Media’s Russia Obsession Obscures How Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Benefits Turkey Most

Yves here. This Real News Network interview with Patrick Cockburn is an antidote to much of what you are seeing and hearing about Trump’s decision to have the US pull out of Syria.

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.

In a shock to the world, President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. At least 2,000 U.S. troops have been on the ground in Syria, stationed in a dozen U.S. military bases largely in the northeast of the country. However, under international law, the U.S. military presence in Syria has been illegal. Former President Barack Obama infamously claimed there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, although he later sent troops. And the U.S. military presence was further expanded by Donald Trump in his first year in office.

Peace activists have for years called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and many responded to the news by applauding Trump’s surprise decision. However, many of Trump’s liberal opponents in the Democratic Party establishment, on the other hand, have portrayed this move as a dastardly conspiracy done on behalf of Russia. MSNBC’s response has really summarized a lot of the corporate media portrayal of this decision. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called it, quote: “an early Christmas present for Russian President Vladimir Putin.” He had on the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, who lamented the U.S. withdrawal. Here’s the clip.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: And who is celebrating more about their early Christmas present than Vladimir Putin and Russia? And they’ve said as much. This is a, this is a massive geopolitical win for Putin and Russia.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: It absolutely is, Joe. And you know, we’ve just gone through the season of firefight in California. And we’ve watched these massive, devastating blazes. What the president is doing is the functional equivalent.

BEN NORTON: And then, in an even more hawkish moment, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough complained that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will supposedly help Iran, and he called the decision a, quote, “foreign policy welfare for Vladimir Putin.”

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Iran. I thought Donald Trump saw the Iranians as an enemy. I mean, I thought that was almost the centerpiece of his foreign policy. This is massive news. Good news for the Iranians. And finally, who is happier about this than Vladimir Putin on the world stage? Absolutely nobody. This is a giveaway. This is foreign policy welfare for Vladimir Putin. He can’t even believe his luck–or, I’m sorry, maybe he can. Maybe this is connected to something that none of us know about.

BEN NORTON: So what Joe Scarborough and many corporate media reports in the U.S. have not mentioned in their reports is in fact that there is one country above all that will benefit most from Trump’s decision to withdraw. And that is NATO member Turkey, which has been considering a military attack on the region in northeast Syria.

Well, joining us to talk about what’s really happening on the ground is the award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from the Middle East for decades, and he’s the author of several books. Patrick also was recently on the ground reporting in Syria, and many of the areas we’re going to discuss today in the Northeast. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.


BEN NORTON: So can you respond to this historic news? Trump is withdrawing U.S. troops. And that’s actually quite surprising, because the Trump administration is full of many hawks, like John Bolton, who had called for essentially a kind of perpetual military occupation of the Northeast, ostensibly to counter Iran’s influence in the region. And now Trump is, surprisingly, withdrawing forces. Many corporate media outlets are portraying this as part of the larger Russiagate issue, where Trump is beholden to Russian interests. But in fact, one of the key countries that will benefit that is not getting scrutinized nearly enough is Turkey. What is your response?

PATRICK COCKBURN: The Turks benefit from this. It also shows, you know, that Turkey is really powerful in the region. You know, they’ve moved a lot of troops up to the border. They’d been threatening to come in anyway. I think, you know, portraying this as Russia being the big winner, this is pretty naive, or even childish, in many ways. It’s in Russia’s interests that the U.S. should stay in Syria in alliance with the Kurds, which means that the U.S. is probably confronting Turkey, whose main policy objective is to eliminate this Kurdish enclave. So if anything, you know, this is something which makes it easier for the administration to revive the old U.S. alliance with Turkey. And so it doesn’t necessarily work in Russia’s favor.

