By Owei Lakemfa
AMERICAN President, Donald Trump was four when the Korean War broke out in 1950. In three years, the war sucked in more than 40 countries, most, under the United Nations, UN, banner. Two and a half million people died in the war. America suffered 36,568 dead and 103,284 injured. All the countries returned home except America which today, maintains 23,468 combatants in Korea. This is 68 years later.
This might have informed Trump’s thinking when on December 19 he announced his administration is pulling out American troops from Syria. He did a second announcement next day, that he is recalling half of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, with the hint of disentangling his country from that country. Seen as a war monger with a fixation for the gun and a commitment to promoting arms sales locally and internationally, Trump’s announcement shocked not a few. Yet, his moves are commonsensical because both conflicts are unwinnable wars for America.
In protest, American Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis resigned. Even some members of Congress who should have been concerned that the chamber never approved the war in Syria, were up in arms against Trump. The Syrian conflict is an unjust war because it is essentially an attempt by America and some of its Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to force regime change. For the Arab states, they want to remove Syria from the perceived control of Iran and its Shiite brand of Islam and bring it under majority Sunni control.
I laugh when I read analysis claiming the Assad government in Syria is a dictatorship and the struggle is for a democratic system. How can the monarchical dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates claim to be forces of democracy in Syria which, at least holds elections and runs a secular system? For America, the problem with Assad is that it is in the orbit of its perceived rivals; Russia and Iran.
By the time the so-called pro-democracy protests broke out in Homs, America and its allies had already created and were training a Sunni Muslim militia, the Islamic State, ISIS, which along with another terrorist outfit, the al-Nusra Front were activated to militarily wrest power in Syria. In 2012, then Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, Director, David .H. Petraeus produced a programme to train and arm 15,000 rebels within three years to overthrow Assad. Over $1 billion was spent on this programme code named Timber Sycamore.
But the fighters trained in Jordan, and their arms were mainly divided between ISIS and the al-Nusra terrorists affiliated to al-Qaeda. It was not until July, 2017 following the promptings of CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, that Trump cancelled Operation Timber Sycamore. Today, ISIS has mutated into an international movement with affiliates operating in Libya, Yemen, Mali, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
I am not sure any serious person would have expected the Assad government to have simply handed over the country to ISIS and its masters. The Syrian conflict is a proxy war involving the Gulf States, America, France, Israel, Russia, Iran and Turkey with Syria being destroyed and producing 6.3 million refugees. It is also a war in which the United Nations did not give any approval for intervention.
That is why there were strenuous efforts to sell stories of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government to legitimise foreign intervention. Perhaps, given the Iraqi experience when stories of the Sadam government being in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, were manufactured and used to legitimise foreign intervention, the UN wanted concrete proof, which were not provided.
The Syrian War is one in which the Assad forces have emerged clear winners; so by deciding on a speedy withdrawal, all Trump is doing, is acknowledge this, and seek to cut the losses of his country. There are those who argue that an American withdrawal will give room for ISIS to regroup; I ask, was the basis of the American invasion to check ISIS? No, it was not. In fact, one of the objectives of America in 2014, was to give ISIS and al-Nusra air cover against the Syrian government to overrun the country. Had it gone through with its bizarre plans, the Obama administration would have handed ISIS its first country to run.
There are also those who argue that America should maintain its invasion of Syria until ISIS is defeated. Such analysts fail to understand that ISIS is a guerrilla movement not a regular army. So defeating it may take another decade or more. If this is a true objective, then it is better that America supports the Syrian and Iraqi forces to defeat ISIS in the region.
A major challenge of the Trump decision to withdraw from Syria is the fate of the Kurds who are a minority in five countries. They had fought on the American side against ISIS, but with the planned American withdrawal, their existence is threatened by Turkey which sees them as terrorists. In the pre-war era, like other minorities in Syria including Christians, they faced no immediate threat; the threat came from ISIS and other terrorist groups. Given its wider geo-political interests in the region, America would not want to antagonise Turkey, and may view the Kurds as collateral damage.
I am not even sure if America reaches an understanding with Turkey on the Kurds, the Turks can be trusted. Yet, the Kurds hold Syrian territory which they cannot defend. It might be better for the Kurds to reach an agreement with Syria, which despite its alliance with the anti-Kurd Iranians, is likely to defend them as it does other minorities in the country. It is no easy solution, but I think humanity should concern itself with finding a permanent solution to the Kurdish Question which is a colonial creation.
As for Afghanistan, the Obama and Trump administrations had long ago, reached a conclusion that it was in their country’s interest to withdraw. Local pressures forced Obama to reverse himself; the same pressures had forced Trump to reverse himself, only for him to make this surprise announcement. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America had led 31 other countries to invade Afghanistan which was host to the al Qaeda leadership. Afghanistan has lost over 110,000 lives, mostly civilians and America has lost 2,280 soldiers. Many Afghans still consider the Taliban as patriots and the new 350,000 strong new American-trained Afghan military as an alien force. Victory is not in sight and the Afghan society wants a negotiated settlement. It makes sense for this to be encouraged which will lead to the exit of all foreign troops and checking ISIS before it gains a formidable foothold in the country. On Syria and Afghanistan, Trump is on the right path.