I had the opportunity to ask Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador to Syria, for his views on the Trump flip flop foreign policy in Syria.
1. President Assad described Trump as transparent and for the first time we see a US President blatantly admitting that the war in Syria is an oil jihad. How accurate is this concept? Is Trump really after the oil particularly when experts say that Syria is not particularly oil-rich? Is this an effort by Trump to appease the neoconservative vultures in the US administration after his attempt to withdraw from Syria (again)?
Peter: I think Trump was shooting a line when he suggested the US might develop and use Syria’s oil, the purpose being to justify to his bewildered anti-foreign entanglements base his embarrassing partial reversal of the leave Syria order. Much as he might indeed like to plunder Syria’s oil, I think that what happened was that yet again when facing a backlash over attempting to withdraw, Trump leapt at the alibi offered to him by the war hawks: that the key thing was to deny Syria the oil for reconstruction and at the same time carry on using smuggled oil, as now, to fund the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF).
He may however have created a new problem for himself because in the situation created by US withdrawal from the Turkish border area the Syrian government now holds a number of levers over the SDF, which may soon no longer be able to act as puppets of the US.
2. The comedic Baghdadi operation seems to shoot the ISIS excuse in the foot – at least in Trump’s relatively simplistic logic. By cutting the head off the snake (allegedly) is Trump signalling that there is no need to stay in Syria or will the “ISIS ideology wont die” narrative now be employed? Is this more of Trump battling the deep state tactics?
Peter: As so often with Trump, I think his near psychotic obsession with showing he could do better than Obama explains the Baghdadi caper. I don’t see anything deeper to it than that. Yes, it does make it a little easier for him to withdraw from Syria because ISIS has now lost its leader as well as its territory; but at the same time Trump has to undermine his own argument by using the ISIS bogy to justify ‘securing’ the oil. If you look for coherence in US policy you will go mad. There is none.
3. We appear to be seeing a superior display of statesmanship, diplomacy from Russia and Damascus which has tied the US and NATO members like Turkey in knots, tripping over their own narratives and stumbling into their own lies. To what extent will this genuinely lead to peace and the return of Syria’s sovereign territory to its rightful owners? Is Trump in on the deal or is he a loose cannon? Are Russia and Damascus (Iran) factoring in the Trump effect?
Peter: Damascus and Moscow certainly come out ahead in the recent flurry of activity over the on-off US pullout from Syria. They will need to act prudently however for Trump’s gift not to turn into a poisoned chalice. First of all, the new situation carries with it the risk of armed conflict between Kurds and government, which has been hitherto avoided, helped by the absence of government security forces. There is bound to be friction. The new situation being fluid and unclear also carries with it the risk of armed conflict with US forces. Washington hawks will be looking to exploit any excuse to bomb their Syrian ‘enemy,’ as Trump calls a country which has never lifted a finger against the US.
In the wider scheme of things the partial US pullout surely hastens the endgame in Syria. The momentum is now even more with the Syrian government following its string of territorial successes. However before it can profit from that momentum the Syrian government has to deal with a distraction it was probably not expecting this early: guarding the border with Turkey and reasserting some control over other areas of Al Jazira (as Syrians call the North East). For armed forces whose Achilles heel is manpower that is going to be a stretch likely to delay any attempt to tackle the jihadis in Idlib. It is surely no accident that those jihadis have chosen this moment to launch a counter-attack in Lattakia province.
The hope has to be that the Russians, riding that same momentum, can prevail on the Turks to give up Idlib, perhaps allowing them to retain the far North for the forseeable future and decant there some of the Syrian refugees who are becoming such an issue in Turkish politics. God forbid that this area should become another Alexandretta (Iskenderun), the sliver of land France illegally ceded to Turkey when it held the mandate for Syria.
Under this scenario the US can go on holding its enclaves in the Jazira and Al Tanf until it becomes clear even in Washington that they are irrelevant. Before that happens however it is entirely possible that these enclaves will become safe havens for an ISIS rebranded as guardians of the US occupiers. The (Sunni Arab) element of the SDF which operates in these areas is already being described as ‘SDF by day, ISIS by night’. And why would ISIS bite the hand that feeds?
4. What will the Israeli response be to the loss of their prize in the north-east?
Peter: I doubt that Israel is reconciled yet to the loss of its Kurdish allies. Israel was no doubt instrumental in causing Trump to partially backtrack and it will not lack for opportunities for mischief-making in the new messy situation.