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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Nothing Happened

The Daily Escape:

Snow in Sonoran Desert near Tucson – 2019 photo by Back o’ Beyond

Nothing happened during Trump’s dog and pony show last night. He tried reframing his demand for a wall as a need for better security from drugs, terrorists and criminals. Today, he’s again brought up the national emergency trope. This should be America’s reaction:

Much of his talk was a return to his campaign message that brown people from south of the border must be stopped before they pollute our glorious and exceptional culture. The biggest whopper was that:

Law enforcement professionals have asked for $5.6 billion.

We know who did the asking. We also know that most drugs enter via existing ports of entry that cannot be walled off. We know that the vast majority of terrorists enter via airports, and the paltry number stopped at the border came in from our wall-less neighbor to the north, Canada. Simply put, he couldn’t put together a coherent argument for why this funding dispute about fence construction justifies a government shutdown.

At the end of the day, there is nothing more banal in American politics than a president having a proposal he can’t get the opposition party to agree with. If every policy standoff ended in a government shutdown, we couldn’t have a country at all.

This raises the frightening question of how a president who can’t successfully manage peace and prosperity would deal with an actual crisis.

And one may be in the wings. On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton tried to set conditions for a US retreat from Syria, changing what Trump has said about leaving as soon as possible. Bolton, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, said he would stress with Turkish officials, including President Erdogan, that Kurdish forces must be protected:

We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum…so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

Turkey was not amused. The YPG Kurds, our allies in Syria, are affiliated with the PKK which is viewed as a terrorist group in Turkey. Turkey has said they won’t allow that group to exist on its border as an organized military force.

When Bolton, accompanied by Joint Chiefs head Joe Dunford and Syria envoy James Jeffrey, landed in Turkey, they received a cold shoulder. The planned meeting with President Erdogan didn’t happen. The meeting was held instead with the Turkish National Security Advisor Ibrahim Kalin and took less than two hours. A planned joint press conference was canceled.

After Bolton’s meeting, Raqip Solyu, Turkey Correspondent for MiddleEastEye reported on an Erdogan speech to his parliament group. It was a slap in Bolton’s face:

YPG/PKK are terrorists. Some say ‘don’t touch them because they are Kurds’. This is unacceptable. Everyone can be a terrorist. They could be Turkmans. Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Bolton made a big mistake by his statements…

Solyu also reported that Erdogan said:

As it happened in the past, despite our clear agreement with Trump on US withdrawal from Syria, different voices started to come out from different levels of the American administration.

An editorial in an Erdogan aligned newspaper called Bolton’s position a soft coup against Trump.

We have to ask: Is Trump really in charge?

We know he got tough on having a wall once Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter said he was a weakling if he kept the government open without getting his wall.

The NYT reported that in a lunch with television anchors before last night’s Oval Office address, Trump said he was not inclined to give the speech, but was talked into it by his advisers. Trump said:

It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it….

Erdogan likewise had a deal with Trump about the US leaving Syria. Bolton has changed the deal, to add conditions and to prolong the timeline for exit.

So, where is Trump on these issues? If he sticks with what Bolton said, Erdogan is likely to escalate to test who is in charge. His army will probably fire artillery on one or more Kurdish positions near the Turkish border. It may even invade a few towns. This will put serious pressure on the US occupation force, which at least right now, isn’t leaving any time soon.

So, is Trump in charge? Who’s gonna negotiate to reopen the government? Anybody?

Next we’ll hear Trump say:

Government shutdowns are good and easy to win.

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Saturday Soother – December 22, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Two Jack Lake, Banff, Alberta, CN – 2018 photo by don_wilson

A perfect photo for the end of this week: Black ice, more than a foot thick, with very large cracks. It feels like America is on ice skates, without any of us knowing how to skate, stop, or change direction. And there’s those giant cracks.

We don’t have a permanent Attorney General, Defense Secretary, or Chief of Staff. The government is likely to shut down because the president wants his border wall. Paul Ryan’s last official act of the year was to cave in to the president on his $5 billion funding demand, and kick it to the Senate.

Stocks are having the worst December since the Great Recession. And Robert Mueller has indicted multiple members of Trump’s inner circle. Trump seems to be skating, too.