This is a very simpleminded view, that this benefits Russia. Turkey benefits because suddenly this whole area in northeast Syria becomes vulnerable to them. They’ve threatened to move in. They’ve talked about burying the Kurdish militants in ditches. And we know what happened earlier in the year in Afrin, another Kurdish enclave. You know, there was extreme ethnic cleansing. Almost half the Kurdish population was driven out, and hasn’t come back. They’ve been taken over by extreme Arab jihadis. So yeah, it’s very much in Turkey’s interests what’s happened. But it is not necessarily in Russia’s interests at all.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, Donald Trump himself, in fact, repeatedly tweeted this on December 20 in response to the news. You know, many media reports portrayed this as a gift to Russia and Iran. Trump pointed out that now Russia and Iran will be fighting ISIS on their own in Syria, and there are still elements of ISIS that are in the country. Thousands of fighters, although ISIS doesn’t control a territorial capital, as it had in the past. And what’s also interesting about this is that on the same day Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops on December 19, the U.S. State Department also cleared a $3.5 billion sale of air defense systems to Turkey. And in addition to that, a few journalists, mostly Kurdish and Turkish journalists, pointed out that Trump’s decision to withdraw came just two days, or a few days, after he had a phone call with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And just two days before that decision, Erdogan had, in fact, claimed that in the phone call Trump had agreed, had greenlighted, to a Turkish assault on northeast Syria. Turkey has been trying to get the U.S. to get approval to send Turkish troops and embedded jihadist rebels east of the Euphrates River. So do you think that this is essentially a kind of green light from Trump, saying to Erdogan go ahead and invade?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it kind of–it opens the door to that. Green light creates a picture of somebody saying, you know, go for it. Which is doubtful. But you withdraw the troops, Turkey has been threatening to intervene. Yeah, I think, you know, it may well amount to that.

I think that, you know, it’s easy to pillory what Trump said and did. You know, saying that the Islamic State will come back, ISIS will come back. But you know, this was a movement that once controlled territory really from Baghdad to almost to the Mediterranean. And you know, it just lost its last small town on the east of the Euphrates in eastern Syria. So you know, will it come back? Well, yeah, there will be more guerrilla warfare. But again, you know, what strikes me about a lot of the coverage is it’s kind of hysterical. It kind of–it is based on a sort of conspiratorial view of what Trump is up to, what his relations with the Russians are. You know, this stuff is so far from the reality of what’s actually happening on the ground in Syria, or in Iraq, for that matter. It’s very difficult to to discuss it or contradict it. But it’s just sort of off the wall.

BEN NORTON: And the question now up in the air is what will happen to the Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, specifically the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, which control this area in the northeast. For months now the YPG has, in fact, had kind of on and off relations with Damascus, the central government of Syria. They had brief negotiations and peace talks, and they made some–a few agreements. But it seems that the agreements didn’t go very far. It seems to me that this decision will encourage the YPG to seek further rapprochement and a kind of alliance with Damascus. So what do you think-

PATRICK COCKBURN: They’ll be desperate to do that right now, because they may not like Damascus very much, but they’d much prefer the Syrian government to the Turks. They’re really terrified of the Turks coming in. They’re threatened. They are terrified of ethnic cleansing. So they’ll go to Damascus.

Now, previously, because of the U.S. presence that inhibited them, stopped them doing that. And also the Russians didn’t want them to do that. So they’ll do that. But it’s it’s–you know, the Turkish army is pretty big, pretty strong. Even supposing the Syrian army came into this enclave it wouldn’t necessarily be able to stop the Turks. I mean, what’s happened is that, you know, if you go to that area, one, it’s not a great place for the Turks to fight against heavy armor and aircraft. It’s very flat, most of the east of the Euphrates. Not many mountains, or no mountains, and few hills. And also mostly about 2 million Kurds there. But a lot of them are in towns or cities along the Syrian-Turkish border. Often cities, when the frontier was drawn up between Syria and Turkey, it ran along the old railway line between Aleppo and Mosul. And so cities were cut in half. Kurdish cities were cut in half. So a lot of these the Kurds live within artillery range of the Turkish army/.

It’s important to talk about this, because if the Turks do come across, we could have a great wave of 2 million Kurds taking to the roads, desperate to get out, going to northern Iraq, going elsewhere. And there seems very little concern about this, and it’s kind of depressing to hear these sort of conspiracy theories about Russia when what is happening is that, you know, is in many ways pretty–you know, pretty simple, but pretty bad.

