Below the radar of American cable news networks, too busy discussing a new Trump themed book and an anonymous oped in the New York Times for most of the past week, the U.S. President has made a change to his earlier promise to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, an expected draw down he announced as recently as the end of March.
As reported by the Washington Post last Thursday, “the administration has redefined its goals to include the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.”
Barring a miracle, this implies that the over 2,000 U.S. forces on the ground in the country will remain there indefinitely, in clear violation of quaint notions like international law.
Meanwhile, the day after the Post report, on September 7th, U.S. Marines engaged in live fire exercises in al Tanf, along Syria’s border with Iraq. This was reportedly meant as a warning to Russia, which had asked for access to the roughly 35 mile territory, claiming they were chasing down militants. This Russian request was denied by the U.S. military and the live fire exercise soon after was probably meant to reiterate the point that the area is off limits to all but U.S. forces and their allies.
The timing of all this seems a little odd, as Syria’s government, helped by its allies, Russia and Iran, appears set to take the last area held by the insurgents, Idlib governate, which is in northwestern Syria on the border with Turkey. At least 10,000 of the estimated 70,000 fighters in Idlib once pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda as part of the constantly rebranded Al Nusrah Front, which still leads the largest rebel force in the territory, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
This simple fact seems to be of little concern to American policy makers from the president on down and is the continuation of the Obama era policy of, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the Gulf states and other allies funding of these groups that have brought so much suffering to the ordinary citizens in Syria.
It should be shocking that the chicken hawks usually referred to as neoconservatives are once again ascendant in Washington given their lcatastrophically failed predictions and propensity for using lies to promote wars that mainly harm the innocent, but there they are, calling for more aggression not only in Syria but also in Iran, in editorials in the biggest American newspapers.
Related to this, although many of them declared themselves ‘Never Trumpers’ a number have taken posts in the Trump Administration, led by the likes of John Bolton and Nikki Haley.
Sharing the deep concern about the human rights of Syrian civilians in Idlib are the ‘humanitarian’ interventionists in the Democratic Party, who espouse remarkably similar talking points to the neocons using slightly more upbeat language. It should never be forgotten that their ‘humanitarianism’ led to the destruction of once prosperous Libya, just a few short years ago.
Showing the same mix of ignorance and hubris we saw from the likes of Bolton in the lead up to the Iraq War, UN Ambassador Haley recently declared that the Syrian “regime and its backers must stop their military campaign in all its forms” and later opined from her UN perch, in a somewhat contradictory way, that Syria, Russia and Iran are, “cowards interested in a bloody military conquest.”
Most people, on learning that many of the fighters in Idlib are also foreigners from as far away as China who have left a trail of blood and suffering across Syria, would hope that the coming offensive could be limited to these militants and that as many of these criminals as possible face justice. The insurgents also have a choice that is never mentioned: they could surrender and perhaps even earn some good will by sparing the civilian population from the havoc of a ‘last stand’.
Also almost completely unremarked upon by the mainstream western press, the suffering in Idlib is not just beginning, it’s ongoing, as rebel factions fight each other for primacy and profit, with one resident of the area who requested anonymity for obvious reasons explaining to the UAE’s The National, “Every time I want to take my car somewhere, I inspect it thoroughly… to make sure there’s no explosive device planted in it. Whenever I drive by a dustbin, I accelerate, afraid it’s going to blow up.”
To be clear, the savagery of these insurgent groups doesn’t absolve Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces of responsibility for the destruction rained down on east Aleppo and other areas, events that were pretty widely covered in western media, but there is some hypocrisy in selectively complaining about the risks to a civilian population that western policymakers showed very little interest in protecting in Raqqa, a city besieged for months, with up to 90% of it’s infrastructure and buildings destroyed by the U.S. and their Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS.
Somewhat suspiciously, many voices in the American government are being raised to say that in the event of a new chemical weapons incident, the United States is already preparing a response.
This warning seems strange after the last such incident, in Douma, was fairly conclusively proven by the OPCW to have never actually occurred. It seems likely that the video seen round the world was staged by the rebels to drag the the U.S. and its NATO allies (who may have been complicit) further into the potential quagmire. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, this anticipatory saber rattling does seem like a prediction of another such incident.
Tellingly, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, regarding plans for Syria in the event of a presumed chemical attack, “…we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” later adding, “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”
As in the two earlier incidents that brought a response from the Trump Administration, there is very little reason to believe the Syrian army would risk a wider conflict at this point in time, especially with the world’s most powerful coalition of countries, when it is inching closer to victory. While Assad has proven himself willing to do terrible things, not just in this conflict but before it, neither the Syrian President, nor the government he leads, have ever seemed bent on committing suicide.
The U.S. was not a party to trilateral talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran held in Tehran on the same day as the live fire exercises in al Tanf, September 7th. While there is little agreement on almost anything between Turkey and the United States at present, the NATO allies appear to be on the same page as far as Idlib goes, so the erratic Turkish president was, to a certain extent, making similar arguments to those coming from American policy makers and much of the U.S. press.
Despite Erdogan’s protestations about the risks of a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, Russia and Iran refused to seek a truce with the 70,000 or so militants in the province of 3 million. As reported by Reuter’s UK bureau, “…while Erdogan had also called for a truce, Putin said this would be pointless as it would not involve the Islamist militant groups that Russia deems terrorists, and Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.”
These were arguments based on reason rather than emotion that Erdogan couldn’t counter.
In a view of what the end of this conflict might look like, in the country’s capital, Damascus, recently cleared of all militant groups, life is reportedly returning to normal, at least as normal as it can with whole areas filled with hollow, bombed out buildings. This kind of fragile peace seems to be the best the Syrian people can hope for, an opportunity to rebuild and to welcome home many of those who have fled, suffering further humiliation as refugees. It would be another crime, on top of many committed by all sides in this conflict, if the United States and its allies denied them even this respite from the hell that they have been living through.