The crocodile tears have stopped now that the world has yet again forgotten about the Kurds following the deals between Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria and, to some extent, US President Donald Trump. It’s a win-win situation for everyone: Turkey gets its safe zone allowing it to resettle Syrian refugees; Syria reclaims more sovereign territory and, critically, crosses the River Euphrates for the first time since 2012; Iran sees the Syrian government intact, imperative for its ally Hezbollah; Russia repositions itself as a powerful broker in the region with all the international prestige that comes with it; Trump is left to do the right thing by scaling back the US military presence. In doing so, he simultaneously sticks to his presidential campaign promise to “bring the troops home” from “endless wars”; he repeated this intention as President, in April last year.
That was the idea. Now, though, we are seeing an about-turn in Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from north-east Syria. At first Trump said that some troops will remain to protect the oil fields to the east from Daesh, whilst others will remain close to the Jordan border towards the south, the latter being for Israel’s security. Some will be relocated before returning home; indeed, it was anticipated that some troops would stay in Iraq in transit, yet this was rather boldly rejected by the Iraqi government. Last week, it was reported that over 500 US troops and their supplies had arrived back in northern Syria; some of them returned to their abandoned bases. It is expected that Trump’s decision to protect the oil fields, as he sees it, will result in almost as many soldiers — 900 — in the country as when he took office, which was close to 1,000.
However, as unpredictable and maverick as Trump is, I believe that he is genuine about getting troops out of conflicts that really do not concern the US or the American people. As far as Trump is concerned, the reason that US forces were in Syria in the first place was to combat Daesh as a legacy of the Obama administration, which is rather naïve. Equally naïve, of course, is the belief that Daesh has been defeated, even after the killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, why US troops are heading back to Syria.
The answer lies with the existence of the “deep state” and those in Trump’s own administration who seek to subvert his policies and actions. The deep state was once ridiculed as a conspiracy theory by the mainstream media (along with “fake news”); in 2017 the New York Times said it didn’t exist. Yet over time, it has acknowledged its existence as, for example, it did a couple of weeks ago.
Rather than invoke dark conspiracy theories, the deep state in the context of the US is perhaps best understood to refer to “the administrative state: all the people who make Washington function no matter what who is president. This administrative state is often successful in co-opting even presidential cabinet members and parts of the White House staff, since they all receive institutional instruction from an army of non-appointed staffers.”
Part of the current confusion about the status of US forces in Syria — withdrawal from the north-east but contradictory build-up at the oil fields in the east — is caused by US officials ignoring their Commander in Chief: “Rather than plan and begin to implement a coordinated withdrawal, the president’s appointed envoy for Syria and the Department of Defence worked to ensure Washington could stay, and ignored the reality that Trump would eventually order an American withdrawal.” The modest oil fields are of no real strategic value. It is argued that a US military presence is required to deter Daesh from re-establishing itself, but in reality it is to prevent, illegally it must be said, the Syrian government from accessing its own natural resources.
Although Trump has rid himself of the troublesome hawk John Bolton, Ambassador James Jeffery, the “US Special Representative for Syria Engagement” and the “Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL” is one of those obstacles to Trump’s decision making. Another hawk over Iran, he is committed to the “complete withdrawal of Iran” in Syria.
While Trump wanted to wage war on Daesh and believed that particular conflict to be over, the deep state in Washington is fixated on dismantling the Syrian regime and overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad. These objectives are, of course, the same as Israel’s. The US base in Al-Tanf was purportedly established to combat Daesh, but it has no presence there. As Bloomberg reported earlier in the year, it is a “hitch” in Trump’s withdrawal plans; Israeli and some US officials argued for a continued military presence there in order to disrupt Iran’s supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is the real reason for the base on one of the main highways from Iraq across Syria. Israel has much more to lose in the case of an inevitable US withdrawal in the long-run. In the aftermath of the raid to kill Daesh leader Baghdadi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has increased the pressure on Trump to re-focus his attention on Iran. He is nervous about Trump’s reluctance to take direct action against the Iranians. “Iran’s brazenness in the region is rising, and it’s increasing even more due to the lack of response,” complained Netanyahu last week.
Rhetoric aside, Daesh was never a major threat to Israel after all, said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence following Baghdadi’s death. The group was a secondary threat, he claimed; that is an overstatement. “We would like to see the US act in a similar way against [Qassem] Soleimani and [Sayyid Hassan] Nasrallah,” explained Yadlin, referring to the head of Iran’s Quds Force and the Secretary-General of Hezbollah respectively.
Trump spoke of withdrawing from Syria in December last year during an unscripted phone call to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but was dissuaded by senior officials within his administration. In fact, Jeffrey’s predecessor Brett McGurk and Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest at Trump’s withdrawal plans.
Although the US President did the right thing in removing Bolton, working within the deep state Jeffrey cannot be trusted, even at the personal level. He was among those who signed the “Never Trump” statements denouncing the then-candidate for the White House, and technically shouldn’t even be in his position, seeing as how Trump blacklisted “Never-Trumpers”.
With regard to the increase in US troops in Saudi Arabia it is business as usual in order to reassure the royal family that the US is committed to protecting its ally against Iran. The Saudis have to pay for their protection, and Trump has made that very clear. There is no economic incentive to keep a few hundred troops stationed in two locations in a hostile Syrian environment. What’s more, the Kingdom still owes Washington $181 million in unpaid bills for refuelling Royal Saudi Air Force fighter jets involved in the disastrous war in Yemen.
Whilst Trump is the first US President in two decades not to have started a new war, he is surrounded by those in the deep state determined to sabotage his policies to ensure an ill-advised confrontation with Iran at the behest of Israel. With the presidential election looming next year, Trump is seeking to bring back the troops and deliver his election promise, putting American interests first. Nevertheless, Israel’s security is paramount — especially in US election year — and that has always been what the conflict in Syria was about at its core, with Iran as the ultimate prize.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.