A Few Thoughts on The President’s Announced Withdrawal of US Forces and Personnel from Syria

I want to share a few thoughts on the President’s announcement this morning that US Forces and personnel will be immediately, or as immediate as is ever possible when the military is involved, withdrawn from Syria. Some of you are aware that I was involved with, and provided inputs for, the development of the US’s theater strategy for combatting ISIS in Syria and Iraq specifically through pre-deployment strategic analysis and assessment, and have provided remote reachback support to senior personnel (both a former boss and a number of my former students) deployed at Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and its subordinate elements. I have also either been asked if I would be willing to deploy back to Iraq or have offered to do so several times since 2013. None of those potential deployments materialized. Please keep all of this in mind when you read this post. I clearly have some subjective involvement in and attachment to what we’re currently doing, even with the changes that were made once the current administration came into office in January 2017. I’m going to keep this as brief as possible to avoid potential problems related to my past work on this problem set.

This morning the President announced that he was ordering an immediate withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel from Syria. We now know what that means, provided it is not changed, adjusted, and/or cancelled given that DOD, State, and the National Security Council and Staff appear to have been blindsided by the President’s announcement.

The immediate, within 24 hour removal of State Department personnel, while not logistically difficult, is a huge issue. The personnel being withdrawn were working on the civilian side of the Stability Operations we are conducting. This includes the USAID personnel who are working with internally displaced Syrians, as well as refugees in the region and coordinating humanitarian relief and assistance with local NGOs and other local groups. The military withdrawal will, of course, take longer because it isn’t just removing personnel, but equipment, which will obviously take longer than 24 hours.

So what, exactly, are we actually doing in Syria? What is it that will stop as a result of this withdrawal order? We are basically doing two things in Syria. The first is a train, advise, and assist mission with our local Syrian partners who are predominantly Kurdish, but some are Arabs, who are fighting ISIS. This is a Special Forces mission supported by a some Marine Corps artillery. The second thing we’re doing is, as an extension of the train, advise, and assist mission, conducting stability operations among the Syrian population where we are partnered with and training our local Syrian partners. This is being done within a “by, with, and through” strategy of partnering with vetted local groups. If we pull out there will be four immediate effects.

  1. The collapse of the local stabilization we’re contributing to. This will result in increased internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees who will flee ahead of both Syrian and ISIS efforts to fill the vacuum the withdrawal will create.
  2. As a result of the first effect, we will see an increased humanitarian crisis in the areas we withdraw from.
  3. We will once again have abandoned the Kurds despite the promises we’ve made to them, which further diminishes the United States ability to exercise any form of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic), because it further demonstrates that we can’t be trusted, won’t keep our word, and can’t be counted on.
  4. The vacuum and destabilization created by the withdrawal will be filled by both Syrian forces and ISIS. They will move to occupy and control the areas we’ve left, will fight each other in them, and this will lead to further destabilization in Syria and, potentially, throughout the Levant. It creates new stresses, challenges, and threats for Iraq and Lebanon, as well as for Israel and Turkey even though both of those states have been pursuing their own interests in Syria. And because of increased refugee outflows, it will increase pressures and problems for our allies in the EU.

We have not, no matter what the President has said, defeated ISIS. While it is true that ISIS has lost its physical holdings – the self declared caliphate – this actually makes them more dangerous, not less. They are no longer required to try to hold their territorial gains, nor are they required to provide the functions of a state within the self declared caliphate. As a result they have actually been liberated to focus on a low intensity irregular and asymmetric war to achieve their objective: the spread and imposition of their extreme understanding of tawheed/the radical unity of the Deity on their fellow Muslims. This includes forcefully and, if necessary, violently cracking down on what they define as innovation in Islam/Islamic practice (bidda), unbelief (kufr), apostasy (ridda), and polytheism (shirk). Freed of having to create and administer a state – the self declared caliphate – ISIS has been freed up to actually become more dangerous and more lethal. ISIS fighters are now free to go anywhere and fight everywhere. Destroying the physical caliphate, while an important step in reducing ISIS and its ability to do harm within and without the Levant, is not itself a defeat of ISIS. And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it actually increases ISIS’s lethality within and without the Levant in the short term. This is not something that US policymakers, as well as the senior military and civilian leaders tasked with reducing ISIS were unaware of. As is always the case when pursuing strategic objectives, achieving one creates new problems that require new, or at least adjusted, strategies to resolve.

