Timmerman vs. Puder: The U.S. Presence in Syria

Frontpage hosts an exchange.

The exchange below is a dialogue/debate Frontpage is hosting on Trump's recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Joseph Puder argues that U.S. should remain in Syria -- while Ken Timmerman counters with an anti-interventionist argument. Frontpage will be continuing a discussion on this vital issue.

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The U.S. Must Have an Active Presence in Syria.
By Joseph Puder

The physical elimination of the arch-terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS who sought to be the “Emir of the Believers,” has made the world a safer place. Al-Baghdadi’s cruelty and his campaign of murder, rape and enslavement of the Yazidis, made him the world’s number one criminal. The Trump administration deserves credit for his demise, and the special forces that hunted him merit the highest awards and rewards. The killing of Al-Baghdadi notwithstanding, the current U.S. policy of withdrawing from Syria and ultimately from throughout the Middle East is a fatal mistake. In today’s world, the oceans alone are no barriers from terror, or catastrophic attacks as the 9/11 terror attack has shown. 

 The U.S. departure from Syria has created a vacuum. In fact, the U.S. military base near the city of Manbij in northern Syria did not stay empty for long after U.S. forces departed. The Russians arrived the next day. Now, as a result, a trio of brutal autocrats: Putin, Erdogan, and Assad will divide the spoils among them while the U.S. is out of the picture.

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria, if not remedied, would make the U.S., in the eyes of its allies in Jerusalem and Arab Sunni states, an unreliable partner. The abandonment of the Kurds to Erdogan’s mercy was received with deep dismay and concern in Israel. True, the U.S. has had little to gain from sending American G.I.’s to the blood-stained streets and deserts of Syria. The ostensible reason for the U.S. initial involvement in Syria was to defeat the ISIS terrorists and their Caliphate. That mission seemed to be accomplished for the most part by regaining all the territories ISIS captured, and the killing and detaining of most of its fighters in Syria.

The thousands of captured ISIS jihadi terrorists have been guarded by the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). However, when the U.S. gave Erdogan a green light to enter the Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria and attack the SDF and the all-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the fate of the ISIS prisoners is no longer clear. There are reports that hundreds of them escaped and might form fighting units. Erdogan’s islamist ideology and his partnership with the Islamist Turkish Free Syrian Army TFSA) which is mostly Arab in composition, might very well recruit the ISIS fighters to join them in fighting the Kurdish forces.

It may be true that ISIS no longer controls territory in Syria or Iraq, but it remains a viable fighting guerilla force with branches worldwide. Moreover, the ISIS ideology didn’t disappear. It is present in Sunni communities both in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Sunni-Muslim hostility towards the U.S. stems from what they perceive as the U.S. giving the Shiite-Muslims power in Baghdad in the aftermath of the dictator Saddam Hussain’s demise. The Shiite-led governments in Iraq made the mistake of excluding the Sunnis from power, which led to such monsters as Abu Bakr Baghdadi to emerge as a powerful terror chief. The disbanding by the U.S. of the Sunni-led Iraqi army, channeled many Iraqi Republican Guard officers into the ISIS ranks.

In Syria, the Sunni-Arab majority (Sunni-Arabs in Iraq are 21% of the population) has resented the Alawi (a sect affiliated with Shiite-Islam to which the Assad family belongs) dictatorial rule since the mid-1960’s. The wholesale butchery of Sunnis by Hafez Assad in 1982, and to even greater extent, during the current civil war by his son Bashar Assad, is unlikely to be forgotten, and it is inevitable that the Sunnis are determined to exact revenge on the Assad family and the Alawites community in particular, and Shiites in general. Thus, if it is not a rejuvenated ISIS, it might be another Sunni extremist terror group. They will also aim at punishing Americans. Erdogan’s Turkey is more than likely to support these Sunni jihadists, albeit covertly.