But Wrongo wants to discuss Ruth Bader Ginsburg (again). She underwent surgery at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung Friday at a New York hospital, the Supreme Court announced. There is no evidence of any remaining disease, says a court spokesperson, nor is there evidence of disease elsewhere in the body….In 1999, Ginsburg underwent surgery for colorectal cancer, and 10 years later she was treated for early stages of pancreatic cancer.

Apparently, the cancer was detected early because of scans taken after she fractured her ribs. Since there is no current evidence of metastasis, it’s possible that she will make a full recovery.

We’re all thinking the same thing when Ginsburg’s health takes a bad turn: That Trump could have yet another chance to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court, precisely when he doesn’t look completely in control of his administration, or his emotions.

But, America oddly seems to be ok with a government shutdown. And most people think that fewer troops in Syria and Afghanistan is a good thing. As Wrongo predicted on Friday, we will withdraw 7,000 soldiers from Afghanistan over the next few months. The Taliban rules more than half of the country and Afghanistan’s army is losing more personnel each month than they can recruit.

BTW, it was Sec Def Mattis who had urged Trump to increase the troops in Afghanistan from 10,000 to 14,000 at the beginning of his term. His retirement marks the second time in five years that Mattis has had a serious conflict with his commander in chief. President Obama fired him as Head of Central Command for urging a more aggressive Iran policy.

But, you want to get on with shopping online, wrapping gifts and decorating the tree. So it’s time for a little Saturday soothing. Start by brewing up a vente cup of Valhalla Java Odin Force Coffee from the Death Wish Coffee Company, in Saratoga Springs, NY ($15.99/12 Oz.). Death Wish has been featured here before, and says that they make the world’s strongest coffees. They also say that the Odin coffee is nutty, with a taste of chocolate.

Now settle back for a few minutes, put on your Bluetooth headphones, and listen to the “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber, performed without instruments by Belgium’s Vlaams Radio Koor (choir), with Marcus Creed conducting. It was recorded in Brussels in 2015, and is an arrangement by Barber of his Adagio for Strings (1936). This is typically done by a chorus with organ, or piano accompaniment, but here it is simply the chorus, and it is simply beautiful:

Wrongo thinks it is superior to the original piece with piano and strings. It must be very difficult to sing.

The lyric:

In Latin:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem

In English:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump Wants Out of Syria

The Daily Escape:

Interior of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain via Archpics

Wrongo is glad that Trump has ordered (what appears to be a precipitous) withdrawal of US troops from Syria. His Republican allies are in an uproar over the decision, comparing it to Obama’s leaving Iraq in 2011.

They are saying that we should be trading our withdrawal for something.  Wrongo isn’t convinced that keeping troops in Syria is somehow necessary for regional stability, or that we need to get something from Iran, or that we need to keep Russia from getting a win.

The WSJ says that what led to announcing a withdrawal was a call last week between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan opposes the US partnership with Kurdish forces in Syria, since he views them as a terrorist force intent on destabilizing Turkey. On several occasions in the past few weeks, Erdogan has threatened to launch an assault on the Syrian Kurds. The US has consistently relied on the Kurdish forces as the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS. From the WSJ:

On the call, Mr. Trump told Mr. Erdogan that he no longer wanted to spend money and time in Syria and preferred instead to focus his energy on domestic issues, said an official briefed on the call. Mr. Erdogan assured Mr. Trump that Turkey would continue the fight against Islamic State—and against the Kurds, the official said.

But there was more: Trump’s decision came hours after the State Department approved Turkey’s purchase of $3.5 billion in US Patriot missile-defense systems. Some analysts see the proposed sale as an enticement for Ankara to back off its previously announced plans to purchase a Russian S-400 air-defense system. So, US withdrawal from Syria looks like a kickback to Erdogan for buying $3.5 Billion in Patriot missiles instead of the Russian S400 missile.

The downside is that we are once again abandoning the Kurds to their fate. The Rojava Kurds live in Syrian lands that are contiguous with Turkey, and Erdogan’s plan is to occupy their territory. The Kurds will survive Turkish efforts to roll over them militarily only if they embrace the Syrian government.

