Trump’s recent announcement that the remaining U.S. troops are to be withdrawn immediately from Syria has led to fierce criticism from within the U.S. political and military establishment, as well as from the British and French governments.
Some on the left have also echoed the call for the U.S. withdrawal to be halted, in particular motivated by fears of a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled regions. However, as Emma Wilde Botta and Shireen Akram-Boshar argued in a recent article written for Socialist Worker (U.S.), socialists should oppose all imperialist intervention in Syria.
Donald Trump’s announcement last month (December 2018) of a 30-day withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria — later extended to a four-month timetable — unleashed a firestorm of criticism from both the Republican and Democratic establishments.
The pullout plan is in part a flailing gesture to the “America First” isolationist backbone of Trump’s right-wing base, which he needs to shore up against developing discontent with his reign among the U.S. ruling class and political establishment.
Internationally, a withdrawal would give more power and influence to the Bashar al-Assad regime and its primary international backers, Russia and Iran, at a time when the legitimacy of the regime is becoming re-established [including in the UK]. This would cement Assad’s counterrevolutionary victory over the popular uprising that broke out in 2011.
But the bitter opposition to Trump’s announcement from Democrats and Republicans alike isn’t about protecting the Syrian people from the regime’s terror. They want to maintain the military power of the U.S. empire to impose its interests in the Middle East and challenge its international rivals.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation was a protest from the increasingly marginalised military-hawk wing of the Trump administration. But it was telling that some of the loudest voices siding with Mattis and attacking a withdrawal from Syria were from Democrats and liberals. They claim to oppose Trump’s right-wing agenda, but their aim is to defend the military power of the U.S. empire, not challenge it.
The left must be clearer than ever on its principles of anti-imperialism, anti-intervention and solidarity with movements from below.
Victory of the counterrevolution
There will be a number of consequences in the Middle East if Trump’s withdrawal takes place over the opposition and obstruction of the bipartisan consensus against him.
A pullout would leave the northeastern region of Syria, currently under the control of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), under immediate threat of an onslaught from neighbouring Turkey — which invaded Syria in January last year.
As for the Assad regime, since its victory over the rebel-held city of Aleppo, the balance of forces have shifted dramatically in its favour. The government has continued to retake rebel-held territory across the country and reinstate its authoritarian rule.
In July, government forces conquered Deraa in southwestern Syria, forcing 300,000 Syrians to flee. The defeat of Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising and long held by non-jihadist opposition forces, signalled both the symbolic end to the initial revolution and a loss of a key strategic location. It left just two regions of the country outside of regime control.
Assad’s government has begun issuing thousands of death notices to families of prisoners who have been killed and tortured to death in its prisons. The majority were protesters, organisers and revolutionary activists who led the nonviolent phase of the Syrian revolution. Satellite images show regime prisons emptying out over the past months due to mass murder of prisoners.
The regional Arab states, once hesitant to support Assad, are now preparing to welcome him back into the fold.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s trip to Damascus in mid-December was the first visit of an Arab League leader to Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011, and marked the start of the alliance’s preparations to readmit Syria, as Arab regimes move to restore political and economic relations with the Assad regime.
Previously concerned with the influence of Iran, the various counterrevolutionary regimes now openly prefer Assad’s return to power, hoping that his restored strength will prevent Iran from further extending its sphere of influence.
The various Arab governments — including the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — prefer a restored Assad regime, particularly to help quell any future uprisings that erupt under the banner of the demands that underlay the 2011 Arab Spring, which have not been realised. Mass protests emerging in Tunisia and Sudan illustrate the potential that the counterrevolutionaries fear.
Solidarity between Kurdish and Arab revolutionaries
But while Trump’s plan would bring regional and international powers a step closer to their counterrevolutionary peace, it also threatens to upend the balance of forces vying for territorial control in Syria.
With the Assad regime reconquering vast swathes of Syria, only two regions of the country remain outside of regime control, both of them under foreign oversight: opposition-held northwestern Syria, under Turkish backing, and eastern Syria, where the YPG holds sway. The Kurdish militia played the leading role on the ground in displacing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with the backing of the U.S.
A U.S. withdrawal places this territory in immediate danger of Turkish invasion. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s primary goal in Syria is to prevent Kurdish forces from controlling territory bordering Turkey, where the government, both under military and Islamist rule, has long suppressed the just demands of the country’s large Kurdish minority. Following Trump’s announcement, Erdoğan promised to enter the Syrian city of Manbij to “oust the terrorists.”
Trump’s declaration threatens to leave the Kurdish-controlled eastern region of Syria abandoned to two powerful enemies: Turkish forces and the Assad regime.
Following Trump’s announcement, the YPG turned to Assad, asking for protection against Turkey. Last week, regime forces arrived at the outskirts of Manbij. If they enter, it will be for the first time in six years after the predominantly Arab city liberated itself from regime control.
It is important to understand that throughout the Syrian uprising, various forces of counterrevolution — from the Assad regime, to Turkey, to the U.S., to reactionary Islamists — have each worked to divide Arab and Kurdish revolutionaries from each other.
This was a prime strategy of the Assad regime in fostering sectarianism in order to defeat the popular uprising. Assad granted Kurdish regions relative autonomy while waging a relentless war on the Arab strongholds of the 2011 uprising.
The U.S., while claiming to support the uprising against Assad, fed into this dynamic by funding only those brigades that would fight ISIS, not the regime, and by entering a tactical alliance with the Kurdish YPG.
