About time

No American, outside of the defense/foreign policy establishment, gives a quantum of a damn about the situation in Syria. So why are we still there? Because of the Kurds? With all due respect to the brave Kurdish fighters, it’s hard to imagine anything more unconnected from vital American interests than their plight. It’s time to go home. As I wrote last December:

It’s really very hard to understand what the US strategy was in Syria. Was there even a specific strategic goal? What was the desired end-state of this campaign?

Personally I suspect most Americans’ reaction to this news has been: Wait, we had troops in Syria? Yeah, the public was never consulted about this, at all. I am not the only person who finds it bizarre that an ostensibly democratic nation can be engaged in a major foreign military campaign for years on end without a scintilla of public approval, or even knowledge, let alone a formal declaration of war. Did you know the US has at least a dozen military bases in Syria? What is going to happen to those?

Of course, that post was in response to a previous promise to withdraw the 2,000 US troops then in Syria. Fast forward to today, and roughly 1,000 troops are still there. The withdrawal must continue.

Here’s the official White House statement released on Sunday:

Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States.

Russia doubles down in Venezuela

The overthrow of Maduro may not go *quite* as smoothly as the US State Department is probably hoping it will:

Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests, according to two people close to them.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was.

Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government to the tune of billions of dollars, this week promised to stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president with Washington’s endorsement.

[…]

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

But the other sources spoke of small groups.

The contractors are believed to be linked with Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has also sent forces to Ukraine and Syria. It would, of course, be suboptimal for the US to end up in a shooting match with Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. If that happened, it would not be the US’s first rodeo with Russian clandestine forces. Last February, the US killed 200-300 pro-government forces in Syria, many of which were believed to be Russian mercenaries linked to Wagner Group.

The strategic landscape and stakes are a bit different for Russia now, since Venezuela is on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in Russia’s backyard.

Let’s you and them fight

As usual in geopolitics, there is more going on behind the scenes than some of the more breathless news reports would suggest:

The Russian forces currently in Syria will take action to restrain Hezbollah and Iranian activity there, according to understandings reached by Israel, the United States, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jordanian official confirmed to Israel Hayom.

The understandings are the product of behind-the-scenes diplomatic talks that were underway prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this week to withdraw American forces from Syria.

According to the terms of the understanding, Russia will continue to give Israel the freedom to strike Hezbollah and Iranian targets and weaponry that threaten the “balance of power” in Syria. According to the Jordanian official, it was these understandings between Trump and Putin that paved the way for the U.S. decision to pull its forces from Syria.

Other high-ranking Jordanian officials have confirmed that Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia are working together to contain the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Several of them emphasized that U.S. officials had made it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies would increase cooperation with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, particularly on sharing intelligence, in a joint attempt to counter Iran’s attempt to create a contiguous Shi’ite corridor from Tehran to Beirut.

It looks like the Middle East is increasingly going to have to sort itself out, with a little help from nearby Russia. The consequences are hard to predict, but the US withdrawal from Syria almost certainly reduces the risk of conflict between the US and Russia, as well as between the US and its NATO ally Turkey, which threatened earlier this month to launch an offensive against the US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

Pulling out

Evacuation of Saigon

Sometimes you just have to go

M K Bhadrakumar of Asia Times praises the decision to pull US troops out of Syria:

To take the last argument first – what will be the impact on the Syrian situation? To be sure, ISIS is down, but not quite out. But then, ISIS is today only residual terrorism, after the huge defeat in Iraq.

At any rate, the brunt of the fight against the ISIS was borne by the Syrian government forces and their allies – remember Aleppo? Their grit to finish the job has never been in doubt and there is no reason to fear any let-up.

In fact, their interest lies in stabilizing the security situation in the quickest possible way so the political process leading to a post-conflict Syrian order can be speeded up.

Ironically, the departure of the US forces could help matters, since in many ways the US military presence only impeded the anti-ISIS fight in Syria. It is well known that terrorist groups took shelter in the US-led security zones in eastern Syria.

The Al-Tanf base and its 50-square-kilometer security perimeter was only the most glaring example. Again, the “no-fly zones” prevented Syrian and Russian jets from hunting down the ISIS cadres and de facto amounted to US air cover for terrorists.

It’s really very hard to understand what the US strategy was in Syria. Was there even a specific strategic goal? What was the desired end-state of this campaign?

Personally I suspect most Americans’ reaction to this news has been: Wait, we had troops in Syria? Yeah, the public was never consulted about this, at all. I am not the only person who finds it bizarre that an ostensibly democratic nation can be engaged in a major foreign military campaign for years on end without a scintilla of public approval, or even knowledge, let alone a formal declaration of war. Did you know the US has at least a dozen military bases in Syria? What is going to happen to those?

Regardless, this is excellent news for the US. Give non-intervention a chance!

He’s not buying it

The former head of the British navy is less than impressed by the evidence that has so far been produced for Assad’s complicity in the gas attack near Damascus. No doubt he will be dismissed by many as an “appeaser” comparable to Neville Chamberlain:

Retired senior Naval Officer Lord Alan West has questioned whether the chemical attack in Syria was the work of President Assad’s troops.

“We need unequivocal proof that this attack was done by Assad’s forces – I’m not at all convinced at the moment,” he told Julia Hartley-Brewer.

“All of the reports are coming from people like the White Helmets, who have a history of doing propaganda for the opposition forces in Syria. The WHO reports are coming from doctors who are also part of the opposition.

“If I’d been advising the opposition, I’d have said ‘get a barrel of chlorine, at some stage there will be bombs dropped on you – blow it up and we can blame them, because what we really want is the allies coming in’.”

Lord West added that if proof is provided: “we do need to be part of a coalition,” but that we should wait for evidence.

The widening vortex

That Richelieu feeling

In light of the swirling chaos in the Middle East, which will most likely be intensified by today’s strange “punitive” bombing of Syria, it’s instructive to consider how another great religious and ethnic conflict played out in Europe:

The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. […]

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. […]

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. […]

As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

It’s mildly reassuring that US Defense Secretary Mattis is calling this missile strike a “one-time shot” (for now), but I don’t think anybody believes that we’ve seen the end of US military involvement in Syria. To the contrary, it has probably only just begun — and nobody knows when or how it will end, and at what cost.