Our withdrawal, especially an immediate one, also creates openings for the regional powers that have been using the Syrian Civil War as a proxy war to achieve their own regional objectives. The Syrian Civil War, of which the fight against ISIS is only one facet, has been facilitated and worsened because the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks have all used the civil war itself, as well as the proxies they are funding and supporting within it, to try to become the regional hegemon. These three regional powers are largely pursuing a religio-political hegemony.

The Saudis seek to establish themselves as the leaders of a Sunni Muslim Middle East, rooted in their state sanctioned form of Islam – Salafism. Salafism, meaning fundamentalism, is really tawheed – Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine of the radical unity of the Deity as the focus of Islam. The Iranians seek to consolidate and maintain the sphere of influence they have created in and through Iraq and Lebanon, both Twelver Shi’a majority states, and Syria, which is controlled by the Alawites a Shi’a offshoot that the Supreme Religious Authority in Iran has declared is actually Shi’a. Erdogan in Turkey seeks to return the Turks to their historic role of influencing and dominating the Middle East, the trans-Caucusus, and Central Asia as the East/West and North/South gateway in the region.

The Israelis are also trying to manipulate the Syrian Civil War to create and achieve their long standing goal of creating strategic depth between themselves and the Iranians. Which is why Netanyahu has been dealing directly with Putin in regard to just how far Iranian regular and irregular forces are allowed to proceed in Syria. This deal between Netanyahu and Putin also appears to be why the President ordered a partial withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel who were supporting rebel groups and helping to provide local stability in Syria near the Israeli border earlier this year.

Finally, Russia has its own interests in Syria. They need to maintain their warm water port at Latakia. But they also need the Syrian Civil War, as well as the threat posed by ISIS, for as long as possible. Putin’s strategic objective here is to keep the Levant unstable for as long as possible in order to maximize refugee flows into Europe and thereby provide the nationalist and neo-fascist movements, political parties, and politicians he’s supporting with an ongoing divisive issue in his ongoing attempt to exacerbate domestic political issues within Europe in order to rip apart the European Union and NATO.

If the President’s announcement of an immediate withdrawal was part of a well developed strategy to achieve the US’s policy objectives of defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Levant, then I would be very supportive. We shouldn’t have personnel deployed where despite their tactical successes, they are unable to achieve the larger US and allied strategic objectives. This dynamic has been the case in Afghanistan for years, which is why the best thing that can happen in the Afghan theater of operations is a negotiated settlement and a withdrawal of almost all US military personnel. Any ongoing mission in Afghanistan, provided the Afghans would be interested, should be all about political and economic development, which can be accomplished a lot more effectively by civilian subject matter experts from the civilian agencies of the US government and our coalition partners and allies. This, however, is not the case in Syria. ISIS is not defeated and, if anything, is even more dangerous as it is now freed from having to defend actual physical territory. And the Syrian Civil War is still ongoing and destabilizing the Levant as well as Europe. The limited/light footprint train, advise, and assist strategy we are currently pursuing still has merit. It should not be abandoned on a whim.

Open thread.

Hey, Thanks, Kevin!

Kevin Drum has taken my Steele dossier analysis and made some evaluations of the claims. Here’s what he came up with:

It looks about right to me.


Aside from three oddball claims that I couldn’t really classify (6, 7, and 19 if you’re counting), it looks to me like the dossier includes 15 claims that are now fully or partially supported and 27 claims for which we have no evidence so far. These 27 claims include a fair amount of insider Kremlin gossip.

What I found most interesting is this: although there’s no public evidence one way or the other for these 27 claims,² there doesn’t appear to be a single claim that we know with certainty is false. There are claims that have been denied by the American participants, but none that we have documentary proof of being mistaken. Partly this is because it’s hard to prove a negative, but it’s still surprising that not a single claim in the report has been conclusively debunked. It’s especially surprising since the dossier is a patchwork of raw intelligence, and even if it was well done by competent professionals you’d still expect it to include at least a few claims that, two years later, we could say were categorically wrong.

Emptywheel, however, feels that I’m missing evidence against some of the claims. I’ve suggested that she and talk about it offline.

And open thread!

Breaking News: LTG Flynn’s Sentencing Is????

This morning’s sentencing hearing are not going well for LTG Flynn or his lawyers. Judge Sullivan, a jurist whose rise to the Federal bench would be impossible in today’s politics, is not amused!