The presence of Iran and Iranian Shiite proxies in Syria is like waving a red cape to a bull for the Sunni community. The civil war has deepened the Sunnis feeling of being persecuted. Sunni rebels have inflicted some serious blows to the Iranian expeditionary forces. Ariane Tabatabai, writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine (August 16, 2019) pointed out that, “To date, Tehran spent an estimated $15 billion propping up Assad - even as the Iranian economy has crumbled under sanctions for the better part of the war. Additionally, the Islamic Republic is thought to have sent some 10,000 operatives, including combat troops to Syria between 2011 and 2014. This number omits non-Iranian forces backed by Tehran (including Hezbollah personnel as well as Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen-JP), which the Wall Street Journal put at 130,000 in 2014. And by Tehran’s own admission, at least 2,100 Iranians had died in the conflict by 2017, including a number of high-ranking military commanders. Today, even as the war winds down, Iranian body bags continue to return home.”

Given its investments in human lives and financial resources, it is unlikely to see Iran leave Syria at its own choosing. The U.S. didn’t send troops to Syria to bring about an end to the bloody civil war, nor has the U.S. committed its forces to deliver freedom or justice for the Syrian people. The U.S. government did however express its intention to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria to counter Iran’s influence and oust Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad. The Guardian reported (January 17, 2018) that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “the U.S. intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria, not only to fight ISIS and al-Qaida but also to provide a bulwark against Iranian influence, ensure the departure of the Assad regime, and create conditions for the return of refugees.”

Now that the Kurds have been pushed out by the Turkish army with U.S. consent, and the Assad regime, and its Russian protectors have filled the space vacated by the Kurds, Iran and its proxies would have a clear path through northern Syria to reach the Mediterranean Sea and threaten Israel, both from Lebanon and southern Syria. The U.S. abandonment of its Kurdish allies has prompted them to shift sides and invite Assad to consolidate his control over all of Syria. Assad’s Russian backers have already entered areas under previous U.S. control. Now, Russia and Turkey are dividing northern Syria. Turkey got the area it already captured, while Russia has secured the rest for Assad.

The New York Times (10/30/2019) concluded it survey on Syria’s future, “Four American adversaries gained under Syria’s new geography. Assad’s control expanded. Iran, a long-time ally, could gain a long supply route to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. ISIS has an opening to regroup amid the chaos. And Russia cemented its status as the main foreign power in Syria.” 

The U.S. policy on Syria needs to be reversed. The U.S. should not allow Assad to take over northern Syria and end the Kurdish dream of autonomy, if not outright independence. At this stage, the U.S. should at the very least offer the Kurds aerial protection from Turkey’s indiscriminate bombing, and from Assad’s troops. If it isn’t too late, the U.S. could return some of its special forces to be imbedded with the Kurds. The only way the U.S. might have a say in the future of Syria, is to have an active presence on the ground.

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Trump Puts the Interventionists on the Ropes.
By Kenneth R. Timmerman  

A U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a “fatal mistake.” This is a refrain we have been hearing from interventionists across the political spectrum for some time.

It would be a mistake, the interventionists say, because the U.S. departure creates a vacuum that has already been filled by our adversaries, makes us appear an “unreliable” partner, and opens a “clear path” for Iran to reach the Mediterranean and directly threaten Israel.

But let’s recall the actual reason we sent troops into Syria in the first place. It was a decision taken by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton in 2012 as part of a larger strategy to empower the Muslim Brotherhood and weaken secular leaders who opposed them, such as Libya’s Qaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Syria’s Assad.

As a 2012 Intelligence Information Report makes clear, “The West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey support the opposition [in Syria]; while Russia, China, and Iran support the [Syrian] regime.”

The memo goes on to state that the powers supporting the opposition want to see the creation of “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria,” another term for a caliphate. This is precisely what led Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign to accuse Obama and Hillary of “creating” ISIS. As I argued at the time, he was right.

