Trump leaves Syria: On ‘regime change’ and other tall stories

by Michael Karadjis

Trump Putin Assad
The face(s) of counterrevolution

Trump’s sudden decision to get US forces out of Syria is a green-light to both Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad and Turkish ruler Erdogan to move into the northeastern part of Syria currently controlled by the (until now) US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and of course also a nod towards the big ally of both Assad and Erdogan, Trump’s friends in Russia, who of course praised Trump’s decision. Of course, a US betrayal of its Kurdish allies was always a matter of time.

It should be noted that, while the Kurdish and other people living in the northeast will be the main group negatively impacted, US withdrawal will also leave tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border directly exposed to Assadist conquest, especially as Jordan refuses to take them. The US base at al-Tanf, where the US had armed some ex-rebel groups to fight ISIS, offered some protection to the camp residents, although the US and Jordan were no better at providing food than was the Assad regime, which engaged in its time-honoured tactic of the starvation siege.

It is no surprise that virtually none of the commentary on any side has had anything to say about the Assad regime; take this Washington Post editorial as an example, not a mention. Of course, the entire question of Assad is and always has been irrelevant to the question of the US either staying in or leaving Syria.

I suppose it is no coincidence that Trump’s order to withdraw comes a few days after his special envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, declared that while the US wants to see a regime in Damascus that is “fundamentally different,” nevertheless, “it’s not regime change” the US is seeking, “we’re not trying to get rid of Assad.”

However, I say “I suppose” because it is not as if this is the first time the US declared it was not trying to get rid of Assad or carry out regime change. Those statements have been going on for years (especially under Trump, but also before). Of course, even before US leaders began declaring this openly, “removing Assad” was never the US policy at any time, that was only ever the figment of feverish alt-left and far-right imaginations, but let’s just focus on the open declarations, because the curious thing is that, on every such occasion, the media pumped out the same discourse of “surprise” and “policy reversal” and the US being “no longer” (!) focused on “regime change” (I wonder how many times you can “no longer” be doing something you’re already “no longer” doing?).

Here’s a few snippets:

  • In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”
  • In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assadthe way the previous administration was.”
  • The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”
  • In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue, and he essentially called the regime allies: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another …”
  • Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime].
  • Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad: “The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”
  • Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, Jeffrey had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian governmentthis is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”

Should I stay or should I go? Dispute within the US ruling class

Note that the arrival mid-year of Jeffrey was widely heralded as a “toughening up” of the Trump regime’s stance on Assad. In reality, it was only ever really about Iran; and was in full accord with the Israeli and now Gulf-state view of separating Assad from Iran by relying more on Assad’s other key ally, Russia.

And it is not only the idiosyncratic Trump, but the rational-sounding Jeffrey, that pushes this Russia line. When it comes to the change in “behaviour”, Jeffrey’s overwhelming stress was on the removal of all “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which he assessed threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” In contrast, Jeffrey states that “although our objectives and Russia’s are not aligned, we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria” and called on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria to remove all Iranian-commanded forces from the country.”

Indeed, the most vociferous anti-Iranian voice, National Security Advisor John Bolton, has always opposed removing Assad, believing this would lead to “al-Qaida” taking power. Hence the stance of those in the Pentagon and security apparatus opposed to withdrawal are not opposed because they want to stay to “topple Assad”, a completely laughable idea that none of them have ever suggested; rather, they want to stay as a block to Iranian influence.

Much of the commentary is declaring Trump some kind of traitor to “US interests” by selling out to both Iran and Russia in withdrawing. In my opinion, this is mistaken on both counts. There is also the accusation that he is selling out the US’ Kurdish allies, the YPG/SDF, whereas the “remainers” want to honour commitments to allies. However, the “remainers” (both Bolton and State Secretary Pompeo are understood to be in this camp) care no more about Kurds or anyone else than does Trump; but they want to make their deal with Russia/Assad first: ensuring Iranian-led forces are expelled from Syria, in exchange for the US allowing Assad to reconquer northeast Syria. A “Kurds for Iran” deal, similar to the US-Israel “rebels for Iran” deal with Assad in the south. As Jeffrey states, this deal includes Russia; the US has simply never at any stage of the conflict aimed at removing Russia from its leading position in Syria.