Assad’s aim is to control all Syrian territory. He wants the Kurds to be an integral part of Syria, probably more integral than many Syrian Kurds would want.

There may be other side deals with Russia and possibly with Syria. We’ll learn all of them in good time.

Some of this is good news. We needed to make some sense of our occupation of Syria. We needed to do something to improve our relations with Turkey, and it was insane to try to occupy a third of Syria, which risked a possible world war.

From day one, America’s strategic error has been treating Syria as a subordinate part of our global Iran policy. Looking at Damascus through the prism of Tehran never allowed us to examine the risks and opportunities in Syria as they actually were. We never really developed a strategy for what we wanted in Syria, and that is why the Iranians and Russians (and ultimately the Turks) have ended up holding all the cards.

Those three knew what they wanted, and were willing to spend the resources necessary to achieve their goals, while sometimes having to compromise with each other. None of those things can be said for the US’s involvement in Syria. Our sole policy aim was the same old bipartisan consensus we’ve tried since the end of WWII: Get rid of the BAD DUDE in country X because he’s BAAD!

And let’s not worry about what trying to remove him does to the regional balance of power, or to innocent civilians, or to our own culpability in BAD DUDE’s badness. Rinse, Lather, repeat.

Obviously, bringing troops home from Syria is part of Trump’s plan for reelection in 2020. Maybe, Afghanistan will be next. We should expect to see him move left on many key issues over the next year.

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September 11, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Has it been 17 years already?

A quote from Edward R. Murrow: “No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices”, describes where America is today.

As we remember the 17th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the US, we should realize that most of the geo-political problems we face today can trace their root causes to the attacks on 9/11.

And 17 years later, it appears that we have become the accomplices of terror. We can’t let the Muslim world alone. We’ve continued to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve beefed up our presence in Africa. The enemy has morphed from al-Qaeda only, to ISIS and al-Qaeda, with branches all across the world.

Just yesterday, Wrongo wrote about our current misadventures in Syria, where we have several thousand troops who were not invited in by the Syrian government. We said that US Syrian policy seems to be teetering on conflict with the other regional powers, Iran and Russia, because we are insisting that Iran exit Syria.

We continue to spend blood and treasure in the Middle East because of 9/11. We were meddling in the ME before 2001, and those efforts helped make bin Laden’s point that the US was responsible both for the suffering the US was causing directly through its sanctions, and the suffering we caused indirectly, by keeping Middle Eastern dictators in power.

To that, bin Laden added a decisive idea: Attack the US to end its power over the Middle East.

Seventeen years later, we are stuck in a Middle East quagmire. We cannot win militarily, but we never lose decisively. On this 17th anniversary, let’s address a few questions to our political and military leaders:

  • Isn’t it improbable that the US military has been unable to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, its two major wars of this century?
  • Was it improbable that Washington’s post-9/11 policies in the Middle East helped lead to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria and to a movement of almost unparalleled extremism that has successfully “franchised” itself from Libya to Mali, from Nigeria to Afghanistan?

If, on September 12, 2001, you had predicted where we are today, no one would have thought you were credible.

Since 9/11 our presidents have all tried hard to act tough on terror, as have our Senators and Congresspersons. They have all said that our young soldiers are available to go wherever the next Islamist problem arises. So, in the past 17 years, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars to protect the homeland, and while to some degree, we are undoubtedly safer, we haven’t defeated the Islamists.

The current crop of Republicans in the White House are trying more of the same: To convince us that the challenges we face in the world are simple, that we must be realists, aggressively going after what we want. They say it all comes down to “good vs evil.”

Sadly, we really live in an extremely complex world, and ignorance of its complexity is dangerous. Remember in 2006, there were reports that George W. Bush was unaware of the difference between Shia and Sunni as late as two months before the Iraq invasion. Combine that with the ongoing support for the neo-con’s Exceptionalist ideology, and we’ve all paid, and continue to pay, a huge price for their simplistic worldview.

The reality is that when tough talk is divorced from knowledge, you do dumb things, like start wars that diminish our standing in the world, that cost us terribly in lives and money, and that produce zero in the way of political results.

