Confusion has been raised over the Trump administration’s apparent U-turns on Syria. In April, the official position was that Assad was a “political reality” that had to be dealt with, yet only weeks later officials were calling for him to step down. Now Trump is again stating that the US is not insisting on Assad’s departure.
The about-face seems confusing at first, but when combined with an examination of the sectors of power that the administration represents, as well as the actions that have been pursued on the ground, the reality becomes much clearer.
The Trump Establishment
Despite promises to “drain the swamp,” the Trump administration has turned out to be anything but anti-establishment. Instead, it represents one of the most wealthy, pro-corporate administrations in recent history, which includes a former Goldman Sachs executive heading the Treasury and the former CEO of Exxon Mobil as Secretary of State. While not anti-establishment, it does represent an insurgency from within the establishment, the coming to power of a radicalized and nationalistic element of the ruling elite which had historically been sidelined by more powerful sectors.
This faction has its roots in various business-funded right-wing movements, such as the John Birch Society and the Tea Party, which was heavily financed by the Koch brothers, who now hold extraordinary influence over Trump through their connections with Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director. It is heavily centered around the manufacturing industry and Big Oil, and has historically been antagonistic towards the more globally-oriented multinationals and financial institutions which dominated the Obama administration. They are characterized as well by an “undeniable element of racial resentment,” as investigative historians have documented.
Peter Dale Scott, the founder the study of “Deep State” politics, in 1996 described this power struggle within the establishment as “an enduring struggle between ‘America Firsters’ and ‘New world Order’ globalists, pitting, through nearly all of this [20th] century, the industry-oriented (e.g. the National Association of Manufacturers) against the financial-oriented (e.g. the Council on Foreign Relations), two different sources of wealth.”
Scott further describes the division, roughly speaking, as being “between those Trilateral Commission progressives, many flourishing from the new technologies of the global Internet, who wish the state to do more than at present about problems like wealth disparity, racial injustice and global warming, and those Heritage Foundation conservatives, many from finance and oil, who want it to do even less.” Decades later this conservative faction, now better funded and organized than before, has been revived through Trump, again taking up the banner of “America First!”
The sectors of industry represented in the administration therefore are not opposed to globalization and imperialism, but instead advocate for a different formulation of it which gives preference to certain industries while also further tipping the balance in favor of US corporations and banks.
Also prominently represented is the military industrial complex; the nexus of powerful weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, the influence of which is exemplified through the amount of power and discretion Trump has given to the Pentagon and the Defense Secretary. Historically the more financial-sector-oriented CIA, given prominence during the Obama administration, has maintained a bitter rivalry with the Big Oil-dominated Pentagon, which now has come to the fore under Trump.
The most prominent influence of Big Oil however is represented in Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was the former CEO of the Exxon Mobil.
Exxon and Tillerson have connections to the Russian government and President Putin, most prominently through a major deal that Exxon signed with Russia granting it access to vast resources in the Russian Arctic in return for allowing OAO Rosneft, the state-owned oil company, the opportunity to invest in Exxon’s overseas operations. A major factor influencing Trump’s conciliatory stance towards Russia therefore is the fact that the Exxon-Rosneft agreement was frozen in 2014 when the US applied sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Exxon estimates that the sanctions have cost them at least a billion dollars, and therefore “Tillerson has argued strenuously for the measures to be lifted” during his time as CEO.
It is these connections and the likelihood that they would lead toward political détente with Russia that has motivated the liberal antagonism toward Trump, displayed in the concerted effort to pressure him away from any policy which could be deemed conciliatory towards Russia. The FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign was never based in evidence, but rather has been used as a means to guarantee that aggressive policies towards Russia and Syria will continue to be implemented.
Within this context, it’s not hard to see why the administration’s policy in Syria had shifted away from Obama’s CIA-focused regime-change efforts towards a more militaristic approach which prioritizes fighting ISIS and political negotiations with Russia. It is also not hard to see why Trump would respond in the way that he did following the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, which in large part was a product of domestic political pressure rather than an indication of a shift in strategy.
Divide and Rule
After taking office, Trump’s Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made it clear that “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting al-Assad out,” while the White House Press Secretary elaborated that “with respect to al-Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”
The “political reality” was the fact that the regime-change effort had failed. The US had flooded in an unprecedented amount of advanced weaponry, tipping the balance in favor of the mainly hard-line extremist rebels, Russia then intervened in response and reversed the balance back in the governments favor. After the recent liberation of Aleppo, the opposition is severely weakened, on the defensive, and wholly unable to deliver regime-change to their backers.
Given this, the strategy of “Assad must go” had shifted instead to “defeating ISIS.” Within this context, the battle against ISIS served as a convenient justification for occupying Syrian territory, establishing de-facto zones of influence over areas re-captured from the group. These could then be utilized as leverage in future negotiations, either to pressure for concessions or for Assad’s ouster.
This was not a new idea, and was proposed during the Obama administration. Henry Kissinger, who secretly helped formulate President Bush and Obama’s national security policies, who also advised Hillary Clinton while she served as Secretary of State, is now acting as an unofficial advisor to Trump, specifically giving advice on the issue of Syria.
