Analysis

From Syria to Iran, Trump Is Losing the Battle to End ‘Endless Wars’ in Middle East

As Trump defends his Syria withdrawal with increasingly outlandish statements, one blatantly false justification stands out

In this file photo taken on October 6, 2019 a US soldier sits atop an armoured vehicle during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against Turkish threats next to a base for the US-led international coalition on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border
Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump has spent the past week trying to justify his sudden and reportedly impulsive decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and clear the way for a Turkish invasion. He made one bizarre, bombastic statement after the other while primarily arguing that he was helping America by ending its involvement in an “endless war” in the Middle East.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl, while interviewing U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders Sunday, commented that Trump’s Syria policy actually sounds a lot like Sanders’ own anti-interventionist rhetoric.

Sanders shot back: “Yes, I know. But the difference between Trump and me is he lies; I don’t.” 

Of all Trump’s “justifications” for his Syria pullout, his insistence that he is keeping a campaign promise is the one that resonates most with some of his base. His 2016 vow to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” while getting America out of Middle Eastern wars — where the “U.S. looks so stupid” — helped win over the faction of the GOP that today is led by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson.

However, it is also one of the most easily debunked and demonstrably false statements Trump continues to make regarding Syria.

During his attempts to defend the decision, Trump went as far as to say the Americans’ Kurdish allies who helped fight ISIS — losing some 12,000 fighters in the process — were “no angels,” and that they didn’t help the United States in World War II. He even claimed that “the PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] are a greater threat than ISIS.”

The speed with which Trump pulled out U.S. troops from Syria is underscored by the fact that, just two days before the surprise announcement, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had insisted that U.S. troops were staying indefinitely to support the Kurds. As the United States hastily pulled its forces out of northeastern Syria this week, they bombed their own anti-ISIS headquarters as Turkish forces approached, in an apparent last-minute move.

Trump based his Syria pullout on his oft-repeated claim that ISIS has been defeated — despite his own generals and intelligence agencies warning of a resurgence and insisting that ISIS continues to operate there. As a presidential candidate, Trump promised to get the United States out of Syria, only to greatly increase the number of forces there.

In December 2016, ahead of his inauguration, there were officially only 279 American troops in Syria. But as of April 2018, there were some 2,000 U.S. troops in the country. 

Fox News’ Pentagon correspondent Lucas Tomlinson noted that, since May, the United States has increased its overall presence in the Middle East by some 14,000 servicemen and women. He added that “there are currently more than 60,000 U.S. troops deployed to various countries and aboard warships.” 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to the press on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington,  October 11, 2019.
AFP

And that number increased by 2,000 on October 11 when the Pentagon announced additional troop deployments to Saudi Arabia. As Trump was tweeting about “endless wars” in the Middle East, the Pentagon said it was sending Saudi Arabia two additional Patriot batteries and one THAAD anti-missile system in the wake of a devastating long-range attack on that country’s oil infrastructure — an attack attributed to sharply increasing tensions with Iran in the region, after Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal and slapped steep sanctions on Tehran.

The 2,000 troops, taken together with other deployments, “constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Not just Syria

Trump sparked a mini-controversy when he characterized U.S. troops as guns for hire. “We are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first,” he said on the White House Lawn, also on October 11.

Additionally, the United States is leading a new maritime coalition to protect the Persian Gulf against aggression on the world’s key oil artery. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group remain deployed in the region since Trump’s “cocked and loaded” non-bombing of Iran in June.

The initial proposal of the maritime coalition was met with concern by many of the U.S.’ European allies, who have been working to repair the nuclear deal with Iran. “This is not a coalition against Iran. ... If you were militarily confronting Iran, this is not the construct that you would use,” said Kathryn Wheelbarger, one of the most senior policy officials at the Pentagon, who briefed NATO allies on the proposal in July. Wheelbarger was responding to critics’ concerns that the move would ramp up military tensions instead of discouraging more attacks in the Gulf — which are still ongoing.

It’s not just because of Iranian and Saudi tensions that Trump is actually increasing and not decreasing U.S. involvement in the region. He is also ramping up U.S. military involvement in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.

As Vox’s Alex Ward points out, a recent report from U.S. Air Force Central Command shows a dramatic increase in airstrikes in Afghanistan — which have been responsible for mounting civilian deaths. The report details that this September was the month during which the United States launched the most airstrikes in Afghanistan in nearly a decade.

Despite Trump’s attempts at a peace plan with the Taliban, the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today is a higher number than when Trump entered the White House in 2017.

The United States has escalated airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters in Libya while that country is being torn apart by U.S.-backed allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is waging a proxy war with Turkey.  And the United States continues its “shadow war” in Somalia against terrorist groups there, with additional troops in hot spots like Nigeria. 

As a result of the U.S.’ growing foreign involvement and Trump’s promises to “rebuild” the dominant U.S. military, the Pentagon’s budget has continued to grow. The Pentagon is asking for $718 billion in 2020, a 5 percent increase from its financial allotment of $693 billion for the 2019 fiscal year. The Pentagon budget in 2016 — the last year of the Obama administration — was $534 billion, down from $555 billion in 2015

As of June 2019, the Department of Defense reported that it had 177,000 active duty personnel overseas — a number that doesn’t include Afghanistan deployments

Trump’s additional troop deployments to the Middle East and his abandonment of the Kurds underscore the concern that traditional U.S. allies in the region are becoming less likely to follow the U.S.’ lead and commit their own troops to American efforts.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, is now in open defiance of U.S. policy in the region and moving closer and closer to Russia. Turkey even went so far as to fire artillery near to U.S. troop positions in recent days, as they were pulling out of northeastern Syria. “I think this is a first — a country with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in it literally firing artillery at U.S. forces,” Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said last week

Additionally, the U.S. State and Energy Department was reportedly reviewing plans to evacuate the 50 American nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the Syrian border. Historically, that small nuclear arsenal was used as a deterrent against Russian aggression, while the air base was a key staging ground for U.S. air campaigns in the Middle East.

Turkey’s incursion into Syria has not only strained U.S.-Turkish ties to the point of crisis, but has resulted in the release of hundreds of Islamic State-linked prisoners and fueled growing concern of an ISIS resurgence in the Middle East — which Trump has brushed off as Europe’s problem. As a result, a House resolution on Wednesday not only calls on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cease his military operations, but urges the White House to “present a clear and specific plan for the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

All of which appears to mean that if — or when — ISIS comes back to Syria and Iraq, we can be all but certain that, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office after 2020, so will the U.S. armed forces.