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Fake News of Trump’s Volte-face on Syria Exit Strategy

Published: January 8, 2019
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Quoting Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was recently on a visit to Israel and told reporters in Jerusalem that American forces would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey provided guarantees that it would not strike Kurdish forces allied with the United States, fake news have been circulating on the mainstream media that Trump has made a turnaround by delaying his planned Syria withdrawal.
 
Quoting the corporate media’s preferred, though highly partisan and dubious source of information on Syria, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Al-Jazeera’s sister news outlet The New Arab in particular is reporting [1] the Syrian Observatory’s purportedly “extensive network of on-ground activists and reporters” has seen American military convoys of hundreds of trucks and vehicles headed to the US military bases in Raqqa in eastern Syria, and Manbij and Tal Abyad in northern Syria from the Iraq border.
 
The policy decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, however, has already been taken in principle by the Trump administration, and whether the complete exit of the US troops from Syria would take a few weeks or several months is simply a matter of modalities to be worked out by operational commanders of the American forces.
 
Taking notice of the fake news, even Donald Trump was compelled to clarify his intentions on the Syria exit strategy in a tweet on Monday, January 7, saying: “The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria. No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary.”
 
Regarding the American military convoys headed to Raqqa, Manbij and Tal Abyad, the US commanders planning for the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria have recommended that the Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State be allowed to keep the US-supplied weapons, a move that would likely anger NATO-ally Turkey, according to anexclusive report [1] by Reuters.
 
The report further adds: “The proposal to leave the US-supplied weapons with the Kurdish YPG militia, which could include anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and mortars, would reassure Kurdish allies that they were not being abandoned.”
 
Thus, the convoys carrying surplus weapons of the American forces in Iraq to the US military bases in Syria were actually meant to distribute the weapons among Washington’s Kurdish allies in order to compensate the Kurds for their loyalty, despite objections from Washington’s NATO-ally Ankara.
 
Regarding inveterate neoconservative hawk John Bolton’s reassurance to the Israelis on Washington’s Syria withdrawal in Jerusalem, it should be looked in the backdrop that over the years, Israel not only provided medical aid and material support to militant groups battling Damascus – particularly to various factions of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front in Daraa and Quneitra bordering the Israel-occupied Golan Heights – but Israel’s air force virtually played the role of the air force of the Syrian jihadists and conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the eight-year conflict.
 
Though after Russia provided S-300 missile system to the Syrian military after a Russian surveillance plane was shot down in Syria on September 18, killing 15 Russians onboard, Israel has conducted only a couple of airstrikes in Syria, one on the Christmas Day in which Israeli F-16s took cover [2] of civilian airliners flying to Damascus and Beirut airports. The purpose of the airstrike was to locate the precise location of the S-300 air defense system installed in Syria by the Russians in order to target it on a later date, or to keep the Israeli air force out of its reach.
 
Notwithstanding, on December 28, the Syrian army said it entered Manbij for the first time in years, after the Syrian Kurds urged Damascus to protect the town from the threat of impending Turkish military offensive, though Turkish President Erdogan has termed the handover a “psyops” by the Kurds.
 
According to a report by RT: [3] “A high-ranking Turkish delegation arrived in Moscow on Saturday, December 29, only a day after international media broke news on Kurdish militias inviting Syrian forces to enter Manbij before the Turks do. Syria’s military proclaimed they ‘raised the flag’ over Manbij, but there have been no independent reports confirming the moving of troops into the city.”
 
The report notes: “The Saturday Moscow meeting was key to preventing all actors of the Syrian war from locking horns over the Kurdish enclave. Obviously, Turkey will insist that it is their forces that should enter Manbij, Russia will of course insist the city should be handed over to Assad’s forces, Kirill Semenov, an Islamic studies expert with Russia’s Institute for Innovative Development, told RT.”
 
