Trump May Be Right – By David W. Lesch

Trump May Be Right
By David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment – April 17, 2018

In the wake of the recent US targeted attack in Syria, President Trump’s comments a couple of weeks ago that the US needs to get out of Syria as soon as US-backed forces mop up the remnants of the Islamic State has run up against elements in the administration who want a sustained US presence in the country. They believe a couple of thousand troops and some military bases supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are needed in the country in order to assure that ISIS is defeated and does not re-establish itself, to provide some leverage vis-à-vis the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus regarding any sort of political settlement, and to contain Iran, which many fear is well on the way to creating a strategic land bridge from Teheran to Beirut. There seems to be a real battle in the administration over the direction of Syria policy.

But let’s examine these goals a little more closely.  What exactly is the US doing there? Certainly the Kurds are not counting on a continued US presence, especially not after Trump’s remarks; indeed, they have long been striking deals with the Syrian government and the Russians to hedge their bets.  Frankly, once the US leaves, Damascus would then be free to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Kurds regarding autonomy over something less than the 27% of Syrian territory now under their sway, which could then ameliorate the Turks, who might feel secure enough to pull back from northern Syria.

Staying in Syria in order to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State is laudable.  But what does “defeat” look like? ISIS still holds pockets of territory along the Iraqi border, but it seems to be reverting to what it was before, i.e. a terrorist organization carrying out attacks against perceived enemies. It appears that eliminating those last bastions of ISIS control, in order to protect Iraq as much as Syria, will do the trick in terms of satisfying Trump.  This can be facilitated with a Turkish-US modus vivendi that will allow the SDF to re-focus its attention to the east rather than be diverted to protect its Kurdish comrades fighting Turkish forces in the northwest. The Turks, probably giddy with Trump’s desire to get out, might just let the Kurds resume anti-ISIS operations knowing that a US departure would facilitate their Kurdish objectives in Syria.

Over the long term, however, only stabilization efforts in the cities and towns abandoned by ISIS will prevent it from re-establishing a presence or finding safe havens in which to brew it special brand of chaos. Stabilization will only seriously occur once there is a political settlement. However morally repugnant, this means that the government of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, will ultimately be responsible for stabilization. Russia and Iran did much more to help Assad stay in power than the US and its allies did to remove him.  So, to the victor go the spoils, and that includes putting Syria back together again and all the challenges that it entails.  Political and economic opportunity meet target on one’s back.  Trump does not want that target to be US troops. In any event, if the EU and regional Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, can stomach Assad staying in power, perhaps the spigots of reconstruction aid will open up in a way that will help stabilize the country. Syria still has a functioning central authority that retains a certain amount of legitimacy which can, with international assistance, prevent it from falling into full failed state status, which is exactly the terrain in which ISIS operates.  We already have too many Yemens and Libyas in the area.

Regardless, the US is on the outside looking in on a political settlement.  That ship has sailed for all intents and purposes.  The Russians, Iranians, and Turks are setting the table, and the Syrian government at the moment is not entertaining any serious concessions of the kind the US and various Syrian opposition groups have been clamoring for. How can we lose leverage when we never really had it? Yes, the US-supported SDF hold the vast majority of Syria’s oil wells in the east, which the Syrian regime desperately wants back—this is potential leverage.  But the regime will be patient.  It has already proven its ability to extract the necessary resources from its population and its allies to stay in power. It will just wait a little longer.

Finally, the Iranian corridor:  well, folks, it’s already there, and there is not much we can do about it short of going to war with Iran. Teheran has already achieved most of its strategic objectives in Syria, first and foremost by keeping Assad in power.  Besides, there is a much better deterrent in the region than the US to keep Iranian influence in check:  Israel.  The Israelis have already sent a very strong message to Iran (and Assad) through its forceful military response to the Iranian drone that was shot down over Israeli territory earlier this year.  In fact, many believe Iran’s relatively low profile in the Syrian government’s retaking of Eastern Ghouta over the past few weeks was in direct reaction to this.  It doesn’t want to bait the Israelis to intercede even more forcefully.  This apparent passivity just means that Iran already has what it wants.  Keeping it at that level will be the job of the Israelis and also the Russians, who are keen to not let the Iran-Israel dynamic ignite a regional war. We can expect an Israeli-Iranian dance in Syria in coming months, if not years, to determine exactly where the red lines are.

