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Empires Don’t Quit: Thoughts on Trump’s Syria Withdrawal

If you’ve ever gotten an offer for a free plane ticket, you’ve probably become acquainted with a sad reality really quickly. You have to read the fine print. Once you do, you discover that:

  1. The ticket’s not free. You have to pay a whole bunch of fees and processing charges.
  2. When and where you can travel is extremely limited. Your open window is more often than not at a completely inconvenient day and time.
  3. You have a limited span of time in which to use the ticket before the entire offer goes poof. This is a shell game airlines play with us so that we keep on paying for their increasingly poor services.

In the now waning era of American empire, when a president purports to extricate the U.S. military from one of its myriad illegal war zones, there’s always fine print as well. For instance, if the president says they’re withdrawing all the soldiers, they almost always leave out the fact that Special Forces, military advisors, CIA, mercenaries (because much of the Pentagon is now privatized), U.S. bases, air power and proxy fighters remain behind to continue the carnage.

When you run a floundering empire that’s desperate to maintain hegemony (as the U.S. now is) and depends on war for the bulk of its national income, there is no such thing as a complete, unilateral withdrawal. It doesn’t happen. It’s not a real option. This is why, in the recent past, Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq (but didn’t) and Afghanistan (but didn’t). It’s not until you see helicopters falling into the sea and personnel running for their lives to get out of the country, as we did in Vietnam in 1975, that you know an empire has truly given up on a war.

So all the corporate media hysteria we’re seeing this week in response to Donald Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from Syria ignores the fine print of how empires behave when they’re losing. They don’t quit. They re-strategize. They modify their goals. They look for another way. The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis aside, this is what I think Trump and the National Security State are doing right now.

Let’s do a limited survey of the situation

We know that, even if the U.S. has failed to topple Bashar Al Assad from power—which it has, due to Russia’s military support of Syria and the absence of a significant in-country U.S. ground force—and install a more Israeli- and Western business-friendly puppet government, their backup plan has been to destabilize the country enough that it can be partitioned into innocuous little statelets. This is where the Kurds come in. Over the past several decades, the U.S. has used Kurdish desire for geographical autonomy by dangling that possibility in front of Kurdish militia groups with the quid pro quo that they fight on behalf of U.S. empire interests in the region. The George H.W. Bush administration did this most famously in the 1st Iraq invasion of 1990-91, though never delivering once all was said and done.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have used the Kurds similarly in Syria. It’s been a great play for the empire. For one, the Kurds have proved instrumental to U.S. interests in fighting ISIS in the northern Turkish border areas of Syria. But this was more than likely a cover for partition because, as the Kurds fought ISIS (with U.S. soldier and air support), from the Pentagon perspective, they also did the more important work of fighting the Syrian Army and helping capture a whole swath of Syrian territory. And not just any Syrian territory. This happens to be an area of the country with significant water, agricultural and oil resources that Syria very much needs. What a wonderful outcome for a backup plan! The Kurds get a U.S.-protected homeland, Syria is weakened through the loss of important national territory (a de facto partition), and Western energy companies get a shot at those oil fields—and maybe a larger pipeline in the future.

The hiccup in this plan has been Turkey, a major regional power that has been oppressing its own Kurdish minority for years and absolutely will not accept an independent Kurdistan on its borders. In fact, after some limited incursions into Afrin and other areas of northern Syria, Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Erdogan, has for some time been threatening a full-scale invasion of the region to massacre the Kurds ensconced there. Turkey has a powerful military. They could not only wipe out the Kurds and inflict real casualties on U.S. forces, but they could also credibly take on the Syrian Army, which for obvious reasons wants that territory back. Such a conflict could then drag Turkey’s frenemy and Syria’s savior/ally, Russia, into the fray and spark a larger war.

From the Trump administration’s perspective, this would be a shitty outcome and would definitely ruin the partition backup plan. An all-out war would cause the U.S. to lose control of the Kurdish-occupied territory—which it engineered—and create chaos enormous enough to make the exploitation of Syria’s resources impossible for Western energy companies.

So, it looks like the empire is screwed, right?

Aha, but wait my friends. Trump is all about “the art of the deal”, remember? Here’s what I’m getting at. On Twitter this week, Grayzone Project and Real News reporter Ben Norton alerted me to a very interesting development that’s been making the indy media rounds. Just as Trump was announcing the supposed Syria withdrawal, he also sold a multi-billion dollar missile system to Turkey—a sale completed after a major diplomatic phone conversation with Erdogan. Click To Tweet

Do you see what’s happening here? Trump is a master of the pivot. In the past, with every failed real estate project he’s always found a way to avoid insolvency by bribing judges, stiffing contractors, laundering money for foreign oligarchs, using bankruptcy law to his advantage, etc. He has the perfect mindset to dig the empire out of its hole. Sell missiles to Turkey (while defense companies say thanks), pull U.S. soldiers out of northern Syria (America-first Trump loyalists say thanks), leave the Kurds to be slaughtered, and let Turkey invade with the most devastating weapons available. While remaining U.S. military assets hunker down in other parts of the country, they can sit back and watch as Turkey occupies an important swath of Syria, thus denying the resource-rich territory to Assad, maintaining the de facto partition of the country and daring Russia and the Syrian Army to do something about it.

This is highly imaginative and evil. While simple-minded empire lovers in the corporate media and dull war hawks like James Mattis misunderstand what’s taking place and go apoplectic, Trump manages to keep the empire engaged in destabilizing Syria, make big bucks for his donors and look good to his supporters all at the same time. Whether they realize it or not, he just did the Military Industrial Congressional Media Complex—and his own reelection prospects—a huge solid.

What this means for citizens who genuinely want a peaceful world is to always be extra careful and extra vigilant when you hear about any empire’s—particularly a troubled empire—moves to disengage from a military quest. Read that fine print and never forget, empires are like the Terminator. They absolutely will not quit— not until they’re drowned in molten lead by Linda Hamilton. And that simply hasn’t happened yet.

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Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal's current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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