In 2015, Kissinger proposed a plan calling for the annexation of Syrian territory taken from ISIS by US-backed forces, which were then to be administered by US allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, under the banner of fighting against terrorism. He wrote that “a choice among strategies” was for ISIS-held territories to be recaptured “either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers,” excluding Iran and its proxies. The reconquered territories should then be “restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty,” suggesting that “the sovereign states of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt and Jordan, should play a principal role in that evolution,” while Turkey as well “could contribute creatively to such a process.”
The plan called for the partition of the Syrian state between government-held areas and those under the control of the US and its allies, which would be codified within a federal structure dividing the two zones of influence: “As the terrorist region is being dismantled and brought under nonradical political control, the future of the Syrian state should be dealt with concurrently. A federal structure could then be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions.”
It is worth noting that Kissinger just recently held an informal meeting with Trump which centered around policy in Syria.
In any case, events on the ground have revealed the beginning stages of such a plan already taking root under Trump, with the US establishing a myriad of military bases and airport infrastructure throughout the Kurdish-held regions, signifying a long-term intention of remaining.
Opportunistic War Crime
The April 4th chemical weapons incident resulted in what appeared to be a shift in US policy. Trump announced that his “attitude toward Syria and al-Assad has changed very much,” while Nikki Haley stated there could be no political solution while Assad was still in power.
However, when seen in hindsight, it is clear these statements did not represent an actual shift in policy, but instead were made to justify the Tomahawk attack as a one-off incident while policy thereafter would continue largely as it had before.
Trump is usually depicted as having been backed into a corner in the wake of the attack. However, far from being forced into anything, Trump and his administration seized upon the opportunity the incident presented and used it as a justification for an attack against Syrian military targets. Despite having ample evidence that Assad had not committed the crime, Trump decided to lay blame anyway and to launch an attack in “response.”
Publicly the US claimed it had incontrovertible evidence that the Syrian air force had deployed chemical weapons. Privately however, the US intelligence community had determined, like it had before in 2013, that the evidence available did not prove Assad’s guilt, and that instead it was much more likely that the official Russian narrative, that the Syrian air force had hit a rebel weapons-depot which contained chemical agents, was closer to the truth.
In response to this knowledge, Trump side-lined his CIA-director, who briefed him on the Agency’s belief that Assad was likely not responsible, and instead allowed National Security Advisor McMaster discretion to draw up plans for an attack.
McMaster then produced a report which was meant to prove Syria’s guilt, yet after analysis was shown to be a completely fraudulent document that no competent analyst would ever have signed off on. Furthermore, by launching the attack before any evidence was gathered, the US consciously prevented an independent UN investigation from going forward.
The question then is why was this done? Especially when there was enough evidence for Trump to back out from doing so, similar to what Obama did in 2013 after the CIA had concluded that the evidence was not a “slam dunk.”
The decision can largely be explained as a response to the domestic political pressure that had been building against Trump with accusations of collusions with Russia. The attack was an effective way to relieve the pressure against his administration coming from powerful sectors of the domestic political establishment. After the attack, Trump’s political opponents hailed him, forgetting all of their past grievances while proclaiming that it was that day that he truly became President of the United States. Relieved, at least temporarily, of his domestic opponents, the attack as well increased Trump’s unprecedentedly low approval ratings by 10 percent.
The decision had other benefits, such as sending a message to China and North Korea, as well as garnering large profits for Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missiles that were used, which Trump apparently has a direct financial conflict of interest with, yet in terms of the Syrian conflict it did not really change much. The air base that was targeted, although it was announced that a number of aircrafts were destroyed as a result, was up and running the next day, and while US-Russia relations were temporarily harmed, deconfliction communications and negotiations were eventually re-established not long after.
Following the chemical attack, Secretary of State Tillerson explained the US’ approach to Syria. The focus would be on defeating ISIS, and then to use the territory regained from them as bargaining leverage in negotiations with the government. He said, “the process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort- both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”
Similarly, after the Tomahawk strike, Defense Secretary Mattis explained that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.”
Shortly afterwards, Trump himself confirmed that the missile strike was a one-off attack, and that policy would proceed as before. He explained that Assad’s ouster was “going to happen at a certain point,” but that the US was not insisting on it now. He said that while peace was not impossible with Assad still in power, that it would be “hard to imagine.”
On the ground, the US had injected an unprecedented number of its special forces to assist its Kurdish allies to retake the strategic Tabqa Dam from ISIS, which has recently been fully accomplished. This maneuver was meant to cut off the Syrian army from advancing towards the ISIS capital of Raqqa, to draw the line of a zone of influence the US would occupy while making sure that it would be the US and its proxies who would eject ISIS from their main base of influence. This would allow Trump to present his administration as responsible for defeating ISIS, scoring a highly-coveted PR victory in the process.
In response to this, Russia, Iran, and Turkey concluded an agreement for the establishment of de-escalation zones, areas of ceasefire covering all of the major zones of conflict between the government and the opposition save against ISIS and the Turkish-backed forces north of Aleppo.