Although awkwardly expressed in a manner that telegraphs our intentions and diminishes our diplomatic leverage, Trump’s assertions are consistent with how he has viewed US involvement in Syria from the beginning.  His initial tweets in response to the chemical attack on April 7 displayed anger and exasperation.  It was almost as if Trump was saying to Moscow and Damascus: “I told you I was getting out, but you guys keep doing stupid stuff that pulls me back in.” The limited nature of the response suggests that Trump’s view on Syria still holds for now, as long as the the Syrians behave—or at least get the Russians to control their client-state (good luck with that).

Ironically, maybe getting out of Syria will in the end save the most lives in the country by eliminating the regional and international tug of war that Syria has become and creating space for a political settlement. An imperfect peace is better than the wars—actual and potential—in Syria.

*David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author or editor of 15 books on the Middle East.

Comments (7)

Eugene said:

Who may be right? The academics, the war planners, the financiers, any or all of them? All the outside players, from the top down, are responsible for the Syria the world is treated to today. The need for a bogyman by the west and the other dictatorial powers in the area, with too much money to burn, should be the ones who rebuild Syria, but not using the model that has spawned the corruption we have witnessed from the war on terror. The strong victimize the weak, because they can.

ISIS making a comeback? It appears that it has been allowed to spread its brand far and wide, not just in Syria. Considering the gathering of combatants in Idlib province, where they seem to be dispersing from, begs the question of who is allowing such and why?

April 17th, 2018, 7:28 pm


Alif said:

A more realistic piece than the previous two published here . I agree that the US effectively occupying Syria has few if any benefits for ordinary Syrians and Americans. Maybe Trump meant what he said, maybe not. Sending mixed messages is a Trumpian specialty. Ultimately it may not matter what Trump wants or doesn’t want; his chosen advisors, cabinet appointees as well as his Democratic and Republican opponents are all in favor of a prolonged American presence in Syria. The most vocal members of this group are openly pushing to relaunch the Bush 43 era Iran intervention/regime change project.

If the United States, Iran, Russia, Qatar, KSA, UK, Turkey etc. were serious about ending the bloodshed and ensuring Syria remains (relatively) stable they would have prioritized diplomacy aimed at curbing the Ba’athist’s brutality and the lethal sectarian animosity that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and help bolster the hanging-by-a-thread economy. Iran and Russia pay to prop up their goon and to supply the SAA and loyalist militia with weapons, while the Americans pay to arm their proxies of the hour and place more sanctions on Syria, which do not hurt Assad of course but impact already struggling Syrians and prevent the country from importing food, medicine and rebuilding supplies and equipment. (Israel is at least honest when it says it wants to keep the war between its enemies going indefinitely.)

Escalating this war and causing more death and destruction (or dropping missiles on a barely used airfield and a vacant lot) is absolutely ridiculous and illogical if punishing the regime for using chemical weapons is the goal. And what is it with chemical weapons anyway? How is shelling and bombing urban areas with high explosive ordnance for months on end any less lethal and cruel? On the other hand maybe the concern May, Trump, Macron and the gang show for Syrian’s wellbeing is contrived and they have other motives for getting involved. Ya think?

Which brings be to my next point: taking politicians and their rhetoric about Syria at face value is a fool’s errand. I fail to understand how intelligent and learned people can take seriously anything the foreign sponsors of this conflict say . What they say and what they do are often miles apart.

Western pundits understandably scoff at Iranian and Russian claims that they are in Syria to help their fair-minded and democratic ally Bashar al-Assad stay in power, thereby bringing peace and stability back to Syria. The Russians alternate between this story and saying they are fighting “terrorism” but not too invested in Assad’s personal survival as Syria’s leader. Protecting their air and naval assets in Latakia and field testing new weapon systems has nothing to do with their intervention of course.