Trump seems ready to place a bet that his tough guy stance on Syria will cause Iran and Russia to back down. Those of us who pay taxes and send our kids off to war, should make it very clear that the American presidency is no place for bullies.

And rather than signifying weakness, traits like thoughtfulness and collaboration are exactly what we want from the Leader of the Free World.

Anyone can say “lock and load, we’re gonna fight!

We need to re-learn how not to fight, and how to exist in an ambiguous world without withdrawing, or being ineffectual. Since 9/11, when things get tough, our politicians strut around with chins out. They prefer form over substance and in the end, they’re just praying that it all works out, but it hasn’t.

Remember the 9/11 heroes and its victims.

But let’s stop listening to those who pander to our fears, and vote them out of office.

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Monday Wake Up Call – September 10, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peruvian Andes – photo by mh-travelphotos. The area has very few people, and is a popular trekking destination. It includes six peaks above 6,000 meters.

Whenever Wrongo writes about Syria, the Wrongologist Blog records its fewest reads. Maybe people think that what’s happening in Syria just doesn’t mean much to America. Maybe people think that we’ve already given up on our original goals, and we’re already letting the Russians run the place.

Both of those thoughts would be er, wrong.

The WaPo reported about our new plan: (emphasis by Wrongo)

President Trump, who just five months ago said he wanted “to get out” of Syria and bring U.S. troops home soon, has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the military effort there and launches a major diplomatic push to achieve American objectives, according to senior State Department officials.

Although the military campaign against the Islamic State has been nearly completed, 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.

You remember al-Qaeda, the guys who took down the NY World Trade Center? (We’ll remember that tomorrow). Well, the first step in the new US “diplomatic push” is to prevent an imminent Syrian army operation against al-Qaeda aligned groups in Syria’s Idlib province:

While the US agrees that those forces must be wiped out, it rejects “the idea that we have to go in there…to clean out the terrorists, most of the people fighting….they’re not terrorists, but people fighting a civil war against a brutal dictator,” as well as millions of civilians, said US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey. Instead, the US has called for a cooperative approach with other outside actors.

He went on to say that:

The US will not tolerate an attack. Period.

Jeffrey had just visited Turkey to consult with Turkish president Erdogan about the upcoming Idlib attack by Syria, Russia and Iran. The result of the meeting was a plan that Erdogan presented at the Tehran summit that Erdogan attended with President Putin of Russia and President Rohani of Iran.

The parties didn’t agree to the US/Turkish plan, and the attacks on Idlib have already begun.

Jeffery said that the Trump administration’s plan for Syria involves more than the defeat of ISIS. It also was focused on reducing Iranian influence, and preventing Assad from controlling all of Syria’s geography. Jeffery said that Trump supports the strategy, contrary to Trump’s previous statements about withdrawing US troops after defeating ISIS:

…we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year….That means we are not in a hurry…

America needs to wake up. Those who voted for Trump did so in part because he wasn’t the warmonger that Hillary was. At some point, they’ll have to admit that Trump’s new Syria policy puts us in direct conflict with Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria. That isn’t something that could be implemented without Trump’s agreement, and with less than 60 days to the mid-terms, is this just a political calculation?

It’s difficult to know if Trump truly cares about what happens with Assad, but we know that he has a burning desire to confront Iran. And his new Syria policy is all about Iran. And he’s already tweeted warnings to Assad and Putin to leave Idlib alone.

Does anyone reading this believe that he’s thinking geopolitically? And since Putin, Rohani, and Assad have already defied Trump’s tweeted warnings, Americans should be thinking that there’s liable to be a strike at least against Iran, in the next few weeks.

You know that all the neocons around him, like Bolton and Pompeo, will goad him on. And after that, it could be game on.

Perhaps Trump is bluffing. We have no realistic means to prevent the operations against Idlib by Russia, Iran and Syria. The US military understands that an attack on Syrian and Russian forces would likely escalate into a direct conflict between nuclear powers.

We can’t assume that the “resistance” inside the White House either agrees with the US military, or is capable of averting such a risk.

Wrongo’s solution? Not one more drop of American blood should be wasted in either Iraq or Syria.