BEN NORTON: And then finally, Patrick, let’s just take a big look at what’s going on here. What do you think this will mean for the future of the war in Syria? The war has been going on since early 2011, and it looks like the conflict is really finally in its final stages. It might come to an end pretty soon. We’ve also seen, interestingly, negotiations between Iran, Russia, and Syria, and Turkey. And specifically, Iran, Turkey, and Russia have had these kinds of peace negotiations. They’ve had some developments, some breakthroughs, and then some obstacles. But the three of them, it seems like they have had many agreements, although there are some agreements that seem pretty intractable. And I think the question of Idlib, and now the question of the Northeast, seem to be two major obstacles that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have really different views on. So with this potentially the U.S. withdrawal, would this potentially accelerate a peace negotiation for the end of the war? Or could it potentially usher in a new phase of the war?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It could go either way. It’s very difficult to tell which way the ball will roll after this. Will the Turks come in directly, or will the Russians try to stop them? Will the Syrian government sort of take over the, do a deal with the Kurds and take over? You know, if the Turks do come in, what will happen to the Kurds in this area? You know, it’s about 50-50 Kurds and Arabs. And they–you know, the relations are very hostile. You know, there could be a lot of revenge killings in this area.

So you know, it’s difficult to say that. But I think a lot of this has to do with Trump wanting to get on better terms with Turkey. And if he does want to do anything against Iran, having better relations with Turkey is essential. But the actual having a U.S.–a Kurdish enclave supported by the U.S. in Turkey never really, you know, didn’t do any damage to the Russians, and didn’t do any damage to Iran. So I think the idea that this is, you know, Happy Christmas for Putin and slogans like that is really completely unrealistic.

BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were speaking with the award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, who has for decades been a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent, and he’s also the author of several books. Thanks so much for joining us, Patrick.


BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.

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  1. Pym of Nantucket

    This all started with Khashoggi. Another aligned news story that wasn’t mentioned above was Trump musing aloud about rounding up Gulen.

  2. Pavel

    The Grauniad just quoted a tweet from a predictably OUTRAGED @HillaryClinton:

    Actions have consequences, and whether we’re in Syria or not, the people who want to harm us are there & at war. Isolationism is weakness. Empowering ISIS is dangerous. Playing into Russia & Iran’s hands is foolish. This President is putting our national security at grave risk.

    This from the woman who almost singlehandedly (i.e. along with David Cameron and Sarkovy) destroyed Libya and allowed — if not encouraged — the flow of US weapons to go into the hands of ISIS allies in the US-Saudi-Israeli obsession with toppling Assad regardless of the consequences. As Justin Raimondo wrote in in 2015:

    The policy of the Obama administration, and particularly Hillary Clinton’s State Department, was – and still is – regime change in Syria. This overrode all other considerations. We armed, trained, and “vetted” the Syrian rebels, even as we looked the other way while the Saudis and the Gulf sheikdoms funded groups like al-Nusra and al-Qaeda affiliates who wouldn’t pass muster. And our “moderates” quickly passed into the ranks of the outfront terrorists, complete with the weapons we’d provided.

    This crazy policy was an extension of our regime change operation in Libya, a.k.a. “Hillary’s War,” where the US – “leading from behind” – and a coalition of our Western allies and the Gulf protectorates overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. There, too, we empowered radical Islamists with links to al-Qaeda affiliates – and then used them to ship weapons to their Syrian brothers, as another document uncovered by Judicial Watch shows.

    After HRC’s multiple foreign policy fiascos she is the last person who should be commenting on this matter.

    1. a different chris

      >the people who want to harm us are there & at war

      Sounds like then they are too busy to harm us? She is truly an idiot. Thanks again, Ivy League.

      1. polecat

        Yeah, like, you know, the same kindler, gentler HEADCHOPPERS, we WERE at war before we then rearmed and reupped them as OUR proxies ..Those Consequences ???
        I’ll second your “she’s truly an idiot” quote.

        1. Pym of Nantucket

          She may say idiotic things, and propose idiotic policies, but she is not an idiot. It is wise not to dismiss these grand manipulators as fools, because often they get their way. Definitely a psychopath, but I’ve come to believe those jobs of leadership and control systematically sort and promote people who are sociopaths.

  3. flora

    We used to jokingly call the Washington Post ‘Pravda on the Potomac’ because of what appeared to be occasional heavy spin – the official story – in news coverage on foreign policy. Now, the new coverage seems to be ‘all spin all the time’. It’s getting harder and harder find reporting on foreign policy issues.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. Ptb

    Middle east 101 – it’s the pipeline options.

