SUN 16 - 6 - 2019
Date: Jan 7, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Trump’s Syria withdrawal is a chance for peace
Jeffrey D. Sachs

President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria has met with near universal condemnation by Democrats and Republicans alike. That says less about Trump than it does about the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s blinkered vision.

The mainstream of both political parties exhibits certain reflexive judgments: that the U.S. must maintain a troop presence all over the world in order to prevent adversaries from filling a vacuum; that U.S. military might holds the key to foreign policy success; and that America’s adversaries are implacable foes impervious to diplomacy. Trump’s withdrawal from Syria could indeed be a dangerous prelude to an expanded regional war; yet, with imagination and diplomacy, the withdrawal could be a critical step on the path to an elusive peace in the region.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment had rhetorically justified America’s presence in Syria as part of the war on Daesh (ISIS). With Daesh essentially defeated and dispersed, Trump called the establishment’s bluff. Yet suddenly, the establishment declared the actual reasons for the extended U.S. presence. Trump’s move, it was charged, would hand geopolitical advantages to Syria’s Bashar Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while imperiling Israel, betraying the Kurds and causing other ills that are essentially unrelated to Daesh.

This shift had the benefit of unmasking America’s real purposes in the Middle East, which are not so obscure, after all, except for the fact that mainstream pundits, U.S. establishment strategists and members of Congress tend not to mention them in polite company. The United States has not been in Syria (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Libya and elsewhere in the region) because of Daesh. In fact, Daesh was more a consequence than a cause of the U.S. presence. The real purposes have been U.S. regional hegemony; and the real consequences have been disastrous.

The truth about the U.S. presence in Syria has rarely been told. But one can be sure that the U.S. has had no scruples about democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the region, as its warm embrace of Saudi Arabia amply demonstrates. The U.S. decided to promote an insurgency to overthrow Assad in 2011 not because the U.S. and allies like Saudi Arabia longed for Syrian democracy, but because they decided that Assad was a hindrance to U.S. regional interests. Assad’s sins were clear: He allied with Russia, and he received support from Iran.

For these reasons, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “Assad must go.” America and its regional partners, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, decided to provide arms, logistics, training and sanctuary (notably in Jordan and Turkey) for an anti-Assad rebellion. Obama signed a presidential finding (Operation Timber Sycamore) calling on the CIA to work with Saudi Arabia (the paymasters) to overthrow Assad. Obama, seeking to avoid strong U.S. public opposition to yet another CIA-led war with U.S. troops on the ground, chose to back militants instead. Yet the purpose of the Syrian operation was clear: Install a Syrian regime friendly to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, deny Russia an ally and push Iranian forces out of Syria. It all seemed so obvious to the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

But, as usual for CIA regime-change operations, it failed miserably. Russia called America’s bluff, backed Assad, and Iran provided vital support as well. In the meantime, the proxy war stoked by the U.S. and its allies led to more than 500,000 deaths of combatants and civilians and the displacement of over 10 million Syrians to date, as well as a major refugee crisis in Europe that continues to rock the politics of the European Union. And then, one faction of ruthless militants split from another to create Daesh. Following shocking videos of beheadings of American and other captives, Obama decided to intervene in 2014 with air attacks and some U.S. troops to support a Kurdish-led attack on Daesh strongholds.

From Trump’s point of view, a U.S.-installed Syrian puppet regime that would push out Russia and Iran is neither central to U.S. national security nor practicable. And, here, Trump is right for a change.

There is no doubt that the U.S. unilateral withdrawal could create an even bigger disaster. Turkey could invade northern Syria to crush Kurdish forces; Russia and Turkey could find themselves in a dangerous faceoff. Israel could launch a war against Iranian forces in Syria. Israel and Saudi Arabia have already formed a tacit alliance against Iran. The Syrian war could expand to a full-fledged Middle East war. This is all terrifyingly plausible.

Yet it is not inevitable - far from it. Successful diplomacy is possible, if the U.S. foreign policy establishment would for once recognize that United Nations-based diplomacy, rather than war, might be the prudent path. Under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council (with the core assent of the U.S., China, Russia, France and the U.K.), six steps could be agreed to establish a wider peace, not create a wider war.

First, all foreign forces would leave Syria (including the U.S., Saudi-backed militants, Turkish-backed forces, Russian troops and Iran-backed forces). Second, the UNSC would back the Syrian government’s sovereignty over all of the country. Third, the UNSC, and perhaps U.N. peacekeepers, would guarantee the Kurds’ safety. Fourth, Turkey would commit to not invading Syria. Fifth, the U.S. would drop its extraterritorial sanctions on Iran. And, sixth, the U.N. would raise funding for Syrian reconstruction.

Iran might well trade an exit from Syria for an end to U.S. extraterritorial sanctions; the U.S. and Israel might accept the end of Iranian sanctions in exchange for Iran’s military withdrawal from Syria; Turkey might agree to restraint if the UNSC is clear that there will be no separatist Kurdistan; and Russia and Iran might agree to withdraw from Syria as long as the Assad government is backed by the U.N. and Iranian sanctions are removed. Note that the U.S. extraterritorial sanctions on Iran are indeed hurting the Iranian economy, but are dividing the U.S. from the rest of the world and failing to shift internal Iranian politics. Trump could agree to lift them in exchange for a withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.

There is an even bigger picture. The key to Middle East peace is for Turks, Iranians, Arabs and Jews to coexist. The biggest obstacle since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I has been big-power meddling by Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. at different points. It’s time to let the region sort out its own affairs, without the illusion that foreign powers can enable one contestant or another to avoid compromises, and without the massive weaponry pouring in from abroad. Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example, are under the illusion that the U.S. will save the day against Iran without the need for any compromise. After 100 years of Western imperial meddling, it’s time for compromise and peaceful accommodation by the region’s actors under the umbrella of the U.N. and international law.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor of sustainable development and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, is director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 04, 2019, on page 6.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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