Donald Trump’s visit this week to US forces in Iraq has to be seen as a highly peculiar move. Following his announcement to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, which caused a split with senior Pentagon figures, it seems that Trump was making a desperate bid to reassure the military establishment. Perhaps even to forestall a feared coup against his presidency.
For nearly two years since his election, President Trump had not visited US troops in any active combat zone, unlike all his predecessors in the White House. His apparent indifference to overseas forces had engendered much consternation from political opponents and the media. In a recent editorial, the New York Times admonished: “Put Down the Golf Clubs, Visit the Troops”.
Recall, too, the US media scorn heaped on Trump when, during his trip to France in November to mark the centennial end of World War One, he declined to pay his respects at an American war cemetery “because it was raining”.
Trump is therefore not the sort of person to put himself in discomfort for others. That’s why it seems all the stranger that on Christmas Night, December 25, the president and his wife Melania left the comfort of the White House, and boarded Air Force One for a 6,000-kilometer overnight flight to Iraq.
The journey to Iraq was variously described in US media as a surprise and “shrouded in secrecy”. So secret indeed that the Iraqi government was not even informed in advance of Trump’s arrival. A hastily proposed meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi did not take place because the Iraqis were only given a couple hours notice when the US president landed.
In total, Trump and his delegation spent only three hours in Iraq and a reported 15 minutes talking to troops at Al-Asad Air Base, near the capital Baghdad. The president then flew back to Washington, making a brief refueling stop in Germany. Talk about a whirlwind spin halfway around the globe – and for what?
What this all suggests is that Trump’s visit was a hasty, ad hoc event that appears to have been done on the spur of the moment, in reaction to the news cycle over the past week.
As the New York Times put it: “The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came… less than a week after Mr Trump disrupted the military status quo and infuriated even some of his political allies by announcing plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half from Afghanistan. The president’s decision on Syria led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.”
Mattis’ resignation, followed by that of another senior Pentagon official, Brett McGurk, showed that there was serious pushback from the military establishment to Trump’s pullout order from Syria and Afghanistan.
Not only that but Trump’s political opponents within his own Republican party and the Democrats were given extensive media coverage for their protests against his order.
As CNN reported: “James Mattis’ resignation triggered an outpouring of anxiety and anger”.
Senators were lining up to condemn Trump for losing “the adult in the room” and a “voice of stability”. Mattis was hailed as “a national treasure” and praised for his “moral compass”. The eulogizing hardly squares with Mattis’ record of war crimes committed while serving as a Marines Corp general during the siege of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, nor his psychopathic humor extolling the “fun of shooting people”.
Not for the first time, Trump was being denounced as a “traitor” by political enemies in Washington and the media. It was reminiscent of the way he was vilified after holding a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year. Trump was again accused of “giving a gift to Putin” with his plan to withdraw US troops from Syria.
This time around, however, the political atmosphere was even more seditious.
By ignoring national security advisors and “the generals” over his Syria and Afghanistan announcements, Trump had crossed swords with the military-intelligence establishment. There was also a strong sense that the usual anti-Trump media were seizing on the opportunity to whip up Pentagon dissent against the president by lionizing Mattis as a “great leader” and whose absence would sap morale in the ranks.
The brooding political and military climate in Washington over Trump’s singlehanded decision-making may be the explanation for why the notorious couch-potato president felt compelled to get off his backside and head to Iraq in the middle of the night – on Christmas Night too.
Donning a bomber jacket and sounding jingoistic, Trump seemed to be grandstanding for militarism while in Iraq. “We like winning against terrorists, right,” he crowed to the troops. “We’re no longer the suckers of the world.”
Significantly, Trump added a new dimension to his pullout plan for Syria and Afghanistan. He pledged that US troops were not leaving Iraq – despite nearly 16 years being there after GW Bush first invaded the country in 2003. He also said that American forces would launch strikes into Syria from Iraq in the future, if and when needed. Presumably, this rapid-reaction force applies to all other Middle Eastern countries.
In other words, Trump is not signaling a peaceful scaling back of US militarism in the region, as some of his critics and supporters have perceived. Trump is simply rationalizing American imperialist power, making it leaner and meaner, to be operated out of stronghold bases like Iraq. Notice how the Iraqi government was not consulted on this Neo-colonial plan, which speaks of Washington’s arrogant hegemony, regardless of who resides in the White House.
