While Trump claimed US troops will leave Syria in 30 days, his neoconservative national security adviser John Bolton suggested otherwise, imposing conditions for withdrawal. Journalist Patrick Cockburn says mainstream corporate media reporting has been misleading and “childish.”
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
The Donald Trump administration appears to once again be backtracking on one of its major promises. Now it appears that the United States may not soon be withdrawing its troops from Syria. There are currently around 2000 U.S. troops that are occupying Syrian territory in violation of international law. And in December, President Trump surprisingly announced that he would be withdrawing those troops and bringing them home within 30 days. This ignited a political firestorm with pro-war critics from both the Republican and the Democratic Parties condemning Trump for this decision, and even portraying it as part of a Russian government-backed conspiracy. But Trump’s neoconservative national security adviser John Bolton is now suggesting a major backtrack on this promise.
On Saturday, January 6, Bolton gave the following speech in Israel.
JOHN BOLTON: We’re going to be discussing the President’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again, and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured. And to take care of those who have fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups.
BEN NORTON: That was John Bolton, Trump’s neoconservative national security adviser speaking in Israel. President Trump himself claims that his policy has not changed, and that he still plans on withdrawing U.S. troops. But Bolton’s statement appears to contradict this, and suggests that even if troops are going to be withdrawn it’s not going to happen within the 30-day window that Trump suggested.
Well, joining us to unpack all of this is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning journalist and a longtime veteran correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He is also the author of several books on Middle East politics. His most recent is The Age of Jihad. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: So, Patrick, let’s unpack what John Bolton said in Israel. Bolton gave a few conditions for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Syria. First he mentioned preventing a Turkish attack on the Kurdish forces led by the YPG and the SDF. And we will talk about the politics of that, of course. Bolton also suggested that ISIS has not yet militarily defeated, and that U.S. troops must stay for that. And elsewhere in his speech he suggested that the U.S. must weaken Iran and prevent Iran from gaining influence inside Syria. And in fact, on Monday, January 7, John Bolton and also the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford traveled to Turkey to the capital Ankara to meet with Turkish officials to work out a deal. So it seems pretty clear that the 30-day window is not going to be met. Can you respond to this news in John Bolton’s speech?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yep. I mean, it’s sort of–I think what is missing in the way that people respond to this is not quite taking on board how fragile the U.S. position is in north, east Syria, even before Trump announced the withdrawal. In some ways what Trump was saying was pretty realistic. You have a couple of thousand U.S. troops there. What makes them significant is they’re backed by U.S. airpower. But you know, people talk about the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria, but actually half population is Arab. The population there is about 2 million, bit over 2 million, and about half that is Arab. They don’t get on with the Kurds. So there’s a sort of sense that there might be an uprising. It’s very tribal Arab society. That might be an uprising there.
Then, of course, the Turks are on the border. And when Trump made his original statement on the 19th of December about a withdrawal, the Kurds immediately reopened talks with Damascus. Because they may not like the Syrian government that much, but they are truly terrified of Turkey, which would simply probably drive them out of their cities in the north of–in northeast Syria. So they’ve talked to the Syrians, and they’d like to get the Syrian army in between them and Turkey.
So we already have a situation of massive confusion at the moment, because both the U.S. is saying now that it wants a deal to protect the Kurds, but the Kurds don’t believe them, so they’ve gone to the Syrian government, which the U.S. is theoretically trying to overthrow, and will look to get Syrian troops up on the border with Turkey. The Turks, meanwhile, sense that the Americans, you know, are going to go at some point. And Erdogan, President Erdogan, he’s very much committed to removing the Kurdish YPG, that’s the Kurdish army, in northeast Syria. So I don’t think–he’s not going to let this go. The pressure from Turkey is going to continue.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. Bolton mentioned two other factors: The complete military defeat of ISIS, and also preventing Iran’s influence in Syria. I’m wondering if you can respond to those points, especially considering that for several months now ISIS has not actually controlled any physical territory. There are still at least several hundred, perhaps over a thousand ISIS fighters remaining, but they don’t actually hold territory. But the U.S. is still using that, at least elements of the generals and John Bolton are using that, as a reason to continue the U.S. military occupation.