Judge Sullivan started off displeased and moved to furious over the course of the morning’s hearing.

Also, Eli Lake is still an idiot and a useless idiot to boot:

Don’t lie to the FBI, its rude and upsets their feelings. Don’t have your lawyers play silly semantic games in their sentencing recommendation memos, its rude and upsets the judge’s feelings.

Unfortunately we are now doomed to three more months and dozens more posts at The Federalist; hot takes by Flynn’s conspiratorial minded supporters led by Flynn Jr, who is also a useless idiot; and Fox News hosts and commentators, like the Blue Footed Booby of Budapest (also a useless idiot) asking if Flynn was set up, if he actually committed a crime, if this is not part of the actual “real” investigation that will bring down the Deep State and the global pedophile ring they’re running.

Open thread!

Update at 1:15 PM

If anyone is interested, I’ve uploaded the Flynn 302s, which the Special Counsel’s Office released with redactions last night.

Flynn 302

Flynn Sentencing at 11 AM (Open Thread)

Disgraced former National Security Adviser and “Lock Her Up” chant leader Michael Flynn is due in court shortly. It’ll be fascinating to see how this phase of the Mueller probe plays out.

The conventional wisdom is that since Flynn’s crimes were serious and Mueller let Flynn plead guilty to a relatively minor offense and recommends no jail time, Flynn’s cooperation must have been incredibly valuable to the investigation, perhaps even instrumental in hooking a very big fish. I sure hope so.

But Flynn is trying to have his cake and eat it too by (absurdly) claiming entrapment, and that line has echoed throughout the wingnut media sphere. The Post says Flynn’s double-dealing could increase the hearing’s drama quotient:

But in their sentencing submission, Flynn’s attorneys suggested he might have been fooled into lying to the FBI because he had not been warned in advance that doing so is a crime. That prompted the judge to request more documents, and the special counsel’s office last week vigorously pushed back on the idea that Flynn was mistreated.

Trump has ripped Michael Cohen as a rat while at the same time putting his tiny orange thumb on the scale in Flynn’s favor, repeating the entrapment lie. From this morning’s Twitler Twitter extrusions:

Good luck today in court to General Michael Flynn. Will be interesting to see what he has to say, despite tremendous pressure being put on him, about Russian Collusion in our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign. There was no Collusion!

I try to remain agnostic on the idea of Mueller as the incorruptible, nonpartisan defender of American democracy who will expose the traitors and restore the rule of law, though it’s tempting to cling to that myth as our other checks and balances are dithered away by corrupt and spineless swine.

But on the issue of Flynn, it seems to be a battle of wits between Trump and clowns like Giuliani vs. Mueller and his team. My money’s on the latter — or really, any random group of people — against those idiots.

As for Flynn himself, he strikes me as a pinwheel-eyed partisan loon — a true believer. But Cohen once said he’d take a bullet for Trump. We’ll see.

Open thread.

Reconsidering The Steele Dossier


It’s time to reconsider the Steele dossier. Not necessarily to show how much Christopher Steele got right or wrong, but because it is a relatively compact collection of information about how the Donald Trump campaign may have worked with the Russians. Looking at it can help to organize the torrent of information coming at us.

Lawfare has posted an excellent summary, in narrative form, of recent evidence in court filings that supports the material in the dossier. It also gives a good background summary of what the dossier is.

The narrative form tends to impose a particular organization on the material. The dossier is a raw compilation of human intelligence, with no evaluation. The court documents now available do not point to one single scenario; in fact, much of their material is redacted, so we know that there is much more to the story.

I’ve seen people more informally claim that the dossier is supported, but they seem to be referring to a general sense that a story that can be elicited from the dossier are similar to what is in the news. This is often correct, but when I have checked some of these claims with my breakdown of the dossier, the correlation is often cloudy.

My breakdown of the dossier is a listing of its claims, in the order in which they are presented in the dossier. In this post, I’ll state the claim and add evidence for or against it. I may have missed some things; there’s a lot out there.

In this post, the claims are in italics, often shortened from the wording in the dossier. They are identified by the numbers in my breakdown, along with the Company Intelligence Report (CIR) number and date of the document in the dossier. I have included a broader selection of relevant evidence than do the Lawfare authors. The summaries of information may be verbatim from sources or shortened. If you want to do detailed analysis, refer to the linked sources. Read more

Collusion Lite (Open Thread)

The latest line is that if there was collusion, it was over before the election anyway:

Next up: “Collusion is awesome and everyone does it.” A version of this brazen lie was debuted earlier this year by Giuliani in defense of Dim Son, when Giuliani said that any campaign would have taken a meeting with Russians claiming to have dirt on a political opponent. Does anyone doubt this tactic will eventually be rolled out in defense of Trump himself?