Trump, by contrast, is jumping ahead; yes Russia, Assad and Erdogan can gobble up the northeast, relying on an understanding he has with Russia (as do Israel and Saudi Arabia) that Russia’s own rivalry with Iran in Syria will lead to a Russian wall against Iranian influence; and that a more solidified Assad regime is in less and less need of the destabilising Iranian-backed rabble. And to the extent that Russia isn’t strong enough to do this alone, Israel has threatened to up its strikes on pro-Iranian forces in Syria; the current visit of Russian senators to Israel to discuss the “joint struggle against terrorism” seems part of this same process.

Of course, there is also the issue of whether or not ISIS has been defeated, as Trump claims. Much commentary says this is not so, that Trump is allowing ISIS to return. In reality, the US-SDF alliance has driven ISIS almost entirely out of Syria, other than a tiny remaining pocket. Trump always said the only reason to be in Syria was to defeat ISIS, and his claim that ISIS has been largely defeated is correct (from a purely military point of view); moreover, there is no other legal mandate for the US to be in Syria. In announcing withdrawal, Trump tweeted that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.” While some may interpret this in conspiracist terms, that he wants to bog them down in the fight against ISIS, Russia’s welcome of the announcement belies this interpretation; what Trump means is that Assad now has the go-ahead to seize the rest of Deir Ezzor region from the SDF in order for his regime to use the excuse of completing the “fight against ISIS” there so as to consolidate his victorious counterrevolution over Syria.

Proxification and Betrayal

There is little doubt that the SDF is being betrayed by Trump, and would eventually have been by the “remainers” as well. One possibility however is of the SDF following the same path; after all, the basis of the US-SDF alliance against ISIS was that both the US and the SDF had a neutral policy towards the main war in Syria, between the Assad regime and the rebels. If the US can accommodate Assad, so can the SDF. However. There is a major difference in power here. While the SDF leadership has made moves in this direction, they are likely to get little; Assad is powerful now, having largely defeated the opposition; therefore, his regime has no reason to concede anything. Assad may temporarily agree to a deal with the SDF to stave off Turkey (Assad is less enamoured of Erdogan than his Russian and Iranian allies are), but the conditions for such an alliance will involve such a complete reduction in autonomy to figleaf status that the SDF could not agree without liquidating its cause.

Both the SDF and the Kurdish populations must be defended against any pending Erdogan/Assad assault. Supporters of the SDF project, however, need to reckon with the historic betrayals of the YPG/SDF leadership, which cut the Kurdish populations off from the rest of the revolutionary process, and at times directly attacked the revolution in collaboration with Assad and Russia, especially during the SDF’s Russian-airforce-backed attack on the rebels in the Arab-majority northern Aleppo/Tal Rifaat region in early 2016, and its subsequent aid to Assad’s final assault on rebel-held Aleppo.

These short-sighted (to put it mildly!) policies have led to the isolation of the SDF, and the Kurdish people, in their hour of need. For example, many of the rebel troops that took part in Turkey’s bloody invasion of Kurdish Afrin (Operation ‘Olive Branch’) early this year were former residents of the Tal Rifaat region who had been uprooted in the SDF’s own Russian-backed version of ‘Olive Branch’ two years earlier.

This has now led to rebel promises of participation in the threatened Turkish invasion of the northeast. While there may be some regions of Arab majority that welcome an FSA entry – something that cannot be determined merely by ethnic composition, but only if we see attempted uprisings against Rojava authorities – overwhelmingly this invasion is likely to be resisted, turning whichever rebel groups take part into an army of occupation, like in Afrin. This is especially the case if Turkey and any rebel allies invade the actual Kurdish-majority regions.

The fact that the SDF has done the same makes no difference; years of bloody counterrevolution by an overwhelmingly military dominant regime, backed by massive foreign intervention and otherwise international indifference, has partially proxified both the main Arab and Kurdish leaderships. It may often have seemed like they had “no choice,” and it is very difficult to criticise from afar. Really, who can blame the rebels for their alliance with Turkey when Turkey almost alone in the world was willing to provide some support to the people facing genocide, along with accommodating 3.7 million Syrian refugees, by far the biggest refugee population in the world? Who can blame the SDF for allying with the US against such a monstrous enemy as ISIS, especially when faced with extinction in Kobane?

