Defending the Indefensible: Trump & the Kurds

Defending the Indefensible: Trump & the Kurds October 25, 2019

It’s time for a little bit more Trumpian politics. I recently reported and commented on Trump’s highly controversial military withdrawal from Syria that directly led to Turkish forces bombarding the Turkish-Syria border, killing and displacing a large number of Kurds, important allies to the Americans in combating terrorist threats in the Middle East and ensuring some kind of stability.

I was fascinated to see some of the defences of Trump’s decision from some of the usual suspects here at ATP. A number of quotes below should exemplify this:

It’s rational to withdraw troops from hazardous conditions in an “unstable area” that’s been that way longer than the US has existed as a country. I’m fine with scaling back the US military presence in allied countries such as Germany and Japan, but that’s a separate debate and is not relevant to the Syria situation.

The US has no national interest in Syria, and our troops being there does not make things more stable. Deterring China and Russia is important, which is the justification for troops in Japan and Germany etc., whether or not that’s a valid justification has no bearing on the Syrian situation, it’s a separate debate. I think US troops should be removed from South Korea. Imagine the reaction if Trump did that. Democrats attacked Trump merely for scaling down military exercises with South Korea.

To which I did state: Hilarious. Your troops pull out, one day later there is war, civilian deaths, allied casualties and a foreign force making incursions. Empirically speaking, US troops being in the region did make things more stable. There is no other way to say this, other than “Otto, you are empirically wrong.”

Trump let the Russians in? I’m surprised a Syrian expert like yourself is unaware Russia has long standing ties with Syria and a naval base at Tartus. Obama’s misguided policies don’t obligate the US to keep troops in Syria forever.

I could nitpick the individual points that Otto makes here in these comments (not least that the winners from Trump’s decision here appear to very clearly be Russia and a dictatorial Turkey), but that is not my intention. These sorts of comments sum up knee-jerk reactions from Trump supporters to when he makes incredibly stupid comments or irrational decisions. The ad hoc attempts at defending Trump’s behaviour always make for interesting reading. But the result is always the same: my head is found in my hands, shaking in disbelief.

The defence of Trump here is one that relies solely on finances without any recourse to morality. It appears to be that, in order to not become engaged on foreign soil and rack up costly bills, the US needs to withdraw its troops from foreign lands.

Here is an infographic of foreign US military bases:

 

As Politico states:

Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.

By my calculation, maintaining bases and troops overseas cost $85 to $100 billion in fiscal year 2014; the total with bases and troops in warzones is $160 to $200 billion.

These costs have heightened debate over whether the United States needs so many bases abroad: What effect do they have around the world, and are they really making us safer?

Trump withdrew a small number of troops from the Syrian border and, a day later, a foreign nation attacked and we saw the death of many US allies and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. You would be hard-pressed to find a similar level of reaction to the withdrawal of that same number of troops from anywhere else in the world.

The problem for the Trump-defender is that they have to prioritise this withdrawal over any other withdrawal in the world. And it doesn’t just become a case of finances because this had a huge moral and humanitarian consequences attached to it. As you can see, there are an awful lot of places that the US could withdraw from and save just as much, if not more, money and they would have little to no causal geopolitical effect.

But this is where it gets worse for the Trump-defender. As The Guardian reports:

The US is reportedly planning to deploy tanks and other heavy military hardware to protect oil fields in eastern Syria, in a reversal of Donald Trump’s earlier order to withdraw all troops from the country.

The most likely destination for US armoured units is a Conoco gas plant near the city of Deir Ezzor, the site of a February 2018 clash between US special forces and Syrian regime-backed militias fighting with Russian mercenaries.

So now the Trump-defender has to reconcile the arguments that Trump was making a wholly rationally sensible decision by withdrawing troops from that part of the world to having to support a U-turn on this original decision.

However, it is quite likely it would take more troops to deploy, maintain, supply and protect armoured units in the middle of the eastern Syrian desert than the roughly 1,000 that were in the country before the Turkish invasion.

The contradiction has been apparent in Trump’s remarks in recent days, in which he claimed the US had “secured the oil” even while withdrawing its forces.

