Trump hands Assad (and Putin) a win in Syria

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In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a brutal civil war raging in Syria. And a couple of days ago, President Trump handed Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin, a sweet little gift.

Trump administration officials acknowledged Wednesday that a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels would be discontinued. The program was put in place in 2013 by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and while its effectiveness has been in question, Putin, in particular, has long sought to see the initiative killed.

Trump delivered.

That helps Assad, and by extension, helps Putin. As I’ve written before, the Russian president has a deep interest in seeing the Assad regime retain power, and has been willing to facilitate or commit all manner of war crimes and civilian atrocities to see that through.

Back in October 2015, right after Russian warplanes began flying combat missions in Syria, I argued that Putin’s tactic of targeting air strikes against anti-Assad rebels, especially those backed by the United States, while scrupulously avoiding hitting Islamic State targets, reflected a strategy of clearing the field so that the rest of the world would have to choose between a Syria controlled by Assad, or one dominated by ISIS.

This strategy scored a major victory in December 2016, when Syrian government forces, supported by indiscriminate bombing by Russian warplanes, succeeded in retaking the city of Aleppo from the same moderate rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and other outside powers opposed to both Assad and ISIS.

And now, by killing the US program to arm and train these moderate forces, President Trump has delivered yet another victory to Assad and Putin.

This was all fairly predictable. Recall that just a month after Trump was elected, Assad in an interview with Syrian state television, referred to him as his “natural ally”:

Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that. We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently. That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally.

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

Oh yeah? Watch us.

Why the base loves him

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I had an interesting conversation with the muscled-up young man standing next to me at the bar of a Michigan brewpub over the weekend.

I had initially dismissed him as a bro-typical meathead, but when he came back up to the bar to order a second round, we struck up a conversation which began when I complimented a tattoo of the Last Supper that covered the inside of his forearm.

We continued to chat about that and his other tattoos, when he pulled up his sleeve to show me his favorite, a Marine Corps globe-and-anchor on the inside of his bicep. I asked him if he had served, and he said yes, from 2005 to 2011.

Turns out he was deployed to Iraq, fought in Ramadi, and ended up with a combat-related disability. He said he was retired as a result, and while he’s been offered jobs with private military contractors – he described them as “Blackwater-type” outfits – he said the money wasn’t worth going back now that he’s got a couple of kids to take care of.

He then asked me what I did, and I explained that I was a professor of political science, a subject he had some taken classes in when he was stationed in California. Then came the first question:

“So are you a Democrat or a Republican?”

“I like to think of myself as a concerned citizen,” I replied. “Good answer, I like that!” he said. Then the inevitable followup:

“So what do you think of Donald Trump?”

“Well,” I said, “I think we’ve had better presidents.”

“Hey, at least he’s not bought-and-paid for, you know,” he responded. “Well …” I started to reply. And then he added this:

“But you know what I really like about him? He doesn’t give a shit. He’s a big middle-finger right in the rest of their faces. That’s why I’m for him.”

I have spent the last 18 months or so scratching my head about what it is about Trump that has attracted such loyalty from his base. It’s not shared ideology (Trump has no guiding principles beyond raw self-interest anyway). Nor is it the promise of some policy payoff in the areas of taxes, or healthcare, or infrastructure, or immigration, or trade, or defeating ISIS, or the wall, or any of that.

If any of it, or the endlessly unfolding Russia scandal, mattered, we’d be seeing Trump’s historic unpopularity starting to show up even among his core supporters. So far it hasn’t.

And now, thanks to this young ex-Marine, I get why.

Donald Trump is a big “fuck you” to the political system.

That’s why his base loves him.

NATO trolls Russia … with history!

Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.
Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.

 

While the American president’s¹ ceaseless fawning over Vladimir Putin leaves many NATO members wondering just how committed to the defense of the West we really are, the alliance is finding its own clever way to troll the Russian bear.

Monday NATO released a slickly produced eight-minute historical docudrama called Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics, telling the story of the anti-Soviet partisans² who fought a guerrilla war against the Russian occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the years after World War II.

Here’s the description posted at NATO’s YouTube channel:

After the Second World War, soldiers from across the Baltics who had fought on both sides of the war disappeared into the forests to wage Europe’s bloodiest guerrilla war against the occupying Soviet forces.

This short docu drama includes interviews with former partisan fighters and those who supported them and dramatic battle scene recreations and interviews with modern-day Special Forces of Lithuania, the direct descendants of the Forest Brothers.

Watch the video here:

Needless to say, the film elicited what Latvian state media characterized as “predicable criticism.” For example, this from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister:

And this, from the official Russian mission to NATO:

And this, from the Russian mission to the EU:

Looks like NATO hit a soft spot. That’s quality trolling.

¹I just need to take a break from saying or writing his name. I think you understand.

² It’s summer and we’ve all got better things to do than engage in deep historical research, so for a quick and dirty way to learn a little more about guerrilla war in the Baltics after the war, check out the Wiki entry.