However, the hard reality is that the resulting division between the Arab and Kurdish populations outside Assadist control is the death-knell of both, leading them into further dependence on, and the threat of abandonment by, foreign interests, to the benefit only of the regime.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Putin and Assad will give Erdogan the go-ahead to attack the SDF in northeastern Syria without some quid pro quo in the northwest, ie rebel-controlled Greater Idlib. Probably not all of it just yet – neither Turkey nor the West can agree to a total Assadist reconquest that would send hundreds of thousands more refugees across borders – but possibly allowing Assad to gobble up enough of southern Idlib to ensure control of the main thoroughfares between Aleppo and Latakia, which would mean wiping out some key revolutionary centres. It would be the ultimate irony to watch rebel (or ex-rebel) troops attacking the SDF in the northeast as part of a Turkish operation while Assad and Russia further slice into the last part of free Syria in the northwest.

The bankruptcy of “anti-imperialism”

It is somewhat surreal to watch countless “anti-imperialists” denounce Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurds to Turkey (they tend to not be so loud about the betrayal to Assad), while other “anti-imperialists” applaud Trump’s move as a step towards something they call a “peace process”. How to explain such dissonance?

Throughout the last 8 years, the Manichean version of “anti-imperialism” spouted by an alt-left and far-right convergence has given support to a reactionary genocidal tyrant, backed by a murderous aerial invasion by the world’s second imperialist superpower, destroying his entire country to squash a popular uprising on the false altar of opposing “US-backed regime change” and the like.

The fact that there was never any US “regime-change” operation was irrelevant, as were most facts; while the Kurdish-led SDF has received over 4 years of US air power at their service, which has killed thousands of civilians, the Syrian rebels never received any such support (indeed, they have often enough been bombed by US warplanes); while the SDF was blessed with the support of thousands of US troops (who are now being withdrawn), there was never a single US troop in support of the rebels; while there are a dozen or so US bases in SDF-controlled Rojava there are none in any rebel-controlled zone; while the US ensured key Kurdish centres such as Kobane did not fall, no rebel-held centre, whether overrun by Assad or even by ISIS, ever received such defence. Yet for most “anti-imperialists”, the rebels were still the “US proxies” while the SDF were brave “anti-imperialist” fighters. It is difficult to explain how it was possible to reverse reality in such a total way; part of it was perhaps the YPG’s connection to the PKK in Turkey, given its ancient anti-imperialist history from another era, among other psychological motivations.

What to say then when the US withdraws? Praise the end of “imperialist intervention”? Or protest the betrayal of the Kurds, meaning, perhaps, the dreaded “US intervention” should continue? How ironic that it is often (of course, not always) the same people attempting to say both things. But while there are many confused anti-Assad people stuck in this quandary, in too many cases, this “anti-imperialism” involved those who wanted to be “anti-imperialist” as long as it meant scabbing on the Syrian people’s uprising and supporting the most tyrannical oligarchic dictatorship of the 21st century; every tiny hint of limited US support to the rebels was denounced as evidence of “regime change”. Yet once it became clear that the US saw its key ally in Syria as the SDF, many went silent; four years of massive US bombing of ISIS (and also of Nusra and sometimes even the rebels), killing anywhere between 4800 and 13,500 civilians, has largely been met with embarrassed silence by the “anti-war” movement around the world, while the abstract trope of “opposing US intervention” is still kept in the cupboard in case it needs to be occasionally dusted off, to protest the odd one-off US strike on some empty Assad airbase, that kills nobody at all, when Assad indulges in chemical warfare.

In recent weeks and months, US air-borne terror has been increasing. In mid-December, US airstrikes hit a mosque in Syria, killing 17 people. The response? Deafening silence. Between US terror from the skies and a monstrous regime like that of ISIS, it is better to admit there is an ethical dilemma, rather than be so certain you are “against intervention”, especially when for the most part you are actually not against it at all. And you ought to also be consistent in relation to the imaginary, never-existing “threat” of US intervention against Assad, whose regime has killed about 100 times more people than ISIS could ever manage, and admit that the main role of this particular version of “anti-imperialism” – the anti-solidarity version – over the last 8 years has been that of scabbery on the Syrian people.

The debate in US imperialist circles between staying in Syria or quitting Syria is not one with a more progressive side; in this case, Trump’s withdrawal is for entirely reactionary reasons.