Many will doubt whether Trump can be trusted to deliver on his latest announcement to draw American troops down from Syria given his record.
When trying to decipher what US President Donald Trump does, it is important to remember that he only cares about himself and lies constantly. His abrupt withdrawal of US troops from Syria is no exception to this rule.
The announcement on Thursday that his defence secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis, will leave the White House in February, is no exception to the rule that Trump’s administration is frighteningly chaotic. This chaos makes the White House hard to trust, for Americans and the world.
The reversal may have been too much for Mattis to handle. He handed in his resignation just hours before reports emerged that Trump would also be pulling half of the US forces out of Afghanistan.
This news, as of this writing, is too new to interpret, but here is Mattis’ resignation letter. In it, he slams Trump for turning his back on US allies, among other things.
Trump is attempting to walk away from crises his administration made far more dangerous. Even deadlier future wars, global ones, could emerge from decisions the world makes now.
Trump’s announcement on Wednesday that he would be pulling US troops out of Syria, declaring that Daesh was defeated, which had been the “only reason” the US was there, caught many off guard.
The announcement appears to abruptly end American cooperation with the YPG, Syrian branch of the PKK, which is an internationally recognised terrorist organisation, responsible for bombings and killings in Turkey, America’s NATO ally. Ankara, and Turkish citizens, have long viewed this relationship with an organisation that the US itself labels a terrorist group, as a betrayal by consecutive US administrations.
For American foreign policymakers, however, the ideological persuasion of these militants no longer matters, as their sponsorship by the Soviet Union disappeared along with the USSR. Now that American policymakers do not fear insurgencies abroad that were once backed by the former USSR, supporting the YPG/PKK poses virtually no political risk in an election, although doing so just a decade ago would have been unthinkable.
And here we are.
American citizens, at the same time, do not grasp the stakes of the US-YPG alliance for Turkish people, politics or the future of such a strategic relationship. This is not entirely Americans’ fault, but a function of geography. Unlike most countries, the US has only two major land borders, with Mexico and Canada, and the rest of the world is far away. Turkey has a different history, one that ordinary Americans find hard to imagine.
US foreign policy perhaps reflects Americans' personal persuasions, designed as it is without regular public referendums. Americans fight their wars far away ‘overseas’ and can't imagine what having sustained separatism in their country feels like, at least not as people who live in Turkey can. Despite its military's adventures abroad, the US’s main response to the rest of the world is confusion.
So what do Americans feel about US foreign policy in the Middle East? A lot of things. But a strong strain of regret and shame over the Iraq War flows through American culture, shame over a defeat for the sake of a lie, and regret for the senselessness of Americans killing, torturing or disappearing hundreds of thousands of people. Trump imagines he can capitalise on this shame with his sudden withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean the US won’t be back.
Is there a Trump Doctrine?
Trump's doctrine isn’t ‘America First’, a Nazi slogan he revived in 2016. The true Trump doctrine is: ‘I lie when I want’.
US military involvement in Syria will not end, and its alliance with militants isn’t necessarily over, either. Trump might say it is, but don’t believe him. He has convinced himself that the fight against Daesh is over, but he can just as easily convince himself that it’s not. Trump's lies show he can think things and then unthink them almost in the same breath. Moreover, although one would think that the levers of power involved in war-making are in Trump’s hands, the enemies he has made in Congress are sure to undercut his decision however they can.
Trump’s turnaround over Syria came as a shock to the US foreign policy establishment and earned confused condemnation from essentially every inch of the American political spectrum. Just days before, Trump’s own envoy to the Syrian negotiations, former US Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey, had said the US would not be leaving anytime soon, echoing others in the Trump administration
The New York Times and the far more conservative, Trump-friendly National Review were in near agreement in condemning pulling out of Syria before completely defeating Daesh. Both publications declared Trump’s Syria move to be similar to Obama’s decision to depart Iraq too soon. US forces left Iraq, only to return to fight Daesh.
Here is the problem with the establishment position: wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan do not have ends. They remain long, hard slogs but not for New York Times columnists or National Review scribblers, privileged with air conditioning and running water, privileges refugees likely lack. These wars remain endless for the children who are born during them and die because of them, babies who will never grow old enough to understand their mother's words.
For its part, Syria remains one of the most intractable catastrophes in recent history. Sectarian divisions piled on top of ethnic rivalries and the blistering psychological trauma suffered by millions of people who have seen their homes, families and lives destroyed by more than seven years of fighting.
Is there any historical precedent for this seemingly unprecedented problem? Sadly, there is. Worse, it is not a problem Trump is capable of solving, much less comprehending. To do so would require a basic sense of empathy, an understanding of history and a genuine concern for other people. It also demands honesty, something Trump has shown himself incapable of demonstrating.
A century has passed by since the end of the First World War, a conflagration that spanned multiple continents, dissolved empires and killed 22 million people.
Bashar al Assad has become but one brute amongst many, and Syria itself has become a place where people show up to destroy each other, just as the trenches of WWI were. The web of ‘deconfliction zones’ scar the landscapes like the No Man's Lands of the Great War. Prospects for a humanitarian solution have been crushed under the churning wheels of insatiable vengeance, strangled by the cruelty of countless tortures. This is the ‘return of great power conflict’ that Washington think tanks mull sententiously, amid the privilege of air conditioning and running water.
Syria’s civil war today is a world war contained in one country, where nuclear-armed states grasp for a shred of land for reasons that won't matter in 100 years, when climate change will have mutated the Earth beyond recognition. Even so, today in Syria, alliances and counter-alliances hover over a dozen battlefields like looming airships. If the world leaves Syria's civil war to rot, a vast international, even nuclear, conflict could one day grow out of it - as WWI was followed by WWII - even decades from now, and doom civilization forever.
Even if Daesh disappears, even if the YPG/PKK lays down its arms, there can be no winners in Syria. Trump’s proclamation that the US has been victorious over Daesh, despite the foreign policy establishment’s strident contention that he hasn’t done enough, display a deep failure to appreciate the abyssal tragedy of Syria. It’s a failure by both Trump and his establishment opponents. In Syria, there can be no winners, only survivors. And like the survivors of the First World War, for them, new, even more, hellish horrors could await a few years ahead.
Is there any hope? The problem extends beyond Trump, beyond Vladimir Putin and Assad, beyond Daesh or the YPG/PKK or Hezbollah. The problem is how we, as a species, conceive of war itself. From the perspective of infinity, wars remain petty contests for territory or power defined always by the unyielding limits of our own mortality.
On Earth, our only home, all wars are civil wars. Whether among nation’s factions or between a dozen rival capitals, they are never greater, in glory or conquest, than the sum of their grisly parts. When we recognise, once and for all, that there is never any winner in any killing, then we can, as a species, make a peace that lasts.
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