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While corporate media portrayed Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria as a Christmas gift to Russia’s Putin, veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn says this is infantile and conspiratorial. NATO member Turkey stands to gain most, and could launch an attack on Kurdish forces in the northeast

Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.

In a shock to the world, President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. At least 2,000 U.S. troops have been on the ground in Syria, stationed in a dozen U.S. military bases largely in the northeast of the country. However, under international law, the U.S. military presence in Syria has been illegal. Former President Barack Obama infamously claimed there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, although he later sent troops. And the U.S. military presence was further expanded by Donald Trump in his first year in office.

Peace activists have for years called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and many responded to the news by applauding Trump’s surprise decision. However, many of Trump’s liberal opponents in the Democratic Party establishment, on the other hand, have portrayed this move as a dastardly conspiracy done on behalf of Russia. MSNBC’s response has really summarized a lot of the corporate media portrayal of this decision. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called it, quote: “an early Christmas present for Russian President Vladimir Putin.” He had on the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, who lamented the U.S. withdrawal. Here’s the clip.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: And who is celebrating more about their early Christmas present than Vladimir Putin and Russia? And they’ve said as much. This is a, this is a massive geopolitical win for Putin and Russia.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: It absolutely is, Joe. And you know, we’ve just gone through the season of firefight in California. And we’ve watched these massive, devastating blazes. What the president is doing is the functional equivalent.

BEN NORTON: And then, in an even more hawkish moment, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough complained that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will supposedly help Iran, and he called the decision a, quote, “foreign policy welfare for Vladimir Putin.”

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Iran. I thought Donald Trump saw the Iranians as an enemy. I mean, I thought that was almost the centerpiece of his foreign policy. This is massive news. Good news for the Iranians. And finally, who is happier about this than Vladimir Putin on the world stage? Absolutely nobody. This is a giveaway. This is foreign policy welfare for Vladimir Putin. He can’t even believe his luck–or, I’m sorry, maybe he can. Maybe this is connected to something that none of us know about.

BEN NORTON: So what Joe Scarborough and many corporate media reports in the U.S. have not mentioned in their reports is in fact that there is one country above all that will benefit most from Trump’s decision to withdraw. And that is NATO member Turkey, which has been considering a military attack on the region in northeast Syria.

Well, joining us to talk about what’s really happening on the ground is the award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from the Middle East for decades, and he’s the author of several books. Patrick also was recently on the ground reporting in Syria, and many of the areas we’re going to discuss today in the Northeast. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.


BEN NORTON: So can you respond to this historic news? Trump is withdrawing U.S. troops. And that’s actually quite surprising, because the Trump administration is full of many hawks, like John Bolton, who had called for essentially a kind of perpetual military occupation of the Northeast, ostensibly to counter Iran’s influence in the region. And now Trump is, surprisingly, withdrawing forces. Many corporate media outlets are portraying this as part of the larger Russiagate issue, where Trump is beholden to Russian interests. But in fact, one of the key countries that will benefit that is not getting scrutinized nearly enough is Turkey. What is your response?

PATRICK COCKBURN: The Turks benefit from this. It also shows, you know, that Turkey is really powerful in the region. You know, they’ve moved a lot of troops up to the border. They’d been threatening to come in anyway. I think, you know, portraying this as Russia being the big winner, this is pretty naive, or even childish, in many ways. It’s in Russia’s interests that the U.S. should stay in Syria in alliance with the Kurds, which means that the U.S. is probably confronting Turkey, whose main policy objective is to eliminate this Kurdish enclave. So if anything, you know, this is something which makes it easier for the administration to revive the old U.S. alliance with Turkey. And so it doesn’t necessarily work in Russia’s favor.

This is a very simpleminded view, that this benefits Russia. Turkey benefits because suddenly this whole area in northeast Syria becomes vulnerable to them. They’ve threatened to move in. They’ve talked about burying the Kurdish militants in ditches. And we know what happened earlier in the year in Afrin, another Kurdish enclave. You know, there was extreme ethnic cleansing. Almost half the Kurdish population was driven out, and hasn’t come back. They’ve been taken over by extreme Arab jihadis. So yeah, it’s very much in Turkey’s interests what’s happened. But it is not necessarily in Russia’s interests at all.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, Donald Trump himself, in fact, repeatedly tweeted this on December 20 in response to the news. You know, many media reports portrayed this as a gift to Russia and Iran. Trump pointed out that now Russia and Iran will be fighting ISIS on their own in Syria, and there are still elements of ISIS that are in the country. Thousands of fighters, although ISIS doesn’t control a territorial capital, as it had in the past. And what’s also interesting about this is that on the same day Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops on December 19, the U.S. State Department also cleared a $3.5 billion sale of air defense systems to Turkey. And in addition to that, a few journalists, mostly Kurdish and Turkish journalists, pointed out that Trump’s decision to withdraw came just two days, or a few days, after he had a phone call with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And just two days before that decision, Erdogan had, in fact, claimed that in the phone call Trump had agreed, had greenlighted, to a Turkish assault on northeast Syria. Turkey has been trying to get the U.S. to get approval to send Turkish troops and embedded jihadist rebels east of the Euphrates River. So do you think that this is essentially a kind of green light from Trump, saying to Erdogan go ahead and invade?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it kind of–it opens the door to that. Green light creates a picture of somebody saying, you know, go for it. Which is doubtful. But you withdraw the troops, Turkey has been threatening to intervene. Yeah, I think, you know, it may well amount to that.