For the past three years, of course, we have directed our military aid in Syria to the YPG Kurds, who helped us to eradicate the ISIS geographical caliphate. That is now mission accomplished.

Congress never authorized a war in Syria. Nor do we have any abiding national security interest in Syria, except to prevent the return of an ISIS geographical caliphate fueled with Syrian oil.

Do the interventionists really believe we should sacrifice the lives of U.S. military personnel to promote the creation of a Kurdish state? I have spent quite a bit of time over the past decade visiting with Kurdish military and civilian leaders in the 12,000 foot Qandil mountains along the Iran-Iraq border, and sympathize with Kurdish aspirations to a national homeland.

I have argued that the U.S. should take the PKK off the terrorism list, because they have been fighting a defensive war to prevent the extermination of Kurdish culture in Turkey, not seeking to impose their hegemony on Turkey.

But the Kurds are their own worst enemy. In the one place where Kurds have established a self-governing homeland – the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq – they have created a failed state, rife with corruption, that oppresses Assyrian Christians and Kurdish dissidents alike, while failing to counter Iranian infiltration.

No American president, let alone Congress, has ever declared the creation of a Kurdish national homeland a policy priority. Perhaps they should. But President Trump never pledged such support when he deployed U.S. military personnel to Rojava. To argue today that we are “abandoning the Kurds” smacks of crocodile tears. Don’t forget that U.S. troops will be securing all that Syrian oil near Deir es Zor and turning over the proceeds to… the Kurds.

Is it in our national interest to check the imperialist expansion of the Islamic State of Iran? Arguably, yes. But there are many ways to do that without troops in Syria. One way is to deploy U.S. naval assets to enforce freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. President Trump has increased U.S. naval patrols in the area over the past year.

Another is to reinforce the defenses of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Iranian drone and missile attack on Abqaiq in September was a brazen act of defiance, aimed at destabilizing the Saudi monarchy. But again, is it in our national interest to protect a ruling royal family? Or just, as President Trump argues, the oil? These are discussions worth having.

A third is to empower Israel to strike at Iran whenever it strays beyond its borders or overtly threatens Israel. Instead of punishing Israel for defending itself, as President Obama did repeatedly, this president has given Israel the green light to defend itself and we should applaud him for it.

The best way by far of checking the Islamic State of Iran would be to empower the Iranian people to overthrow the regime, as I have argued repeatedly in this space and elsewhere. In April 2016, I delivered a background paper to then-candidate Trump setting out ways the United States could use soft power, including our international broadcasting, to achieve that goal.

President Trump has outraged Democrats because he is actually keeping his campaign promises to limit our overseas adventures. It’s very easy to imagine the United States following the Iranian sucker-punch against our drone in June and stumbling into another endless war. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leaders were drooling at such a prospect.

Instead of responding militarily at the time – a move that earned him grudging respect from some of his opponents – the President drew a clear line in the sand that so far the Iranians have respected: any attack that draws American blood will be met with massive retaliation.

Every president has committed acts that have caused his critics to argue that he has damaged U.S. credibility overseas. And yet, despite all of it, the United States remains the go-to power for those seeking protection against aggressors and wannbe hegemons.

The President’s critics are right about one thing: the threat from jihadi Islam is not about to go away. The killing of this or that terror chieftain is a game of whack-a-mole and, while necessary, will not end the jihadi terror movement. Nor will the deployment of a few thousand troops in Syria.

This is a generational struggle –but it is not our struggle. It is up to Islamic scholars and Muslim leaders to end the threat of political Islam through a political and religious reformation. But don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, this president has thrown the Deep State into disarray by failing to heed their dire warnings about the Syria pullout, Russia, and so many other things. They want the United States to be in a perpetual state of war, because the fog of war spreads tremendous power to the Guardians of Secrets and conveniently covers over their lies.

“Thank God for the Deep State,” former CIA director John McLaughlin told a CBS News correspondent on October 30.

Every American who loves liberty should get a chill down their spine when they hear those words.

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