WASHINGTON, DC: President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump paid a surprise visit to troops in Iraq on Wednesday. Flying overnight on Christmas to land in western Iraq, the first couple spent three hours on the ground visiting servicemen and meeting with American commanders. At the same time, Trump was realigning the forces on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan to reshape the next phase in developments in the Middle East.
All of this on the heels of the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump visits American troops, sends a message
Visiting the troops for the first time in his Presidency, with Melania on Christmas Day, was not only stunningly good visuals. It also underscored his commitment to the region. For the United States to remain a dominant player in the Middle East. Frankly, considering its widespread footprint in the region, the United States can’t help but be a dominant player, and everyone knows it.
Withdrawing the troops from Syria is being portrayed in the mainstream media as a betrayal of the Kurdish fighters we are embedded with. A weak-kneed bow to Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s campaign against the Kurds, who he considers terrorists. The reality could not be further from the truth.
Maintaining American capability
As President Trump underscored on his visit today, the United States will retain its presence in Iraq, and maintain its lethal ability to both support the Kurds and attack ISIS from its bases there. The 2000 special forces and advisors working with the Kurds will pull back from Syria, repositioning in Iraq, about 50 miles away.
American capabilities in the region will be sustained. This is not a Barack Obama Iraq style withdrawal into a vacuum type pullback. That is what precipitated ISIS in the first place. There are currently 5000 Americans on deployment in Iraq.
ISIS fills the vacuum left by Obama
Maybe our memories are short, but ISIS at one point controlled the large city of Mosul, Falouja, most of western Iraq, and was threatening Baghdad. They now control 1% of the territory they once held, mostly in crevices of Eastern Syria. They were pushed out in years of bloody fighting, and by the aggressive reengagement of American troops under Trump.
Meanwhile, Syria was descending into bloody chaos. The transnational tragedy that is Syria in 2019 is a melange of Russian, Turkish, and Iranian interests colliding. Leaving Bashar Assad the only winner in the short run. And the Syrian people and nation being the undisputed victims. In the middle of all this ISIS managed to take over close to a third of eastern Syria including Palmyra and Racqua, all under Barack Obama’s patient gaze.
The reality of ISIS and Syria
The reality of modern Syria is that Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Government have, after years of brutal conflict, consolidated control around the large cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. Turkey has occupied the northern provinces along its border. In the East Kurdish forces have filled the vacuum, doing most of the fighting to eliminate ISIS from its former strongholds, backed by American forces. Two-thousand American advisors and special forces were embedded in these units.
The Trump hating Press has painted the decision to withdraw these forces as a dangerous precedent. However, President Trump’s intentions in Syria are well known. As they were well known in the Pentagon. The Presidents decision on Syria and Afghanistan came as no surprise to General Mattis, who then publicly orchestrated his own departure over his disagreement with policy.
The Kurds will not be abandoned
America is not abandoning the Kurds, that much is sure. Whatever agreement Trump made with Erdogan regarding the American pullback in Syria, the decimation of Kurdish forces was not a part of it. Kurdish positions will continue to receive logistic and air support. Trump has made clear that special forces assaults will continue, only from bases in Iraq.
However much Erdogan wants the Kurds under his thumb, he has realities to face as well.
In fact, facing reality is really what Trump’s Mideast policy is all about. Turkey is a close NATO ally and a strategic partner in the region. Despite Erdogan’s personal quirks as an authoritarian autocrat, the United States works very closely with Turkey. Incirlik Airbase in Southern Turkey is a major US Air Force and NATO facility.
Turkey and the Kurds will have the come to an understanding
Turkey is effectively the American surrogate in Syria. They have the will, the army, the military capability and are the neighboring country, sharing a long border with Syria. They are deeply engaged on every level, including sharing intelligence with the US. It is not a US versus Turkey situation. They are our ally.
The Kurds are also our ally. They have borne the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Syria in ousting ISIS. They are fierce fighting units, unafraid to aggressively assert themselves. Northern Iraq is a Kurdish enclave and is largely autonomous. Kurds do have national aspirations, that include areas of Turkey.
An effective solution for progress in Syria
But the Kurds have to face realities as well. Trump’s move isn’t to undercut them as much as it is to reach an understanding on the ground in Syria between the Kurds and Turkey. After removing ISIS, they each have common enemies in Assad and the problem of Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
The Kurds have to recognize the essential role that Turkey and thus Erdogan will play in the next stage of the Syrian political settlement. Erdogan has to recognize, if not publicly then privately, that Kurdish positions in Eastern Syria present no threat to Turkish interests and will have to be tolerated.
Russia has a long history in Syria
As for Russia, it might do well for Americans to study their history. Russia has had a presence in Syria since the 1960s. The Russian naval base at Latakia is their only warm water port. Before the Syrian civil war started there were almost 300,000 Russians living in Syria, many with Syrian wives and families.