The de-escalation zones free up the Syrian army and the Russian air force to pursue newly-launched offensives eastward against the Islamic State to counter the US efforts. These offensives are being launched from Palmyra to capture the ISIS-stronghold of Deir Ezzor, and from Damascus towards the Iraqi border to secure the al-Tanaf border crossing.
In an effort to stifle the Syrian army’s attempts to secure its southeastern border, US and Jordanian proxies have been advancing from Daara and Sweida in the south. These interactive maneuvers represent a race between the US and Russia to obtain as much territory as possible from the decaying Islamic State before the other is able to do so.
Syria’s offensives also represent a response to the US’ actions in Iraq.
The US had ordered Prime Minister Abadi to begin an operation to secure the al-Tanaf border crossing from the Iraqi side, and specifically demanded that the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) would not participate. Instead, the PMF is engaging in another operation further north near Mosul to seal the border from the Islamic State. The main goal of excluding the PMF in the al-Tanaf operation was to prevent the Syrian army from linking up with Iranian-backed forces there, which would create a land-line connection between Iran, Syria, and Lebanon from which Hezbollah could be supplied, further strengthening the “Shia Crescent” bloc which rivals US power projection in the region.
Therefore, as international correspondent Elijah J. Magnier reports, “under the title of ‘defeating ISIS’, the multiple battles and the confrontation of forces present themselves fundamentally as a confrontation between the two superpowers [the US and Russia].” These operations “will aim to draw a line between the two superpowers in Syria, hinting in effect that the war is going to end.” Its conclusion would be marked by negotiations between the two powers over their respective zones of influence. The race towards “defeating ISIS” therefore emphasizing “that Syria will no doubt face partition.”
Partition or Peace?
However, following the recent meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State, and a hopeful phone call between Trump and Putin, there are indications that some kind of deal has been reached and that both sides are pursuing diplomacy.
The Wall Street Journal reported that for the first time the Syrian Foreign Minister complimented the US-backed SDF’s fight against ISIS and described their effort as legitimate. The Journal notes that the SDF is now “the only ground force [fighting against ISIS] with both U.S. and Syrian government approval.” In addition, Western diplomats are quoted as saying that the post-capture plan is for the SDF to hand over administration to “a local civilian council friendly to the Syrian regime” which could then “transfer control of the city back to the regime.” Russia’s Foreign Minister voiced support for this plan, so long as the local councils do not circumvent the Syrian government’s authority. An American official involved in the anti-Islamic State campaign said that the US “won’t be in Raqqa in 2020, but the regime will be there.” However, rather ambiguously, he explains this under the premise that the Syrian government has “a natural home-field advantage” and therefore will “have a way of slowly getting back in” to the city post-Islamic State.
This appears to leave open the possibility for the US’ proxies to retain control when the time comes, if the local council decides not to “eventually transfer control of the city back to the regime” and if the regime does not succeed in “slowly getting back in.”
It seems unlikely that the US will simply hand over these territories. For starters, the Kurdish fighters who have given their lives to defeat ISIS will demand some kind of autonomy for their efforts, which could be given in the other areas in exchange for handing over Raqqa. However, the Gulf states and Turkey, which have invested enormous resources trying to overthrow the government, will vehemently oppose ceding any territories, and will likely pressure for a federation process along the lines of the Kissinger plan, or to sabotage negotiations completely. As well, there remains the domestic pressure from the liberals and neocons, and that of the military which has been pushing instead for a US military invasion. It seems much more likely that the race to establish zones of influence will continue, and once the two sides are divided there will be negotiations for some kind of resolution, the likely result of which being the US handing its territories over to the government in return for serious concessions.
Indeed, Mattis has recently commented that deciding how to best “exploit [ISIS] being banished” is what “occupied an awful lot of our time” in the White House. He stresses that the “bottom line” is that “we’ve got to restore government services,” and that the Secretary of State has “hosted 68 countries that are committed to looking to the day after.” Not including, of course, the Syrian government.
In closing, it must be noted that the original motivation for regime-change against Syria was primarily an effort by the ruling class in America to further extend its economic penetration into a country which has historically prevented greater access. This is why it has been US policy for almost a century, since the 1940’s, to pursue regime-change in Syria. The fact is that policy in America is not determined democratically, but instead is decided by the interests of a powerful business class, the owners of the major corporations and financial institutions, the top 1%, while the majority of the population is disenfranchised.
Despite the shift towards a more nationalistic ruling elite under Trump, those long-standing and institutionalized interests are unlikely to change. Although Exxon’s business interests lie in a normalization of relations with Russia, there are also other energy interests at play, those seeking to connect the world’s largest natural gas deposit directly to European markets via a pipeline running through Syria. That natural gas reserve bisects both the territories of Iran and Qatar, and the tug-of-war between the US and Russia in Syria has largely been fought to determine who will be able to exploit these reserves and reap their rewards. The final tug-of-war to be fought during the resolution negotiations will likely concern the same issue.