The White House predictably announced a new phase of the military campaign in Syria and the withdrawal of troops from the country. This was unceremoniously announced by the press secretary of the White House, Sarah Sanders on Wednesday, December 19th.
Sanders noted that five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, but the United States managed to destroy their territorial caliphate. The representative of the White House added that the victory of the international coalition of countries led by the United States over ISIS in Syria does not mean the end of the coalition or its campaign.
“The United States and our allies stand together to re-engage in the defense of American interests at all levels if necessary, and we will continue to work together to prevent the spread of radical Islamism, its sponsorship, support in any form or its penetration beyond our borders”, read the statement of the press secretary, Sanders.
The US government plans to fully evacuate all State Department employees within 24 hours, as Reuters reported.
But why this statement now, and how accurate is it?
It would appear on face value that forecasts pointing towards the futility of the American campaign against Syria, regardless of the pretext, had failed and as such, the announcement of ‘a new phase of the conflict’, or even a ‘Mission Accomplished’, involving the total withdrawal of U.S forces, was eventual.
If we take at face value, the U.S’ ostensible reasons for being in Syria – to fight ISIS, but in such a way that doesn’t buttress Assad or leave him irremovable – the defeat of ISIS would seem to compel a new rationale for the U.S presence. The reality of Syria’s new position, where in some 93% of the lands formerly occupied by ISIS are now controlled by the representative government elected in Damascus, would seem to mean that an announcement of a U.S withdrawal would be short-coming. Even if numerous countries close to the coalition, including statements from the U.S president, said that Assad did not necessarily have to leave power in Damascus in order to arrive at a political solution to the conflict.
In terms of the news cycle, Putin just spoke words on the present 93% position of Syria, which translates into a ‘good job’ by the Russian military. Trump rushing in during the same cycle, to claim victory as well, makes sense on numerous levels. But then using this to announce a total withdrawal?
Still it should be understood that the U.S has approached a phase in its corrosion or in its ‘winning strategy’, that it is ‘non-agreement capable’, in the words of Lavrov. This is not merely a function of unilateral position changes, made at whim. At issue is the lack of a single faction in control of American activities abroad. The U.S empire is such that the country runs multiple and contradictory foreign policies simultaneously, and it remains mysterious to many what the real motives and interests of the decision makers indeed are, and in what ways they are at odds with one another.
In short, the U.S will no doubt continue its military operations in Syria. The Pentagon and the CIA each run different sorts of operations, in the interests nominally of national security, but by all accounts in the interests of the power-junta acting locally within this or that vector of American power, be it the military or intelligence services.
That means that Trump’s announcement could amount to very little – can represent his intentions, which may not be realized in reality – and it can represent simply a bargaining chip that can be re-introduced later, a sort of form of regressive or ‘hard’ bargaining tactic – which Trump is using in his domestic conflict against the deep state and other vested power interests.
When we read of ISIS units fighting SDF/YPG Kurds, we know we are reading a mixed account, filtrated through the medium of text. Our understanding of the report has to be measured at the same time with our understanding that elements of the anti-Syria coalition are in fact fighting each other.
But some battles between these two Western sponsored factions had low casualty rates, even an absence of real fighting, but nevertheless we saw real the transfer of territory. And wherever the SDF went, the U.S could ‘justify’ its presence, within the unjustifiable context of its own self-justified rationale of what constitutes a legitimate ‘intervention’. So within western media we read of the U.S occupation of Syria, nominally areas that are ‘Kurdish’ and where not, then areas that the suddenly no longer Kurdish-oriented SDF are in control of, and these are Syrians, Arabs, not Kurds.
That all means that White House statements issuing a withdrawal are difficult to read. Do they signify the obvious? Yes, in some way, but not entirely. Nothing is at it appears, there’s always a number of important strategic points – operational plans – that have to be smuggled into the workings of any otherwise obvious concession. Even when retreating, the fighting continues.
Conclusively, there are various U.S power vectors involved in Syria, all able to fund, even muster their own, fighting force – whether as uniformed personnel, or as mercenaries, and if as mercenaries, whether NATO/American or Arab/Muslim fighters. That means that official statements mean something, but they do not mean that the U.S is not engaged in some phase or other of this war. That is explicitly the case, even.
The U.S has something of a networked ‘self-awareness’ built into it, so its apparently chaotic foreign policy in many ways works to its advantage. Being unable to make agreements is only the flip-side of being unpredictable.
While this means that the U.S is ‘losing’ the conventional conflict, in the more linear and binary sense of the term, this isn’t a win-lose game but one of relative positions. And at any time there is always a relative position to defend, and the imperative is to defend that position – whether on the ascent or descent – at all times. And add to that, within the U.S there are several player-groups moving things in various directions.
The U.S will be meddling in the Syrian war which it in fact started, as long its able, in whatever way. And this means that so long as there is a conflict, the U.S will be active in it there. At the end of the day, this has very little to do with Trump’s druthers either way.