US Isn’t Leaving Syria—But Media Lost It When Possibility Was Raised

U.S. soldier exits a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter (U.S. Marine photo/Sgt. Brian Kester).U.S. soldier exits a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter (U.S. Marine photo/Sgt. Brian Kester).

by Gregory Shupak

At a rally in Cleveland last week, President Donald Trump said that the US will get out of Syria “very soon.” It is now clear that the 4,000 US troops currently occupying Syria (Washington Post10/31/17) will in fact stay in Syria (Independent, 4/4/18), even though keeping troops in another country in defiance of that country’s government is a violation of international law. Yet the very possibility of US withdrawal from Syria rendered apoplectic journalists who are convinced of the legitimacy of Washington’s domination of the country—international law be damned.

Some writers want America to occupy Syria to weaken Russia. In the Washington Post (3/30/18), Josh Rogin claimed that “there are a lot of good arguments for maintaining an American presence in Syria after the fall of the Islamic State,” but stressed that the “larger US mission in Syria” was necessary for “stopping Russia from exerting influence over the region.”

Michael Gerson, writing in the same paper (4/2/18), was concerned that a US departure “would leave Russia as the undisputed power broker at the heart of the Middle East,” a dubious claim in a region that includes Saudi Arabia (whose military budget by some countsexceeds Russia’s) as well as nuclear-armed Israel, both close US allies.

CNN ran two articles that made the same point about Russia, with Dan Merica and Jim Acosta (3/30/18) writing “Trump Promise to Get Out of Syria ‘Very Soon’ Could Be a Win for Russia,” and Zachary Cohen and Ryan Browne (3/31/18) telling readers “that most foreign policy experts agree that” the void left by US forces in the event of a withdrawal “would likely be filled by Russia.” The Syrian government’s alliance with Russia supposedly justifies Washington’s occupying Syria, in defiance of international law. Partnership with Russia is unacceptable; only submission to the US is permissible.

Moreover, Gerson fretted, a US pull out “would cede [Syrian] oil fields under the control of US-allied forces,” an intolerable outcome if one accepts that the US is the rightful owner of other countries’ resources.

WaPo: In Syria, We 'Took the Oil.' Now Trump Wants to Give It to Iran

“The United States and its partners control almost all of the oil” in Syria, writes the Washington Post(3/30/18). “And if the United States leaves, that oil will likely fall into the hands of Iran.”

Rogin worried that “if the United States leaves, [Syria’s] oil will likely fall into the hands of Iran.” What he described is the possibility that the Syrian and Iranian alliance could lead to an arrangement wherein Iranians have access to some amount of Syria’s oil, the type of agreement between states that exists the world over. The prospect of two states in the Global South working together in this fashion alarms Rogin, who therefore calls for America to maintain control over Syrian oil. He said Trump should

remember that he has constantly complained that in Iraq, “We should have kept the oil.” Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t take or keep Syria’s oil. But there’s a grain of truth in Trump’s idea. Control over oil is the only influence we have in Syria today.

Apparently Iran has no right to make use of Syria’s oil, even if the Syrian government agrees to that, but the US has a right to “control” Syria’s oil irrespective of the wishes of Syrians.

Several reporters argued that the US should continue an illegal military occupation of Syria as a cudgel against Iran. Rogin said that American forces should stay in Syria to guard against “Iranian expansionism,” without explaining what he means by “expansionism” or offering any evidence that it’s taking place. Gerson, similarly, contended that taking US troops out of Syria “would reward Iran’s search for regional hegemony,” and would amount to “surrender[ing] Syria to Iran.”

Rogin continued:

In May, Trump is expected to pull the United States out of the Iran deal, meaning that he will reimpose US sanctions on Iranian oil. It would be profoundly counterproductive to hand Iran control over a swath of Syria that contains huge amounts of oil at the exact same time.

Cohen and Browne likewise suggested that Syria should continue to serve America’s proxy war against Iran, writing,

If the US were to leave its base located at the At Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, Iran would be able to secure its overland route from Damascus to Tehran, further securing its regional influence.

Such approaches devalue the lives of Syrians, who are cast not as humans with intrinsic value and rights to self-determination and self-governance, but as pieces on a geopolitical chessboard that America can use as it sees fit to try to outmaneuver Russia and Iran.

CNN: Trump Promise to Get Out of Syria 'Very Soon' Could Be a Win for Russia

CNN (3/30/18) warned US withdrawal from Syria could help the Russians by “mak[ing] their job of combating forces hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad considerably easier.”