Withdraw completely from Syria. Hand over our in-country bases to the Syrians. Encourage and assist the Kurdish insurgents and the Syrian Defense Forces to reintegrate into Syria. Pass the intelligence we have on the jihadis we have assisted over the years to Damascus.

Then we have to hope that Trump moves on to focus completely on more important issues, like Colin Kaepernick’s shoes.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 15, 2018

Friday night, the US, UK and France launched what now looks like a symbolic attack on Syria. They took great pains to avoid hurting the Syrian government, its people or its allies. So far, there is no report of civilian casualties. Despite Trump saying the bombings were because Syria again stepped over a red line on chemical warfare, we haven’t seen solid evidence: a) that it was a gas attack, and b) that it was caused by the Assad regime. It seems illogical to Wrongo, but the UK and France joined in the exercise, and other western heads of state, like Trudeau in Canada said it was the right thing to do.

What did the bombings accomplish? The WaPo reports that:

Syria, Russia and Iran shrugged off strikes on Saturday by the United States and its allies against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities, which drew angry condemnations but no indication that there would be a wider escalation.

Here on Sunday, it looks like the only purpose of the attack was to “do something”. This is called the “Politician’s Syllogism”, a logical fallacy, taking this form:
1. We have to do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we have to do this.

Do we have any strategy at all in Syria? Two weeks ago, Trump said we were leaving. Today, we’re hip deep in the place. And does this bombing set a precedent? Will Trump send cruise missiles into Syria every time there is a gas attack? What if the gas attack is by the rebels, or the jihadis?

Remember that these bombings are happening while Trump’s travel ban prevents Syrian refugees from entering the US. And France and the UK are placing strict limits on refugees as well. Syria is in the middle of the worst refugee crisis in recent history, but, since a few of those who are fleeing might be terrorists, America’s door is closed. On to cartoons.

The war room worked late into the night on Trump’s priorities:

There are times when the dog must be wagged:

It’s a bit awkward to see that Trump can’t learn from history:

Trump had other priorities this week besides Syria:

Paul Ryan, man of action, bolts:

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Why Can’t an Anti-War Candidate Be an Anti-War President?

The Daily Escape:

Mural in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, near Durban, South Africa – April 2018 photo by Ottho Heldring

Since today is Friday the 13th, let’s talk about Donald Trump’s confusing strategy in Syria, which could turn out to be the unluckiest strategy of all for America.

Trump got elected in part because he was vocally against foreign quagmires. He was against involvement in Syria as a candidate, and as recently as two weeks ago, said he wanted to get out of Syria as fast as possible.

Now, he’s tweeting that the Syrian government has again used chemical weapons on its people. The gas attack led to what so far is a “war of words” between the US and Russia both at the UN, and in the Twittersphere. For his part, Trump tweeted that “missiles will be coming” at Syria. “Get ready Russia,” he taunted, “because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart.’”

We know that on April 7, antigovernment groups in the town of Douma in Syria claimed that dozens of people were killed in a chemical weapons attack. The rebels blamed the government, while the government denied responsibility.

Douma was the last battleground in Eastern Ghouta. It had been an enclave for militants fighting against the Syrian government. Douma was controlled by the Jaysh al-Islam, a jihadi group that was accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo in 2016. Jaysh al-Islam said that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 people.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (OPCW), sent a special fact-finding mission to Douma to verify reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons. Although they are now on the ground in Douma, the OPCW mission was not what the UN or the US wanted. They called for an independent investigation. That US resolution by Nikki Haley was vetoed by Russia with China abstaining. A resolution calling for OPCW to investigate was offered by Russia. It failed as well.

Now, we’ll see what the OPCW comes up with. But, we need to be open to a finding that it wasn’t gas. We need to be open to a finding that Assad didn’t do it. In fact, Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, said on Thursday that:

I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence….As each day goes by — as you know, it is a non-persistent gas — so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it…

The Secretary of Defense can’t confirm it’s gas, much less who did it, but we’re gonna let the missiles fly?

Why isn’t anyone in the mainstream media asking, “Who did this”? Why aren’t they asking why Assad would do this when he’s just about to succeed after a six-year fight against those who wanted him out of power?