Trump’s rushed visit to Iraq seems to have been made in an urgent attempt to let the Pentagon and the military-intelligence establishment know that he is not “going soft” on pursuing America’s self-ordained right to wage wars anywhere it wants for the cause of US capitalism.
In the immediate confusion over Trump’s announcement on December 19 of a troop drawdown in Syria and Afghanistan – and the media deification of “Mad Dog” Mattis – a dangerous period fleetingly opened up for his presidency.
Running scared, Trump dashed to Iraq to let the generals know that this president is still a reliable tool for American imperialism.
Finian Cunningham has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent.
This article was originally published by “Strategic Culture Foundation ” –
It is not only many members of the US establishment who have labeled President Trump’s order to withdraw America’s forces (2,200 troops) from Syria as a betrayal, but also the allies of the United States. They claim that Trump is throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus and leaving Israel in a state of “strategic isolation.” Also coming in for criticism is the statement by the US administration (the first of its kind) announcing that it has no plans to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
It may turn out to be Syria’s Kurds (who number about two million) who will face the most dramatic consequences of the president’s decision, for it was they who created the de facto autonomous state of Rojava in northeastern Syria with the Americans’ support. Now Rojava’s very existence is under threat.
Ankara has already stated that it has not given up on its plan for “an offensive against the terrorists” in eastern Syria, but has merely put it on hold for a while (i.e., until the Americans have left). Officially, this has been prompted by the fact that Turkey intends to take over for the US and finish off the remnants of the “Islamic State” (IS) — something over which Trump and Erdoğan have supposedly already reached an explicit agreement. The leader in the White House has already tweeted that this is so. Turkey’s foreign affairs minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, issued the same confirmation on Dec. 21. If left to its own devices, the Syrian government army could handle a few stray IS units even without the Turks, but Ankara isn’t particularly interested in IS. Turkey needs to wipe Rojava off the map.
According to Çavuşoğlu, the vacuum that will be left after the US troops pull out “can be filled by terrorist organizations,” so Turkey is ready to exert control over those territories (which, as a reminder, are Syrian).
Faced with the dilemma over whether to favor as an ally the mythical state of Rojava or Turkey, the leader in the White House did not hesitate to choose the latter. Although the American troops are slated to leave Syria within 60 to 100 days, the State Department advisors who are helping to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure in northeastern Syria are being pulled out within a matter of days. Brett McGurk, the chief advisor and special presidential envoy in Syria — a man whom the Kurds practically viewed as the architect of their statehood — is openly irate. McGurk, who saw himself as a new version of Lawrence of Arabia, accused the White House of “abandoning the US allies in the region.” However, he himself bears much of the responsibility for the chaos there. It was none other than McGurk who was the primary author of the new Iraqi constitution that plunged that country into the abyss of civil war. And he also wooed the Syrian Kurds on behalf of the US, by dangling promises of their own statehood, which never materialized.
The command of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces has already issued a statement condemning the US decision and proclaiming its determination to continue the fight. Kurdish leaders are less concerned with the Americans’ departure than with the deal the Americans reached with the Turks behind the Kurds’ backs. Their statement calls out Turkey’s intentions to take aggressive action against Rojava, in addition to Ankara’s “dirty plans and games.” The Kurds feel that by simultaneously announcing both the withdrawal of their troops as well as the sale of the Patriot missile-defense system to Turkey, the US has green-lighted the plans for a “Turkish occupation” of their territory. However, for some reason they are requesting protection from the UN, although Rojava is legally within the borders of the Syrian state and thus that kind of conversation needs to be held with Damascus.
What awaits Rojava? The only thing that can save it would be the recognition of the sovereignty of Damascus within its borders. If Syrian government troops enter Rojava, the Turks will not risk seriously damaging their relationship with Russia in order to launch an offensive. Nor do they even need northeastern Syria, as they only need assurances that there will be no further moves to create a Kurdish quasi-state and thus no threats to Turkey’s stability. Damascus and Moscow are ready to provide this. Russian representatives have always expressed their readiness to work with Damascus in order to safeguard the national rights of the Syrian Kurds in a mutually acceptable way. If the Kurds had been willing to move in this direction earlier, their negotiations with the Syrian government could have been conducted in a more favorable atmosphere. But better late than never. If the leaders in Rojava don’t find a way to reach a compromise with Damascus, the Syrian Kurds could be looking at a real calamity.