More recently, Islamist groups in Turkish-backed opposition areas ramped up anti-Kurdish racism in encouraging Turkey to attack Kurdish-held areas.
However, it is important to note that popular protest still plays an invaluable role in Syria. In September, faced with imminent attack at the hands of the regime, hundreds of thousands of civilians across the northwestern Idlib region of Syria emerged in mass protests that effectively prevented a bloodbath.
Similar actions are still possible and more necessary than ever in urging solidarity between Kurds and Arabs against all the forces of counterrevolution.
The U.S. pro-war establishment
Thus, Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops would be withdrawn was foreshadowed by Washington’s various levels of collusion with regional and global powers in crushing the Syrian uprising — from Iran, to Russia, to Israel, to the Assad regime itself.
But his tweet on 19 December signalling the planned pullback on a rapid timetable came as a surprise to many in his administration.
The abrupt announcement is in part an attempt to divert attention from new developments in Robert Mueller’s corruption investigation that further implicate Trump and his inner circle in what may be impeachable offences. But the pullout would be in keeping with the “America First” agenda beloved of hardline right-wing figures such as Steve Bannon.
The plan was deeply unpopular, however, among a Washington establishment that remains committed to projecting U.S. power in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and McGurk, the envoy to the alliance that has been fighting ISIS, both resigned over the withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis plainly stated the U.S. objective for maintaining a position in Syria: “It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want…to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.”
Criticism came from both ends of the mainstream political spectrum. Within his own party, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called Trump’s move “a catastrophic decision,” and likely new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was one of many Democrats criticising Trump’s “dangerous” decision.
Among others, the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post condemned the withdrawal plan, painting Trump as an incompetent leader of the empire and echoing warmongering fanatics like Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton that the U.S. should remain in Syria to deter Russia and Iran.
From the “neocon” right to the liberal apologists for empire, the critics of Trump are united in upholding the neoliberal consensus, dominant since the collapse of the former USSR, that the U.S. must superintend a world order, unopposed by other powers. But that model has suffered serious setbacks in the Middle East and is floundering in the face of rising imperial and regional rivals that are taking advantage of the U.S.’s relative decline.
Though incoherent at times, Trump’s foreign policy is a break from this status quo — which is why there is such an uproar over Syria. As Bannon explained after the pullout announcement, Trump wants to reduce the U.S. role in the Middle East in order to focus on the superpower competition with China.
Trump won’t put it in those terms openly. His plan would essentially ratify what a wing of the foreign policy establishment has taken as a foregone conclusion: that Iran and Russia will gain power and influence through their championing of the Syrian regime. But publicly, Trump can pander to his right-wing base by claiming that he is carrying out a campaign promise to bring the troops home after defeating ISIS.
The U.S. is nowhere near leaving Syria or the Middle East, even if Trump’s Syria pullback is carried out: The Pentagon still has troops in Iraq and the ability to redeploy them as necessary into Syria, an ongoing and expanded drone war over Syria and myriad military bases throughout the region.
Even so, the majority of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment is hardening in their opposition to Syrian withdrawal.
Over the weekend, Trump met with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who says he convinced Trump to extend the timeline for troop withdrawal by four months. That concession won’t appease Trump’s critics, but it could be the first of more retreats to come on the pullout.
Internationalism and anti-war struggle
While the liberal establishment is making common cause with neocons in urging a continued intervention in Syria, the left must say something entirely different. We must oppose U.S. imperialism and all foreign intervention in Syria and beyond.
Neither the U.S. nor any other foreign actors in Syria have operated with a goal of destabilising the Assad government. At most, the U.S. and its allies worked toward removing Assad, but preserving his military and regime, even when they faced collapse in the face of the mass uprising.
The interventions of Russia and Iran, of course, were explicitly designed to rescue Assad by crushing the revolution through protracted war and counterrevolutionary violence. Unfortunately, some sections of the left have abandoned internationalism and self-determination in defending Assad’s terrorism and his Russian and Iranian backers who made it possible.
But there can be no illusions about the U.S. role in Syria either.
Washington never had an interest in supporting a democratic uprising against Assad nor Kurdish self-determination. With the rise of ISIS and its conquest of eastern Syria, the U.S. became more explicit about accepting Assad’s continued reign in order to confront its new enemy.
When it needed a ground force to back up a coalition air war against ISIS, Washington cynically relied on the battle-tested YPG to lead those forces. But since ISIS has been driven from its main strongholds, Washington appears prepared to abandon the Kurds — just as it has before.
Under both Trump and Barack Obama, the U.S. refused to support any forces in Syria unless they promised to fight ISIS alone. And the Washington’s fight against ISIS has been a catastrophe on its own: in the name of defeating ISIS, the U.S. destroyed 90 percent of the city of Raqqa with a massive aerial bombardment campaign that killed hundreds of civilians.
As Gilbert Achcar has argued, the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings marked the start of a long-term revolutionary process that will see future upsurges of struggle that challenge the current counterrevolutionary impasse. In those moments, it will be critical for the left to be able to build solidarity with movements from below while organizing anti-imperialist action worldwide.
What the Syrian Revolution so desperately needed was for antiwar movements around the world — in the U.S., Iran, Russia and Lebanon at the very least — to be strong enough to confront their governments with pressure to get out of Syria and allow the Syrian people to decide their future.
The left must learn this lesson now so we are prepared for the future. We cannot support intervention by any imperial forces, which seek to sabotage struggles for democracy and self-determination. Instead, we must make solidarity, internationalism and antiwar struggle a reality everywhere.