The report further adds: “Realpolitik, of course, plays a role here as various locations across Syria might be used as a bargaining chip by all parties to the conflict. Semenov suggested the Turks may agree on Syrian forces taking some parts of Idlib province in exchange for Damascus’ consent for a Turkish offensive toward Manbij or Kobani.”
 
It becomes abundantly clear after reading the RT report that a land swap agreement between Ankara and Damascus under the auspices of Moscow is in the offing to avoid standoff over Manbij.
 
The agreement would likely stipulate that Damascus would give Ankara free hand to mount offensives in the Kurdish-occupied Arab-majority towns Manbij and Kobani in northern Syria in return for Ankara withdrawing its militant proxies from Maarat al-Numan, Khan Sheikhoun and Jisr al-Shughour, all of which are strategically located in the south of Idlib governorate.
 
Just as Ankara cannot tolerate the presence of the Kurds in northern Syria along Turkey’s southern border in line with its “east of Euphrates” military doctrine, similarly even Ankara would acknowledge the fact that Damascus cannot possibly conceive the long-term presence of Ankara’s jihadist proxies in the aforementioned strategic locations in the south of Idlib governorate threatening the Alawite heartland of coastal Latakia.
 
If such a land swap agreement is concluded between Ankara and Damascus, it would be a win-win for all parties to the Syrian conflict, excluding the Kurds, of course. But the response of Damascus and Moscow to the concerns of the Kurds has been tepid of late.
 
Not only have the Kurds committed the perfidy of playing the proxies of Washington during the Syrian conflict which abandoned them after Trump’s announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Syria, but we must also recall another momentous event that took place in Deir al-Zor governorate in February 2018.
 
On February 7, the US B-52 bombers and Apache helicopters struck a contingent of Syrian government troops and allied forces in Deir al-Zor that reportedly [4] killed and wounded scores of Russian military contractors working for the Russian private security firm, the Wagner group.
 
The survivors described the bombing as an absolute massacre, and Kremlin lost more Russian citizens in one day than it had lost throughout its more than three-year-long military campaign in support of the Syrian government since September 2015.
 
The reason why Washington struck Russian contractors working in Syria was that the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which is mainly comprised of Kurdish YPG militias – had reportedly handed over the control of some areas east of Euphrates River to Deir al-Zor Military Council (DMC), which is the Arab-led component of SDF, and had relocated several battalions of Kurdish YPG militias to Afrin and along Syria’s northern border with Turkey in order to defend the Kurdish-held areas against the onslaught of the Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian militant proxies during Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s northwest that lasted from January to March 2018.
 
Syrian forces with the backing of Russian contractors took advantage of the opportunity and crossed the Euphrates River to capture an oil refinery located to the east of Euphrates River in the Kurdish-held area of Deir al-Zor.
 
The US Air Force responded with full force, knowing well the ragtag Arab component of SDF – mainly comprised of local Arab tribesmen and mercenaries to make the Kurdish-led SDF appear more representative and inclusive – was simply not a match for the superior training and arms of Syrian troops and Russian military contractors, consequently causing a carnage in which scores of Russian citizens lost their lives.
 
Clearly, Moscow and Damascus hold the Kurds responsible for the atrocity along with Washington, and hence it is unlikely that the Syrian military would come to the rescue of the Kurds in the event of a Turkish military offensive east of Euphrates.
 
Sources and links:
 
[1] US weapons rushed to SDF signaling possible U-turn over Syria:
https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2019/1/7/us-reinforces-syrian-kurds-amid-hints-of-withdrawal-u-turn
 
[2] Israel Used Civilian Airliners as Cover in Christmas Day Airstrikes in Syria:
https://www.mintpressnews.com/analysts-confirm-israel-used-civilian-airliners-to-cover-syria-airstrikes/253520/
 
[3] Land swap between Turkey and Syria – an option to avoid standoff over Manbij:
https://www.rt.com/news/447698-syria-manbij-russia-turkey-talks/
 
[4] Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded:
https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-casualtie/russian-toll-in-syria-battle-was-300-killed-and-wounded-sources-idUKKCN1FZ2EI
 
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.

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