“It would mean walling off eastern Syria as a US zone,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, said of the plan to put tanks around the Conoco plant. “You would have to protect it from the air. You have to supply it and then you have got to protect the road, presumably from Iraq. You can easily see a scenario where we end up with more troops in Syria than we started off with.”

On Thursday, Trump added to the confusion on Thursday by tweeting: “Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the oil region!”

The remark seemed to endorse a population transfer from the Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey southwards to the almost entirely Sunni Arab area of Deir Ezzor. Such a mass displacement of Kurds from their homes would fit with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to resettle north-eastern Syria with Syrian Arab refugees to create a buffer zone against Kurdish insurgents. Kurdish refugees in Turkey are already reported to be subject to forcible deportation.

“The president of the United States is now helping Turkey achieve ethnic cleansing by telling the Kurds to flee their homes,” former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a comment on Twitter.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan struck a deal with Vladimir Putin on a 30km-deep “safe zone” in which Russian military police and Syrian border guards would oversee the withdrawal of armed Kurdish units from the area.

Such mass demographic changes – carried out at the barrel of a gun – risk prolonging Syria’s multiple-front conflict indefinitely, said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN’s former humanitarian chief.

“This was an area of relative stability, before all of these deals,” said Egeland, who was also the UN’s special adviser on Syria. “We need to remind all of these people with the power and the guns that this is no chessboard. It is a place where people live. There are two to three million civilians in this area. I cannot see how this can be a safe zone for long with so many different armed parties.”

Trump has attempted to spin this as somehow a win for him, even though it is a short-term solution for a problem that he, himself, has caused. He is bumbling his way around international politics without seemingly having a clue about what he is doing. The only winners from this set of disastrous decisions have been Turkey and Russia. And by Turkey, I don’t mean as ally to the United States, I mean as a dictatorial regime intent on ethnically cleansing the Kurds (US allies) from the region.

This is all so insane. But even worse, it is the defence of such actions by a still significant number of Republican voters. I am at least somewhat heartened by the fact that many Republican politicians have come out in stark criticism of Trump’s decisions in the region. However, so many grassroots Republican voters simply defend anything and everything Trump does out of thoughtless obedience.

There is no doubt that this sticking plaster that Trump has had to retrospectively attach will end up costing the United States more money than had they not decided to withdraw their troops at all in the first place (irrespective of where the tanks and troops come from) as a result of a persuasive terrible a phone call from President Erdogan.

It becomes still more complex when we hear these claims from Trump:

“It’s been many, many years,” he said Oct. 7, the day after the withdrawal was announced. “It’s been decades, in many cases. We want to bring our troops back home.”

On Wednesday he said, “I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I’m doing.”

“I’m happy because there’s no fighting,” he added Thursday. “We can bring certainly most of our people back home for the first time in many years.”

This is as close as he has come to moralising the decision since virtually every decision he ever makes has a predominantly financial aspect. This is a problem with putting a one-tracked business entrepreneur (and not a very good one) in charge of one of the most important moral decision-making positions in world politics. Everything is really about money.

It appears that the position taken up by people like Otto for defending Trump are simply completely indefensible:

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced this weekend that the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops who were being removed from Syria would not come home but instead would go to western Iraq, where they would continue to fight the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS. Esper added Monday that some troops may also remain in Syria to protect oil fields from an ISIS takeover….

We also learned Monday that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan were down by about 2,000 in the past year. This comes on top of news last week that 3,000 troops were being sent to Saudi Arabia as tensions between that country and Iran increase.

In other words, according to publicly announced troop decisions, there may soon be more troops in the Middle East than before Trump’s announced withdrawal from northern Syria two weeks ago. And depending on what happens between Iran and the Saudis, the United States could technically be involved in more conflicts of indeterminate length than before.

Not that this will stop Trump from continuing to claim he’s bringing the troops home….

On the one hand, he’s talking about bringing troops home and how he’s tired of seeing wounded warriors and coffins at Dover Air Force Base. On the other, he’s pulling troops out of a conflict in which only a handful of Americans have been killed and putting them into Iraq, where thousands have died, and he’s putting 3,000 more troops in the middle of a powder keg in Saudi Arabia.

I’ll leave you with what Mick Mulvaney said: “Well, they will [come home] eventually…”

 


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