Why isn’t anyone asking why this occurred just after Trump said on April 3rd that he wanted to get out of Syria? Wouldn’t it be wise to see what the OPCW finds in Ghouta first before going all gung-ho with missiles and air attacks?

From Andrew Bacevich:

The purpose of all wars, is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium A.D….but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating….I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine’s dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.

We are in a purposeless fight in Syria. There is no threat to us, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war. And the selective outrage about kids dying in Syria is mind boggling. There is no discussion about the dead children of Yemen, dying in a war by our ally, Saudi Arabia, with our active support.

Here’s where we are: Either Bomber Bolton will get another President to go hip deep into another Middle East war, you know, the kind of war where we’ll again be greeted as liberators.

Or, we can have the guts to say “enough” in Syria.

Trump should take a stand now on what remains of his principles. Engaging in possible war with Russia and Iran over Syria isn’t going to save our democracy, or his presidency. Is he man enough to say “enough”?

Wrongo is convinced that the time is right for a true anti-war candidate. That space was ceded to Trump in 2016, but the flyover states may be willing to vote that way again. They’re the ones whose kids are being sent off to die in the wars organized by the defense contractors, neocons and DC insiders, wars that we never win.

And then, their kids come home with PTSD. They move into crappy jobs, and some are lost to drugs and death caused by despair.

Who will step up and say “enough” in Syria?

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Trump’s Syria Policy Could Threaten NATO

The Daily Escape:

Swaziland street scene – 2012 photo by Wrongo

Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” against Kurdish militias inside Syria on January 20. Reuters reports that Turkish artillery pounded Kurdish positions, while rockets fired from inside Syria hit two Turkish border towns, wounding dozens. More from Reuters:

Intense Turkish artillery fire and air strikes continued to hit some villages, the YPG said, while fierce battles raged to the north and west of Afrin against Turkish forces and their rebel allies…

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey had informed the Syrian government of its military operation in Afrin with a written statement before the incursion was launched. Apparently, Moscow gave the green light to Ankara to commence Operation Olive Branch, and has moved Russian troops out of harm’s way in Afrin. From Stratfor:

The war in Syria should be ending. The Islamic State has lost all the territory it seized in 2014. The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, has confined other anti-government rebels to besieged pockets in the south, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and in the northwest. Opposition hopes of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad have vanished. But the war refuses to die. It just takes new forms.

The new fighting is between Turkey and American surrogates. The US announced a post-Islamic State mission that would keep American advisers and their local surrogates in Syria for years to come. The mission calls for the US to train, arm and advise a 30,000-strong, mostly Kurdish border security force. The border that this force will secure is between Syria and Turkey.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Turkey’s president Erdogan, who pledged “to strangle it before it’s even born.” He moved Turkish military units to the border and launched artillery at Kurdish positions in their Syrian enclave of Afrin. Erdogan is a smart guy. He told members of parliament from his Justice and Development Party:

Hey, NATO! You are obliged to take a stance against those who harass and violate the borders of your members.”

Naturally, it’s Turkey’s borders that Erdogan wants NATO to protect from Kurdish militias. The US border security plan could tear NATO apart. Several European partners are unhappy with this latest move by the Trump administration. Importantly, this may commit the US to a long-term presence within a country that doesn’t want us there, and where we have no real strategic interest.

Erdogan’s incursion has received support from al Assad’s government, Russia, and Iran. They see the US plan as a pretext to keep a military presence in Syria, to deprive Syrian authorities control over large swaths of the country and gain some leverage over the war’s likely victors. Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, wrote:

By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced…

Russia admonished the Kurds that their decision to put their faith in whatever US Central Command (CENTCOM, the controlling regional Defense Department command for Syria and the ME) has planned for them is a poor decision. And the US has already backtracked on their support for the Kurds in Afrin. CENTCOM has announced through a spokesperson, that the US will not continue to support them.

So, what’s the strategy? Both Russia and Iran can simply sit back and watch as Erdogan goes about crushing the US’s proxy (Kurdish militias) in northern Syria. And, they have nothing to lose if a nasty spat develops between the US and Turkey. On the other hand, if Turkey succeeds in vanquishing the Kurdish militia, US will have to vacate northern Syria, which would also be to the advantage of Russia and Iran.