If we are to believe convention wisdom, human rights, democracy promotion, fighting ISIS and protecting civilians are the West’s goals in Syria. The world’s first altruistic empire which spends blood and treasure – not to further economic and strategic interests – but to selflessly help the world’s huddled masses. As it did in Iraq 2003 and in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s among many other places.

It is instructive to note that while Assad’s callous and cruel treatment of “his” people is cynically evoked to soften the western public up for war and give the Syrian opposition false hope, the Yemeni and Palestinian masses are being slaughtered and besieged in a way Assad could appreciate, but with the direct assistance and complicity of the US and its allies. Not surprisingly they are never the subject of Nikki Haley’s grotesque and macabre show-and-tell theater at the UN. Also worth noting is the fate of countries selected by NATO members and the US to recieve the gift of “human rights” and “democracy” (via aerial bombardment, invasion and occupation or more covert means). They have been pounded into rubble and abandoned by the gift givers, are dealing with violently polarized, barely functioning societies and/or are mired in perpetual war and violence. All are arguably far worse off than before the good Samaritans arrived to bomb them into democracy. It is a high farce but with very serious and deadly consequences.

Yet western leaders are never challenged on this by mainstream academics and journalists who, despite the atrocious track record of the governments in question, give them the benefit of the doubt again and again and again even when there ought no longer to be any doubt about what the goals of illegal wars are not. What the goals are is open to debate.

Meanwhile, the long suffering Syrian people, whose interests the foreigners and the Ba’athist Assad regime alike claim to have at heart, will continue paying the price for the overlapping wars and conflicts playing out in their land.

April 17th, 2018, 11:21 pm


Richard Ong said:

This is a decent article but it still expresses three of the Most Sacred Truths in the Whole World, which require some examination.

One, that the Assad regime is repugnant and just the worstest government known to man, is led by some kind of a monster ophthalmologist, has no popular support at ALL, and is and was opposed by altruistic deep thinkers whose political judgments are just the bestest ones in the world and whose judgments about the moral foundation of the Syrian Arab Government are well-considered and the absolutely most definitive ones out there TOTALLY justifying violent opposition to the government and resulting anarchy, untold killing and destruction.

Two, that Iran is the locus of evil in the world, the chief sponsor of terror in it* (not counting those kind Westerners, Turks, Saudis, Qataris, and Israelis who are responsible for over 500,000 deaths in Syria alone), and whose presence in Syria is such as to presage the imminent destruction of Israel and melt IDF innards in a heart beat.

And, three, that Israel just has a God-given right to bomb any of its neighbors if it “feels threatened.” Never mind that this is not a basis for military action under the U.N. Charter but, heck, this is Israel, and what more special country can there be. Hall pass for Israel!!


April 18th, 2018, 12:19 pm


Ghufran said:

Think tanks are mostly funded by people and agencies that are obsessed with animosity towards Iran and blind support to Israel. This is why they are reactionary and have failed to present a balanced view of the Middle East and can only throw random ideas that defy the truth and common sense. There are exceptions but group thinking is a disease that affects most of those think tanks. We should read what they write but challenge them at every opportunity. The West did nothing since 1948 to advance the cause of peace and freedom in the Middle East. Pointing fingers at Arab dictators and Iran does very little to change that fact.

April 18th, 2018, 4:57 pm



Not unexpected from the Author of “The Assad I Know” Assad-apologetic piece in the early days of what was then a popular uprising against “his” Assad before Assad and his sectarian goons, drug smuggling gangs of Hezbollah and their Iranian backers and benefactors, turned it into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in our modern age.

April 21st, 2018, 1:03 am


Khaldoon Alaswad said:

One hole in MR Lesch argument;
The Assad regime political and economic policies are not sustainable, they are reasons we got here. Assad will continue to destabilize Syria intentionally and unintentionally.
It seems that the Assad regime has not learned anything but to be more discrete criminal and a better thug

April 28th, 2018, 11:13 am


Hiba Jameel said:

Very insightful piece. In fact, I went to and ordered one of his books.

May 10th, 2018, 10:55 pm


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