I think that, you know, it’s easy to pillory what Trump said and did. You know, saying that the Islamic State will come back, ISIS will come back. But you know, this was a movement that once controlled territory really from Baghdad to almost to the Mediterranean. And you know, it just lost its last small town on the east of the Euphrates in eastern Syria. So you know, will it come back? Well, yeah, there will be more guerrilla warfare. But again, you know, what strikes me about a lot of the coverage is it’s kind of hysterical. It kind of–it is based on a sort of conspiratorial view of what Trump is up to, what his relations with the Russians are. You know, this stuff is so far from the reality of what’s actually happening on the ground in Syria, or in Iraq, for that matter. It’s very difficult to to discuss it or contradict it. But it’s just sort of off the wall.

BEN NORTON: And the question now up in the air is what will happen to the Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, specifically the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, which control this area in the northeast. For months now the YPG has, in fact, had kind of on and off relations with Damascus, the central government of Syria. They had brief negotiations and peace talks, and they made some–a few agreements. But it seems that the agreements didn’t go very far. It seems to me that this decision will encourage the YPG to seek further rapprochement and a kind of alliance with Damascus. So what do you think-

PATRICK COCKBURN: They’ll be desperate to do that right now, because they may not like Damascus very much, but they’d much prefer the Syrian government to the Turks. They’re really terrified of the Turks coming in. They’re threatened. They are terrified of ethnic cleansing. So they’ll go to Damascus.

Now, previously, because of the U.S. presence that inhibited them, stopped them doing that. And also the Russians didn’t want them to do that. So they’ll do that. But it’s it’s–you know, the Turkish army is pretty big, pretty strong. Even supposing the Syrian army came into this enclave it wouldn’t necessarily be able to stop the Turks. I mean, what’s happened is that, you know, if you go to that area, one, it’s not a great place for the Turks to fight against heavy armor and aircraft. It’s very flat, most of the east of the Euphrates. Not many mountains, or no mountains, and few hills. And also mostly about 2 million Kurds there. But a lot of them are in towns or cities along the Syrian-Turkish border. Often cities, when the frontier was drawn up between Syria and Turkey, it ran along the old railway line between Aleppo and Mosul. And so cities were cut in half. Kurdish cities were cut in half. So a lot of these the Kurds live within artillery range of the Turkish army/.

It’s important to talk about this, because if the Turks do come across, we could have a great wave of 2 million Kurds taking to the roads, desperate to get out, going to northern Iraq, going elsewhere. And there seems very little concern about this, and it’s kind of depressing to hear these sort of conspiracy theories about Russia when what is happening is that, you know, is in many ways pretty–you know, pretty simple, but pretty bad.

BEN NORTON: And then finally, Patrick, let’s just take a big look at what’s going on here. What do you think this will mean for the future of the war in Syria? The war has been going on since early 2011, and it looks like the conflict is really finally in its final stages. It might come to an end pretty soon. We’ve also seen, interestingly, negotiations between Iran, Russia, and Syria, and Turkey. And specifically, Iran, Turkey, and Russia have had these kinds of peace negotiations. They’ve had some developments, some breakthroughs, and then some obstacles. But the three of them, it seems like they have had many agreements, although there are some agreements that seem pretty intractable. And I think the question of Idlib, and now the question of the Northeast, seem to be two major obstacles that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have really different views on. So with this potentially the U.S. withdrawal, would this potentially accelerate a peace negotiation for the end of the war? Or could it potentially usher in a new phase of the war?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It could go either way. It’s very difficult to tell which way the ball will roll after this. Will the Turks come in directly, or will the Russians try to stop them? Will the Syrian government sort of take over the, do a deal with the Kurds and take over? You know, if the Turks do come in, what will happen to the Kurds in this area? You know, it’s about 50-50 Kurds and Arabs. And they–you know, the relations are very hostile. You know, there could be a lot of revenge killings in this area.

So you know, it’s difficult to say that. But I think a lot of this has to do with Trump wanting to get on better terms with Turkey. And if he does want to do anything against Iran, having better relations with Turkey is essential. But the actual having a U.S.–a Kurdish enclave supported by the U.S. in Turkey never really, you know, didn’t do any damage to the Russians, and didn’t do any damage to Iran. So I think the idea that this is, you know, Happy Christmas for Putin and slogans like that is really completely unrealistic.

BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were speaking with the award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, who has for decades been a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent, and he’s also the author of several books. Thanks so much for joining us, Patrick.


BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.

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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.