It is hard to explain the Trump administration’s decision to keep the US military presence in Syria indefinitely, against the wishes of Damascus, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Tehran knows that if the US is forced to vacate Syria, it would mean the US-Israeli failure to block Iran from establishing the “Shia Crescent”.

Trump has delegated far too much autonomy to the Pentagon. The White House is focused domestically, or otherwise engaged in infighting, and Trump doesn’t have the interest, or expertise to provide leadership in the region.

Despite all Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his ME policy will only lead to further US humiliation in the region. The US needs a Metternich.

Instead, we’ve got Trump & Tillerson, sort of the “Abbott & Costello” of international affairs. Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have been completely outplayed for the past year or two.

Sometimes you just have to get out of the way, and just take the shame/blame that’s coming to you.

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Tillerson: We’re Staying In Syria

The Daily Escape:

Coquina Rock outcropping, early morning, Flager Beach FL – 2017 photo by sir_oki

(By the time you read this, you may know if the US Congress has willfully kicked another own goal by allowing another government shutdown. If it has happened, it will be because Republicans couldn’t keep their factions in line in the House, and that the Democrats wouldn’t help the GOP in the Senate. As Wrongo writes this, there’s no sign that either are in place, but Wrongo thinks they will avert a shutdown.)

Secretary of State Tillerson visited Stanford University, and spoke about our threadbare geopolitical strategy. From the Guardian:

The US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria, not only to fight Isis and AL-Qaeda but also to provide a bulwark against Iranian influence, ensure the departure of the Assad regime and create conditions for the return of refugees…

This is laughable. Think about the results to date on our Syrian strategy: US-backed jihadis along with the Assad regime have wrecked Syria, and changed the politics in Europe because of massive refugee migration. And the politics on the ground in Syria are unchanged.

Tillerson’s speech was more of the same old, same old about challenges and threats, some of which are unrelated to a grand strategy of US in the Middle East. But the most basic question, why the US remains in Syria, (and in the Middle East in general), were not addressed, much less answered.

It doesn’t take a 6’3” 239-pound geopolitical genius to figure out that the Trump administration’s prime ME directive is the containment and roll back of Iran’s influence in the region. But our partners are unreliable, and in some cases, disagree with this strategy. Wishful thinking is a bad basis for strategy, it is really a recipe for yet another ME disaster.

The hidden hands enabling America’s obsession with Iran, a country that presents zero military threat to us, are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel wants Iran-friendly Hezbollah neutralized in Syria and Lebanon, and is willing to fight to the last American in pursuit of that objective. The Saudis are fighting Iran for dominance in the region.

By carving out territory in Syria, we are creating a fundamentally weak situation, both militarily and politically. Over the next few months, Assad will prevail, and that will be the end of the Syrian civil war. Then, something entirely new will emerge. The Northeast of Syria, the Kurdish-controlled areas where we are placing our 2,000 ground troops, will become a main focus for Syria, Turkey and Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran.

And here, we enter uncharted political territory. We have no legal right to occupy a portion of Syria, and we must expect that at some point, Syria and Russia will call us on that. What will be our response? Is Trump willing to head-to-head with them, and possibly see US troops killed? For what?

Tactically, we have aligned with the Syrian Kurds to try and check a regional grouping who will surround our position. Worse, our policy is opposed by our ally, Turkey, who wants us to stop helping (and arming) the Kurds.

We are engaging in more superficial thinking about the ME, once again attempting to reshape the region. And to help us, we are counting on a rapprochement between Saudi-Arabia and Israel. It also requires them to commit military support to American efforts to block the combined interests of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

When you listen to Tillerson, you would think that the US had defeated ISIS, and our troops are there for the mop-up, that the Syrians, Russians and Iranians were hardly involved. Little of that is true.

Tillerson’s Syrian manifesto requires that Assad step down, now by losing an election, because evicting him by force proved impossible. Yet, it seems probable that Assad would win a fair election.

Isn’t Tillerson’s plan just more neo-con regime change? Think about Iraq. The US wanted Saddam out, and thus handed the country to Iran. In Syria, the goal was to oust Assad. Now, Assad is staying, and Russia has an unprecedented footprint in the region.

