase the influence of France as the largest military EU power; weaken the influence of the United States; strengthen the position of Russia in Europe; possibly result in more nuclear weapons held by France and Britain and, as Europe is forced to rely more on its own defences, lead to a European foreign polic y more independent of the United States.

ISIS revived: One of the major jobs of the Syrian Kurds was to guard 12,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters and another 70,000 of their dependents. The troops that were on prison duty have now been pulled away to fight the invading Turks. As a result the ISIS prisoners are escaping. They will join the estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters who are at liberty but in hiding. Together they will doubtless exploit the chaos and the vacuum created by Trump’s decision.

Refugees: There are some 3.5 million Syrian refugees being held in Turkey. Most of them would love to cross the Aegean to Europe but the EU has persuaded Turkey with a pledge of $7 billion to keep them in Turkish refugee camps. Relations between Brussels and Turkey’s President Erdogan have been strained for years.  He is as close to an elected dictator as it is possible to be and that does not sit well with the European democracy club. The EU has been particularly vociiferous about the Turkish invasion of Syria with the result that Erdogan has threatened to let loose the refugees.

American trade promises: The United States has abandoned allies with whom they fought side by side in the War on Terror. It is possible that dollars and cents carry a greater weight with President Trump, but unlikely. Trade agreements—past, present and future—could also easily fall victim to the presidential tweet; especially the promised “fantastic” US-UK post-Brexit free trade agreement.

US domestic politics: In a rare show of independence from the White House, Congressional Republicans have roundly condemned the president’s pull-out from Syria. In the Senate, Trump stalwarts Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham led the attack. And in the House of Representatives a staggering 129 Republicans joined Democrats to denounce the withdrawal from Syria. The pull-out and its consequences will impact on the impeachment proceedings. Republicans appear willing to stomach lawbreaking by their president, but draw the line at dangerous incompetence.

Israel: The Syrian pull-out has damaged Israel’s security. It has strengthened President Assad’s position in Syria as well as that of Iran and Hezbollah. The situation is complicated by the total failure of Jared Kushner’s attempt to buy peace in the Middle East and Israeli political deadlock following recent elections.

Turkey: Turkey has always been seen as a difficult but vital member of NATO. It straddles Europe and the Middle East and blocks Russia from unfettered access to the Middle East. It is a secular Islamic country which under Erdogan has become both more Islamic and anti-Western. It has flirted with Moscow by buying Russian air defense systems instead of American, and is fanning dangerous nationalistic flames with its invasion of northern Syria. NATO needs Turkey, but Erdogan appears to be questioning whether Turkey needs NATO.

The door flies open for Russia: While Donald Trump has been alienating players in the Middle East, Putin has been quietly cultivating them. For a start, he has backed the right horse in Syria. This has resulted in an expanded Russian military presence at the Tartus naval base and the air base near Latakia. He has also maintained close relations with Iran, Turkey and Israel. While Trump was shouting epithets at Erdogan, Putin was on the telephone inviting the Turkish leader to Moscow. And as the US troops were leaving Syria, the Russian leader was visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomlets aptly summed up the situation: “The oversized giant by the name of America has lost its way in broad daylight while Russian diplomacy is way ahead. Russia plays the role of the universal mediator and political broker and none of the regional powers can ignore it.”

Trump maintains that he has pulled out the troops because Syria does not have a border with the United States. If you are a super power—with all the benefits and responsibilities that entails—your border is everywhere.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • John Marriott 18th Oct '19 - 9:13am

    Little did Messrs Sykes and Picot know what they were letting themselves and us in for when they arbitrarily attempted to divide up the old and decaying Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1. Cutting across tribal and religious boundaries was a lot like what had happened a generation or so earlier in colonial Africa – and we all know how that turned out.

    We in the West are today still paying the price for assuming that we could control large areas of land for the sake of their natural resources initially by colonial administration and, as far as the Middle East was concerned, by cosying up to dominant families and individuals. As it discovered in Afghanistan Russia will find that the chalice she has apparently taken up will prove to be well and truly poisoned. As a former Councillor colleague, who just happened to have been a US citizen and Jewish to boot, once said to me; “The trouble, John, is that Arabs and democracy just don’t go together”.

  • John Marriott 18th Oct '19 - 5:11pm

    @John McHugo
    Sorry that my quote from an ex colleague caused you offence. I can assure you that his remark was totally unsolicited; but does in a rather crude way encapsulate what many people appear to think.

    Unlike you, I am no expert on Middle Eastern affairs, although recently I waded through the late Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh’s diaries ‘Descent to Suez’ of the first half of the 1950’s. Sir Evelyn, as you doubtless already know, was a career civil servant and diplomat, specialising in the Middle East and for a number of years PPS to Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden.

    It’s clear that he didn’t have a massive admiration for many Arabs or their governments, many of which we were propping up for reasons I outlined earlier, with a few notable exceptions. It would be interesting to speculate whether attitudes in certain diplomatic circles have changed greatly vis à vis the Middle East today. Judging by the recent pronouncements of one Donald Trump it would seem that the attitude of shouting loud and waving a big stick still resonates.

    You will notice that, so far, only you and I have taken the trouble to respond to Mr Arms’ latest piece. Besides being a disappointing reaction to his efforts, it could also indicate how much interest LDV followers appear to have in Middle Eastern affairs. Now, if we were discussing opinion polls, Brexit or the like, the posts might be more numerous.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Oct '19 - 6:27pm

    After Suez the British and French developed divergent political ideas, which still divege.

  • There isn’t anything special about people John that means they can or cannot handle democracy. We tend to think we are special because we live in a democracy l, but if through arrogance, lack of attention, and neglect it does die, (we have seen cases in the past) why that would mean someone going forward could say “The trouble, John, is that the English and democracy just don’t go together”.

    As to the topic all I can say is democracy cannot be imposed, it is better when it grows from the will and desire of the people. I’m no expert on the Middle East but I can see some small hope of that may occur, but it will take time, but then so did our democracy. Democracy after all is not built in a day, a month, a year but over many decades.

  • If anyone is interested in keeping up with events in Syria may I recommend


    Agathocle deSyracuse
    Historian, Conflict analyst, #Map maker, #MiddleEast, #Syria. Editorial team of
    Covering #Idlib offensive.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '19 - 11:03am

    @John McHugo
    I’m sorry I didn’t elaborate on the relevance of my former colleague’s nationality and religion. I again refer you to Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh. It’s clear from his comments that he and many of his colleagues had a suspicion bordering on fear of their neighbours across the pond. If you look at some of the clumsy incursions from Uncle Sam, often, as in the Iraq War, aided and abetted by a compliant junior partner, in the Middle East you can possibly see from where I am coming. As for religion, you must surely acknowledge the influence that the Jewish lobby exerts on Capitol Hill and in the Oval Office, never more so than today.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Oct '19 - 5:28pm

    NATO is the key here; as Turkey is a member what can the other members do? Does NATO believe in the sanctity of international borders? Can NATO members do what they like? Presumably Turkey believes it can get away with military actions and the rest of NATO needs it and will turn a blind eye. There must be some leverage here.

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