Another common theme in reporting was the idea that US forces need to stay in Syria to keep the war in that country from getting worse. Rogin claimed that the US military presence in Syria is about “preventing a new refugee crisis.” Gerson declared that “the immediate result of an American withdrawal would be a major escalation of the conflict in eastern Syria.” Cohen and Browne said that the possibility of American forces leaving Syria

is raising concerns among some national security officials who warn that withdrawing now would not only undermine American credibility in the region but prompt a significant escalation to an already devastating conflict.

But the US military exists to fight wars. It is the most heavily armed, most violent organization in the world. Saying that it should continue to occupy Syria is a way of saying that the war in that country should continue. In fact, it’s a call for escalation of that war, because eventually the Syrian government will want to reclaim the portion of its country America controls, and that will mean a military confrontation with the US. The US has already killed fighters allied with the Syrian government who the US claimed were trying to take back land from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (Reuters2/7/18).

Underlying all of these positions is the assumption that the United States has the right to determine Syria’s future. Merica and Acosta explicitly worried that removing US troops from Syria would interfere with regime change efforts: “A US withdrawal would make [Russia’s] job of combating forces hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad considerably easier.” Cohen and Browne were troubled that “the Syrian regime could also benefit from the economic advantages of seizing oilfields currently controlled by US-backed allies.”

According to this perspective, US allies are entitled to Syrian oil, while it’s a frightening possibility that the Syrian government might use Syrian resources to strengthen the Syrian economy, which has been ravaged by war and Western sanctions, with profound effects on the Syrian population.

Rogin says that “fighting extremism” is one purpose of America’s presence in Syria, and Cohen and Browne warn that “a US withdrawal could help ISIS”—despite the fact that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and US policies throughout the Syrian war were central to the birth and proliferation of ISIS and comparable organizations (Extra!11/14Jacobin, 3/29/16Newsweek,12/14/17).

That Syrians might not want to be occupied by the US is never considered in any of these articles, such is the extent of the authors’ imperial hubris.

Gregory Shupak teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. His book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, is published by OR Books. Reprinted, with permission, from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

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5 Comments

  1. We need a better history of the region, it’s easy and lazy to say, they’ve always been fighting. That is not historically accurate. The Middle East has been remarkably stable given the diversity there, most of the wars and fighting have been caused by invasions from outsiders, from Alexander to Rome, to the Persians, to the Mongols, the Turks, and the British.

  2. Charles, the conflict in Syria and Iraq cannot be so easily dismissed as a continuation of a historical conflict, unless one was to be deliberately blind to the much more recent history.

    Note that the Iranians warned the US that invading Iraq would result in regional instability: Iran’s President Khatami said, “We wish to caution the great powers against further interference in the region and against the exacerbation of the flames of war,” Mr Khatami said during a visit to Malaysia…In a pointed reference to US hopes to depose Saddam Hussein and impose “regime change” in Iraq, Mr Khatami said that any such action could destabilise the entire region, with unpredictable results. (“Drop plans to attack Saddam,Tehran tells US” Guardian, Wed 24 Jul 2002)

    And before that, Ayatollah Khomeini himself warned the US, the Kuwaitis and Saudis that backing Saddam against Iran was a bad idea and that he would turn on them too. And he did.

    Bet they wished they had listened, but since there’s no accountability in our government anyway and Presidents can start wars on total lies and then joke about it …

  3. The Israel lobby, or elements of it, have been trying to bring the US into another catastrophic war in the Middle East, to benefit Israel rather than the American people. Keeping the Golan Heights is a major objective.

  4. We now have the Anti-Vietnam era press corp.

    Today’s MSM has an undying devotion to the military, believes every word spoken by the CIA, reinforces every hawk in the State Dept. and demonizes every skeptic in the media. I actually think I detest the scoundrels in the MSM more than the liars in our govt. The fourth estate is supposed to keep them in check but they have unleashed our monsters.

  5. None of those cited offering advice and comments on Syria are actually experts on Syria and the region. Sort of like the old saying, “those who speak do not know…those who know, do not speak.” As someone who has been directly involved with Syria since 1975 (I was taken hostage – and shot – in Damascus in 1976, while serving as NBC News Bureau Chief in Beirut) Nobody knows what do to about Syria. 2500 years of Arab vs Persian inside Iraq and Iran, Sunni vs Shia in the 1400 year old sectarian Islam conflict…

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