PATRICK COCKBURN: This is kind of an excuse, you know, saying the Islamic State is not defeated. But look, you know, in 2015 the Islamic State really had territory that stretched from Baghdad almost to the Mediterranean. You know, it was a very big area. They controlled a population of around five or six million. Now they’re down to one sort of half-ruined town Hajin, which is just to the east of the Euphrates. So you know, in the broadest sense, it has been defeated. It could, of course, go on being a guerrilla force and so forth. It’s very unlikely that ISIS is ever going to run up the white flag. They’re not that sort of people. So that could be a justification for staying forever. But you know, basically ISIS is defeated compared to what it was three years ago.
BEN NORTON: And then can you respond to Bolton’s insistence that Iran must be contained? Of course, Syria is a close ally of Iran. And Bolton–who, ironically, supported the Iraq war staunchly, which actually further empowered Iran by providing a neighboring country that is much more closely allied to Iran–he has continued to insist that Iran must be prevented from any influence in Syria.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah. Again, this is something which just isn’t going to happen. Iran and Syria have had an alliance, pretty close alliance, since 1979. This goes back a long time. You know, how are they–what is the U.S. going to do about it? You know, it’s not that you have lots of Iranian tanks and military positions in Syria. They’re kind of influential in Syria because they’re, you know, they’re the long-term ally of Syria. But they don’t have substantial forces there. In fact, there are rather less than what they had before 2015, when the Russians started air attacks on the Syrian armed opposition.
So you know, this is kind of wishful thinking, or it’s an excuse to stay a long time. But as I said earlier, you know, in such an unstable place it’s doubtful how long the U.S. could really stay. You know, in many ways Trump has a better grip on what’s happening there than Bolton has.
BEN NORTON: That’s interesting. And finally, I’m wondering if you can respond to some of the mainstream U.S. media coverage of this, because it’s been pretty shocking to see how some major corporate networks have been portraying this decision. In fact, I’m going to play a clip here from MSNBC in which they’re interviewing a hardline right-wing New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who also, of course, was a cheerleader for the Iraq war. Here’s the clip.
BRET STEPHENS: They’re uncorking the vodka in Moscow. They would be uncorking spirits in Tehran, if they did. They don’t. But they are celebrating in Tehran. I said yesterday this should be called MAGA, Make Assad Great Again. We have made it possible for him to consolidate his rule of terror and tyranny throughout Syria. The other person who’s celebrating, I would add, is the Turkish president for life, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has just handed a gift to Israel’s enemy, to the enemies of every single American ally in the United States. It’s an inexplicable decision unless you believe that someone is handing Trump his marching orders when it comes to Vladmir–when it comes to, when it comes to the Middle East.
BEN NORTON: So, Patrick, I’m wondering if you can respond to this claim from a leading New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens. You know, hardline neoconservative. He claims that the U.S. withdraw will benefit, incredibly, Russia, and the Syrian government, and Iran, and Turkey. Of course, it goes without saying that the Syrian government and Turkey have been fighting an indirect proxy war for years now, and Russia and Turkey are not entirely on the same page in Syria, though they have had a kind of rapprochement. Can you respond to what Bret Stephens said?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it’s really pretty childish. It doesn’t–you know, it’s unrealistic, to say the least. I mean, these are all the powers in the area. If all those powers benefit from this, if all these powers are opposed to the U.S., that’s another reason the U.S. should get out. But you know, for the Russians, yeah, quite good if the Americans get out. They want to build up the Syrian state. Assad has already won. You know, this is true a long time ago.
Another point is that if you really want to get rid of ISIS, you have to allow the Syrian state to be rebuilt. You don’t want vacuums to develop. ISIS has been hoping it will be these sort of splits and so forth, but once a centralized Syrian state is reestablished, then I think you’ll see the end of ISIS. And that sort of pretty well happened already. I mean, there are three enclaves in northern Syria. At Idlib further west is a Turkish-dominated area. But on the ground it’s al Qaeda who hold authority. And you have an enclave in the southeast, which the U.S. is protecting.
You know, these are sort of–Assad is going to stay. Iranian influence is not going to go down. The Russians are already in a strong position. It’s not going to change that very much. You know, these sort of childish conspiracy theories are really very depressing, because they show the people that should know better in the U.S. have no grip on what’s actually happening on the ground in Syria.
BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our discussion there. We were speaking with Patrick Cockburn, who is an award-winning journalist and a veteran foreign correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He is the author of several books. His most recent is The Age of Jihad. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.