Under Trump, we have no end-game in Syria, or in Afghanistan. We choose to sit in the middle of a divided region: Arab vs. Persian, Kurds vs. Turks, Sunni vs. Shia, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, Israel vs. Palestine, and remnants of ISIS vs. everyone else.

It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

Has Tillerson come up with a sound strategy? Definitely not.

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Iran: Our New Enemy in the Forever War

The Daily Escape:

Mt. Hood at sunset as seen from Trillium Lake, OR – photo by Steve Schwindt

We are opening a new front in the Forever War. The WSJ reports:

The Pentagon plans to keep some US forces in Syria indefinitely, even after a war against the Islamic State extremist group formally ends, to take part in what it describes as ongoing counterterrorism operations…

There are approximately 2,000 US troops in Syria, along with an unspecified number of contractors supporting them. Last month, the US withdrew 400 Marines from Syria.

The Pentagon has said the forces will target parts of Syria that aren’t fully governed by either Syrian or rebel forces. US defense officials stressed there would be no large, permanent bases in Syria like we maintain in Germany and South Korea. Instead, troops will be assigned to smaller bases and outposts. These small unit forts are usually called Forward Operating Bases (FOB).

The US will now have FOBs in Syria, just like we have in Afghanistan. Anyone familiar with our Afghani FOBs can tell you that this can be a road to defeat. These bases are usually undermanned and difficult to resupply, or defend. We rely on air support to assist when these bases are attacked. That becomes difficult or impossible in bad weather, and if they are attacked with overwhelming force. Time is of the essence, but our jets and helicopters are at best, usually 10-30+ minutes away.

And our decision to remain in Syria is actually worse than that. Turkey, Iran and Russia are already on the ground in Syria, along with Hezbollah and the Syrian army. According to Reuters, CIA Director Pompeo sent a letter to Major General Soleimani of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRG) warning him not to attack US or Coalition forces in Syria or Iraq. According to Pompeo, Soleimani refused to open the letter.

Elijah J. Magnier, a long-time Middle East analyst, reported that Soleimani replied in a verbal message via Russia to the head of the US forces in Syria, advising him to pull out all US forces, “or the doors of hell will open up”:

My message to the US military command: when the battle against ISIS…will end, no American soldier will be tolerated in Syria. I advise you to leave by your own will or you will be forced to it…

Given that many Arabs in the ME are very angry at Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, our troops might become tempting targets for pro-Syrian forces on the ground near our FOBs.

As they used to say in English Lit, compare and contrast the Trump administration’s message with what Putin is doing in Syria: On Monday, Putin visited Syria to announce that a “significant” number of Russian soldiers are going to be withdrawn.

We are staying indefinitely, and Russia is withdrawing a “significant” portion of their Syrian forces. Everyone knows that Russia will be there indefinitely, but they are staying with the full consent of the Syrian government.

In business, you sign the agreement and put it away. If you have to read it again, generally, you are screwed, and dialing up your lawyers. We had an agreement with the Russians to be in Syria while ISIS was viable. Now, they are largely defeated. We seem to think we can tear up whatever agreement we want, whenever we want to.

We are becoming the party nobody wants to have an agreement with. Here is how our current plan will operate:

  • We keep our troops in a country where they’re not wanted
  • Since they’re not wanted, they will eventually be attacked
  • Once attacked, we will have to reinforce them, to fight the “terrorists”

Trump is hoping that Iran’s reaction to our forces in Syria can be a pretext for an expanded conflict with Iran. Finding common cause with Iran is the key to peace in the Middle East. The US is needlessly fanning the flames of anger and violence. Cooler heads must prevail in Washington to prevent an utter disaster.

We should dismiss General Soleimani’s threats, since the last thing Iran wants is war with the US and Israel. If they attack US forces, they risk just that, and they will drag Syria into a new war.

OTOH, our troops will be attacked, and opinions will differ on who conducted the attack.

The Global War on Terror is a fraud that benefits only a few. A lot of money is changing hands. Hundreds of billions of dollars. One group that benefits are the Republicans.

They want to gut Medicare.

But the sacred defense budget must be expanded.

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