Y’know that thing about “Nature abhors a vacuum?”
Well, when it comes to the lives of the ordinary people who live there, there is nothing more abhorrent than being where a power vacuum has been created.
And, if I might be permitted one more abstract proposition: this is why it is wrong to enter warfare without an exit plan, and why it is even more wrong to suddenly exit a conflict zone without a plan; without, it would seem, a care in the world.
Now, down to cases: the voids created by the Trump Administration’s desire to vacate the war zones of Iraq and Syria are being filled, as natural science and human nature would decree, by a variety of interested parties, whose interests and influence have already begun to replace America’s.
In northeastern Syria, a relative few American troops will remain to jointly serve with Turkish Army forces in “stabilizing” the city of Manbij. The big question with occupation forces is, how long will they stay? The all but certain answer in Manbij is, the Turks will outlast the Americans.
For the Kurds, forced out of Manbij, where at considerable cost they had expelled the Islamic State, future protection from American forces is now suspect, and thus, they have turned to the closest likely guardian, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Better the Devil we know than depending on Devil Trump whose intentions and commitments no one can know.
Oh, by the way, as of now, Washington’s best chance to advance our interests with the government of Syria is to beg the Russians for help.
To see how that’s been working out this week, let’s zoom in to the latest little power vacuum which American policies have wrought, the one in Southwestern Syria. This is where the nationwide popular resistance to the awful Assad regime began, and where it may finally be eradicated: the city of Daraa.
In some ways, Daraa is a perfect bookend to Manbij, old market towns at opposite ends of the country, both in the same population range of a bit over 100,000. And both towns had been fought over, pretty constantly for the 7 years of the Syrian civil war.
Here’s where the important differences begin. For the 3 armed groups that fought over Manbij, it was a position on a map. They held it or lost it but didn’t care enough about it or fight long enough to destroy it. The Syrian National Army, the Islamic State and the YPG, the Kurdish militia that ran ISIS out of Manbij, were all outsiders.
In Daraa, the fighters who have held the Syrian Army and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies at bay are almost all homefolks. And the fact that they have dug in to defend their city and its satellite villages and open spaces has cost Daraa in heavy damage.
Much of that damage occurred before the US asserted that it had some skin the game, and started arming and training the local anti-government forces in and around Daraa.
The US also had come to an understanding with Russia on a kind of mutual non-aggression pact for Syria’s southwest.
The locals wouldn’t expand their territory or link up with other anti-government forces, and the Government would leave them alone.
Well, as I glumly predicted last week, that’s over.
I could see it coming, and now see it happening, and so do people all over the Middle East, because it’s all over the media. My best source is Reuters. America’s abdication is as public as Edward VII’s.
Reuters reported last week that the commander of “pro-Government” forces, notably “not a Syrian national,” was threatening to step up attacks in the southwestern region.
This week, the attacks began, and please pay attention to this choreography:
First, Reuters reported, “Syrian army helicopters have dropped barrel bombs on opposition areas of the country’s south-west… in defiance of American demands that president Bashar al-Assad halt the assault.”
Almost immediately, Reuters followed up, “The US on Thursday reiterated its demand that the zone be respected, warning Assad and his Russian allies of ‘serious repercussions’ of violations.”
On Friday, America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley cried foul: this was not just al-Assad killing his own people, it was Russia betraying an agreement with the United States. Reuters quoted a Haley statement that the Syrian military escalation “unambiguously violates” the de-escalation arrangement. “Russia,” she said, “will ultimately bear responsibility for any further escalations in Syria.”
If the White House and Amb. Haley were sending a message that the US insists that Russia take its agreements with the United States seriously, it had a half-life of just a few hours.
Because, by Sunday, Reuters was reporting another Trump White House message, to those local forces centered around Daraa, who had been awarded aid during the Obama administration because they were among the least sectarian, least Islamist, and most genuinely democratic forces in the country: “The US has warned Syrian rebels in the south-west of the country they should not expect military support to help them resist a major government offensive.” The report continues: “The message from Washington comes as Russian jets struck an opposition-held town on Sunday in the first air cover provided by Moscow to an expanding Syrian army offensive in the strategic area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“The US message…said Washington wanted to make clear that ‘you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.’ ”
That’s the Trump exit plan for the Mideast: “Goodbye and good luck.”
You want a really glum prediction? Israel will not passively accept the advance of a Syrian-Hezbollah-Iranian armed force to within spitting distance of the Golan Heights and conventional artillery range of Israel itself. It will escalate its attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria.
And what could happen next? I’ll only hazard this guess: it won’t likely be in the interests of the American people or the people whose homes are once again a battlefront.