Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

Many Ugly Lessons from the U.S. Departure from Syria

| Dec. 19, 2018

NEW YORK — The United States’ announcement that its troops will leave Syria as soon as possible marks one more important stage in the recent evolution of strategic and diplomatic moves across the Middle East — anchored in Syria, of course, as many such moves have been for most of the past century, and much of the last four millennia before that. This episode is worth pondering by those who wonder why and how things happen in the Middle East, and how foreign powers should interact with our societies, countries, and political power centers.

The short-term focus on the Trump administration’s incoherent and erratic conduct of foreign policy is deservedly a short-term issue. It will give people more reasons to fear a continuation of this administration and seek ways to end it or blunt its power, as the mid-term congressional elections have already done. The White House, Congress, and the Defense and State departments all seem to be saying or leaking slightly different things about why the U.S. is leaving Syria. This continues a legacy of inconsistent American behavior there during the past eight years of the uprising and war in the country. It badly cripples and makes fools of those American officials, especially the special envoy to Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, who have been saying for months that Washington will stay in Syria for as long as needed to drive out Iran — a patently ridiculous and unattainable policy for anyone who knows anything about anything east of the East River in New York City. Ambassador Jeffrey and others have served their country diligently for years, but end up deeply tarnished because of the wider incoherence of their elected masters in the White House. This makes it difficult for any American foreign service officers to try and do an honorable job, if their words cannot be believed, which is in fact often the case these days.

But this is a short-term problem reflecting the comic, mercantile, and sophomoric nature of the Trump administration. The deeper significance of the U.S pullout relates to the modern legacy of U.S. policy in the Middle East, which includes a truly monumental and frightening combination of at least the following dynamics: faulty analysis, cultural ignorance, political manipulation by domestic and foreign forces, over-reliance on military force, excessive protection of Arab and other Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, inattention to powerful indigenous forces of identity, religion, nationalism, dignity, and other intangibles, creating, using, and abandoning allies of convenience in the region who often suffer terrible fates when the U.S. tires of them and leaves, an almost absolute ignoring of the wishes, rights, and concerns of the 750 million or so Muslim-majority citizens of Turkey, Iran and the Arab states (of whom 400 million are Arabs), a total misreading of the region’s widespread parallel respect for American values and disdain for America policies by ordinary citizens and elites alike, and chronic confusion about why ordinary men and women become violent and a few of them become terrorists.

This breathtaking legacy of ignorance, incompetence, and militarism allows President Trump to add to the long lexicon of American absurdities in the Middle East that he is pulling out the troops because “we have defeated ISIS” in Syria. He betrays the simultaneous and dangerous reality that he understands nothing about the real meaning of defeat, Syria, and ISIS. The truth is that ISIS and others like it emerge from stressed, fractured societies where tens of millions of desperate men and women grasp on to any group that promises them $150 a month, the dignity of resistance (as they see it) against what oppresses them, or salvation seated next to God. The conditions created by the list of policy misdeeds I mentioned above are the core creators of such terrorist movements, which will thrive where conditions remain troubling for ordinary families.

The widespread reaction in the region and the world will be that the U.S. is not a reliable ally, and can easily be driven out of foreign lands where it has sent its impressive military machine that is deployed by unimpressive, often ignorant, uncaring, and chaos-generating politicians. We will now all watch — once again — as Russia, China, Turkey, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and many others at local level take advantage of the vacuums and openings the U.S leaves behind in the wake of its politically misguided military deployments in the Middle East, in the wider context of a region deep in metamorphosis into new ideological and state configurations in large part because of the older legacy of such manipulations, interventions, and aggressions in the region by foreign powers, including Zionism/Israel in the past century.

At the same time the Arab authoritarian regimes will try to move closer to their traditional allies — the U.S., Israel, Iran, and others — to dampen the turbulence that will inevitably surface soon, as our region continues to suffer growing poverty and vulnerability (which now define two-thirds of our Arab population) amidst expanding inequalities and chronic disparities in basic human services and needs. This is not due to what the U.S. is doing in Syria today, to be sure. But it is a consequence of what the U.S., other powers, and virtually all local power elites have done in the region for the past century. To miss that connection is to make today’s violence a kindergarten exercise in the face of what we should expect in the near future if current trends continue, whether via foreign armies, adjacent colonizers of our lands, bone saw-wielding rulers, or just greedy ruling elites who expect their growing armies to keep them safe.

The impulsive Trump pullout from Syria — which is a logical move, because the U.S. never should have been there in the first place — is noteworthy because it reminds us of all the bad and destructive policies that Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Israelis, Russians, British, French and many others have practiced in our lands for so many decades, if not centuries and millennia. Watch what happens now as local, regional, and global forces jockey for influence and territory in Syria, while some of them return home on troop ships waving the embarrassing banners of ridiculous missions they never should have been sent to pursue. You will learn much from this, especially how Arab societies have become a global laboratory for imperial mismanagement, indigenous failed authoritarianism, and the two parties’ ongoing joint venture in garbage governance and denied humanism.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist in Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2018 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Many Ugly Lessons from the U.S. Departure from Syria.” Agence Global, December 19, 2018.