Giuliani hinted at it today when he said on the same program, “if Roger Stone gave anybody a heads up about Wikileaks leaks, that’s not a crime. It would be like giving him a heads up that the Times is going to print something.”

Okay then. Y’all go with that.

An Answer to Adam Weinstein’s Question Regarding Mariia Butina

In Anne Laurie’s post earlier today, one of the embedded tweets is from Adam Weinstein. As is the case for those doubly blessed to be named Adam and from Florida, he asks an excellent question:

While Mig Greengard’s response below was good, I think there is, if not a better explanation/answer, a complementary one.

As some of you are aware, I have something of a hobby of staying current with the “armed intelligentsia”. This is a combination of two things. The first is they do really good gear reviews for outdoors equipment. The second is left over from my early, first career in academia where I did comparative research into domestic American extremists, contrasting them with those in other countries. These days I’m just largely interested in how Americans understand the history of and around the 2nd amendment and how it has changed over time. As I’ve indicated several times in comments, the best real history book on the topic is Saul Cornell’s A Well Regulated Militia. I also highly recommend his edited volume dealing with the history of modern American 2nd amendment jurisprudence. However, if you want to see what gun enthusiasts – from sport shooters to hardcore 2nd amendment absolutists – you need to read the comments. It may come as a surprise to some people reading this, but it is amazing what people will write and post as a comment when using a pseudonym. I know you’re all just shocked, shocked that such a thing could happen…

I’m not looking to pick a fight with anyone, but here are the links to the heaviest trafficked firearms website/blog on the Internet and how they covered Mariia Butina, her organization Right to Bear Arms, and gun rights/issues in Russia. Take a gander into the comments, do you notice anything? A lot of wishful thinking about how “the natural, civil, and constitutional” right to keep and bear arms might just be catching on and spreading to Russia. The truth is it isn’t. But what these comments tell provide us with an answer to Adam’s excellent question. It points us back to what Rick Perlstein wrote about several years ago in The Baffler (emphasis mine).

It would be interesting, that is, to ask Coulter about the reflex of lying that’s now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA—and to get her candid assessment of why conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.

The history of that movement echoes with the sonorous names of long-dead Austrian economists, of indefatigable door-knocking cadres, of soaring perorations on a nation finally poised to realize its rendezvous with destiny. Search high and low, however, and there’s no mention of oilfields in the placenta. Nor anything about, say, the massive intersection between the culture of “network” or “multilevel” marketing—where ordinary folks try to get rich via pyramid schemes that leave their neighbors holding the bag—and the institutions of both evangelical Christianity and Mitt Romney’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And yet this stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the internecine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history—if not, indeed, more so. The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

The conservative movement, and the political party that it is currently attached to, have so closed their informational system – from what sources are acceptable to what information is automatically deemed incorrect – that they are basically propagandizing themselves at this point. They only speak to each other, whether it is on Fox News, talk radio, social media, comments sections, what have you; they have imbued the language and terminology of American civic discourse with a special meaning that only really makes sense to themselves; and, as a result, they are susceptible to a variety of grifts. Once you’ve convinced yourself that the real reason for the 2nd amendment was to explicitly enumerate the natural and civil right for self defense – against both individuals and the state – in order to protect and safeguard all the other enumerated and unenumerated rights, you’ve also made yourself susceptible to believing that everyone else should be doing this too. And so when a somewhat attractive young woman shows up and tells you that a movement to establish the right that you think is the most important is taking root in Russia, you’ve already set yourself up to buy into the con. Because all of the resources that would quickly disabuse you of this notion are outside of the informational sources that you have been conditioned to find acceptable, all of the actual information that could be used for a reality check is going to be ignored, if it was even looked for at all. This is why Ben Carson thinks the 2nd Amendment has something to do with the Holocaust. It doesn’t. It is why the “armed intelligentsia” is convinced that Israeli teachers are armed. They’re not. The reason that conservatives in general, and the 2nd amendment absolutist community in specific, fell for this Russian active measure is that like with so much else, they’ve conned themselves.

Open thread.