The presence of Russia as a power behind the throne in Syria is as old as the Cold War. Putin upped their presence considerably with the deployment of Air Force and Russian Army units to save the Syrian government. That level of Russian involvement was unprecedented and changed the equation on the ground. There was no effective response from Barack Obama.
In fact, Obama’s reticence to ever credibly respond to military provocations became an easily predictable part of Russian, and Iranian calculations. So Obama withdrew from Iraq and never responded as ISIS grew. Evan as Iran and Hezbollah and the Russians intervened militarily in Syria. Just as Obama did nothing when the Russians seized Crimea.
The reality of the question on the ground
So this is the equation on the ground. Assad in the middle, propped up by Russians and Iranians, and with Turkey the only significant counterweight in the region. Whether you like Erdogan or not, he is the regional ally we are most dependent on in Syria. That is where the deal will be done in Syria.
But American presence in the region will not diminish. Kurdish positions will hold. Americans in Syria will be redeploy to Iraq. Massive American bases in Qatar and Bahrain and Kuwait will remain. The 6th fleet will remain in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
Redeploying forces in Afghanistan
The drawback in Afghanistan also makes perfect sense in this context. A political settlement is coming to that region. After 17 years of useless fighting and trillions of dollars wasted our presence there needs to be shrunk to the size necessary toward facilitating an agreement. Again, facing reality is fundamental to the decision.
Afghanistan is a corrupt mess. The Taliban is resurgent. Tribal passions continue to overcome national institutions. Pakistani meddling continues to stymie either progress or success. Like the British before us, it may be time to declare victory and come home.
Afghanistan: Not worth one more American life
Put more bluntly, Afghanistan is not worth one more American life. We accomplished more in Afghanistan in 2001 with several hundred special operators than we have done in all the ensuing years put together with hundreds of thousands of troops.
The key then in 2001 is the same as now in 2019. Afghanistan was the tar baby that sucked the lives of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans into the vortex of death. In those 17 years we have accomplished next to nothing. Our tactics have not changed since the Vietnam war, and have been just as ineffective.
I don’t like the Taliban and feel bad for the people of Helmand province. But I’ll be damned if another American soldier will be blown up in a roadside bomb for a war with no discernible military victory imaginable.
Setting the stage for a negotiated settlement
Pulling back to Bagram Airbase essentially, and supporting our military tactics from there while seeking a negotiated settlement is the only possible endgame. Removing 8000 troops will save billions of dollars a year for the American taxpayer.
It also sends the signal to the Afghan government, the Pakistani’s and the Taliban that we are ready to negotiate an end to the conflict, but will remain a force to be reckoned with at Bagram.
Pakistan, in particular, is key to ending the war in Afghanistan. No solution is possible without Pakistan buying into the settlement. No amount of American deployment can bring about the result we once naively thought possible.
Trump’s moves are part of a strategic design
The strategic design, in both Syria and Afghanistan, is a preparation for some form of settlements in both conflicts. Or at least a serious adjustment in the ongoing face of each situation. Both moves strengthen the United States objectives. Neither situation is pretty. Both settlements are necessary. All are based on the recognition of reality.
But Trump’s visit to Iraq underscores our smarter, leaner, and more constructive approach to the region, as well as our commitment. Bringing Melania was a stroke of genius. The visuals were spectacular. Trump’s message was clear. America will continue to be the dominant player in the region but will seek accommodation to end the conflict.
Bringing stability to a fractured region to create prosperity
Only when Syria is stable again will the millions of refugees even begin to return. Afghanistan is a quagmire of interests where the big players are Pakistan, the Taliban, India and China, and where our efforts over 17 years were hopelessly naive. That may not be easy to face, but Trump realizes it. So do the American people.
Some of the $10 billion dollars saved by cutting 8000 troops from Afghanistan could easily be put toward the border wall. America has squandered so much more than that in each of the last 17 years.
Redeployment of our assets is part of a bigger picture of settling the conflict in the region. That and confronting Iran’s aggressive tendencies. Aligning ourselves with NATO ally Turkey in settling the region is inescapable.
Under Trump American resolve is unshakable and our adversaries know it
But no one should doubt American resolve as the dominant player in the region. From Qatar to Bahrain to Kuwait to Iraq to Kabul it is the American presence that will keep the region stable. It was Trump who changed the trajectory of the believability of American resolve abroad. Ask the Israeli’s or the Egyptians if they feel safer with Trump in office.
Trump’s visit to the troops, who were delighted to see both him and Melania, signals a new era in smart American deployment and diplomacy. Trump detractors are too busy shooting at him to see that there is a bigger strategic picture at work. Trump’s ability to transcend his critics and create new objective realities on the world stage was on full display today in Iraq in spectacular fashion.