In Syria, our betrayal is complete

American armored vehicles in Syrian Kurdistan. (Credit: AFP)

Last night, to the surprise of both the Department of Defense and State Department, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from northern Syria, opening the door for neighboring Turkey to stage the invasion of the region it has yearned for.

Turkey’s target: The Kurdish militias that have been our staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This completes the American betrayal of our allies there.

First, in June 2017, Trump killed the program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who had been battling both ISIS and the brutal government of Bashar Assad. This was an outcome long desired by Russian president and Trump patron Vladimir Putin, who is deeply invested in seeing his client Assad retain power. I wrote then:

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.”

And now the Kurds get to experience what happens when America abandons its proxies. Perhaps they should ask the Montagnards or Brigade 2506 how things turn out.

Putin’s man in Washington

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If the last few disastrous days of American diplomacy prove anything it’s this: Vladimir Putin’s investment in Donald Trump has paid off far beyond the Russian dictator’s wildest dreams.

As I said on the radio this morning, it’s like Putin dropped five bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket at the corner gas station and found the million-dollar jackpot underneath.

From President Trump’s attempted demolition of the NATO alliance at its summit in Brussels, to his undermining of British Prime Minister Theresa May that further destabilized her already tenuous hold over her own government, to describing the European Union as a foe of the United States, to his final lickspittle, groveling performance at the feet of Vladimir Putin before the eyes of the world’s media in Helsinki, this was a week unlike any we have ever seen in modern American foreign policy.

As Putin’s top diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, put it, from their perspective the Trump-Putin meeting in Finland wasn’t just “better than super,” it was “fabulous.”

And why shouldn’t the Russians assess it that way? In their joint press conference, Trump openly rejected the consensus of his own government and embraced Putin’s “powerful denial” that Russia had in any way interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump said it was the United States that was responsible for tense relations between the two countries, both his predecessor in the Oval Office and the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling.

Certainly nothing he was willing to point the finger at Putin for, like waging covert war in eastern Ukraine, or using military force to redraw international borders by forcibly annexing Crimea, or shooting down a civilian air liner over Ukrainian territory in 2014, or the use of a deadly chemical weapon on British soil in an attempt to assassinate a Putin critic earlier this year.

In fact, Trump didn’t mention even one of those.

And why would he? When you’re someone else’s puppet, they’re the one pulling strings. Trump just acts, and speaks, accordingly.

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.

In Syria, Assad and Putin are getting the civil war they want

Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad

With the imminent fall of the last rebel-held enclaves in the Syrian city of Aleppo to government forces, aided by a Russian bombing campaign that has wreaked devastation on the civilians trapped there, Syrian President Bashar Assad is on the verge of scoring his greatest victory in a brutal civil war which has been raging for nearly six years.

So too is Vladimir Putin.

When Aleppo falls it will also mark the virtual extinguishing of the moderate nationalist Syrian opposition forces, who are retreating to Idlib, the last rebel-controlled city of any size, which is dominated by the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Assad’s forces and, more importantly their Russian allies, have largely left ISIS alone while they pound Aleppo to rubble. ISIS has taken advantage of this opportunity, recapturing the city of Palmyra and in the process grabbing up Russian rocket launchers and surface-to-air missile batteries left behind when the Russian garrison pulled out to focus its efforts elsewhere.

Russian military officials have scoffed at the idea that these weapons threaten the US-led coalition that has continued to battle ISIS while the Russian and Syrian militaries have been fighting everyone but.

In a press release, the Institute for the Study of War, which has been tracking the fight for Aleppo from the beginning, succinctly summarizes the implications of the endgame we now seeing unfold:

Eastern Aleppo’s imminent fall – to a coalition that includes Russia and Iran and its various proxies – will accelerate the war’s destabilizing effects. Jihadists will further improve their position within the Syrian opposition. Fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue committing atrocities against civilians. The United States, its allies, and its international partners must now confront this new, yet predictable, phase in the Syrian war.

This is the natural result of a strategy that I first wrote about back in early October 2015, right after Russia began launching airstrikes in support of the Syrian military. From the beginning it was clear that Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s strategy was to clear the field of the “moderate” rebels, turning the civil war into a showdown between Assad and ISIS.

As I wrote back then, assuming the strategy works, it presents the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, with the impossible choice of backing Russia’s longtime ally or seeing the country fall to the Islamic State:

If the other Syrian insurgent groups are smashed between a Russian hammer and the ISIS anvil, then the failure of Putin’s strategy will mean victory for ISIS. And that’s a result that everyone else with interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war will be loathe to accept.

If the choice is between Assad and ISIS, then Obama’s “managed transition” is much more likely to turn into a full on regime restoration. Just what Putin wants.

With President Obama committed to defeating ISIS, and, crucially, seeing Assad removed from power, there was still the possibility of a different outcome, no matter how unlikely it seemed on the ground.

But with Donald Trump in the White House? Assad expects a transformed relationship between Syria, under his leadership, and Washington. Don’t take my word for it though. Take it from Assad himself:

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 and your natural ally.

If Assad is right, a Trump presidency will contribute not just to his victory in Syria, but to Russia’s as well. No wonder Putin wanted him to win the election.