    What is the most valuable thing Turkey has? The ability to block pipelines to Europe. They need to have Syria in semi chaos to complete that block, but it is already the case. And there is no shortage of cheap options to maintain it, nor any huge objection by regional players to maintain it.

    Turkey, otoh, controls its territory well enough to make its own moves, leveraging its strategically central location to the max. (The whole flood-the-EU-with-refugees extortion move was just vicious. Kissinger would be proud…)

    Also the pipeline expansion is a big part of the Russia phobia too. Keeping hydrocarbons flowing by sea under the protection of the navy is a cornerstone of maintaining global security. Thus, as long as Turkey blocks Russian pipelines too, it will get away with it for the time being.

    With a likely Emerging markets bust, however, TR will be at the mercy of creditors, so Erdogan is going to need a whole new stack of cards to play for that round, which wol be next year very possibly.

    1. Bill Smith

      They can’t block a pipeline to Europe that from Israel. Is that the 5th dimensional plan by Putin?

      1. Ptb

        I was wondering about that too, but it seems Israel and Saudi Arabia are happy enough without one. (Assuming Jordan doesn’t get to make any decisions). And line from Iran would be blocked obviously, and from RU still goes thru Turkey.

    2. Not From Here

      Russia already is piping gas to Turkey, and is building more capacity, and it looks as if gas via Turkey to Greece seems on the horizon. Strange bedfellows, but seems your comment is based on stale facts.

      If Turkey wants to interfere in Greece over some islands, then having a foot on a gas pipeline to other Nato members seems like a smart move.

  5. Nick Stokes

    No, the Russia obsession shows how the US military is being used. Increase activity in Yemen and Africa since 2017 parallels Russia’s goals.

  6. Susan the other

    Thanks for this post. I makes the best sense of our actions. We want to keep Turkey loyal to NATO, keep them buying our missiles, etc. The raging hatred of Turkey for the Kurds and their pursuit of a corner of land to call their own somewhere in the east of Turkey (close to huge oil reserves) and the threat of relentless terrorism has been Erdogan’s big nightmare. At odds with Erdogan has been the policy of the US Military which has always used the Kurds as trusted allies in the ME. But all the sturm und drang of Syria has now subsided and seems to have been almost pointless thanks to the Saudis falling apart. At least it looks that way. And this also explains Mattis’ abrupt resignation, explicitly stating he does not agree with Trump turning his back on the Kurds. Basically. Mattis has worked with the Kurds for decades probably. The only question now is what concessions did we get from Erdogan that Turkey will not have a total pogrom on the Kurds? It is going to be interesting to see what becomes of the Saudis as well.

    1. False Solace

      Traditionally when the US tries to withdraw from Syria a gas attack occurs and Assad is blamed for using chemical weapons on children. I guess we’ll see if Trump manages to implement his policy or if the CIA sabotages him like it did Obama.

      1. Duck1

        Well I think the kurds we are talking about would be in sovereign syria, so no need for genocide by Turkey.

  7. DonCoyote

    Here’s Morning Joe from April (debating what to do about a supposed gas attack by Assad), which also featured Stavridis, apparently their go-to Military-Industrial Complex person on Syria. Of course, this latest one did not feature Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who dropped a little too much truth on Morning Joe for them to ever have him back (or even comment on or remember what he said):

    And we know he sent in the CIA to overthrow Assad. The CIA and Saudi Arabia together, in covert operations, trying to overthrow Assad. It was a disaster. Eventually it brought in both ISIS as a splinter group to the jihadists that went in. It also brought in Russia. So we have been digging deeper and deeper and deeper. What we should do now is get out, and not continue to throw missiles, not have a confrontation with Russia. Seven years has been a disaster; under Obama, continuing under Trump. This is what I would call the permanent state. This is the CIA, this is Pankadon, wanting to keep Iran and Russia out of Syria, but no way to do that. And so we have made a proxy war in Syria. It’s killed five hundred thousand people, displaced ten million. And I’ll say predictably so, ‘cause I predicted it seven years ago that there was no way to do this, and it will make complete chaos. And so I will plead with President Trump, get out, like his instinct told him…that was his instinct, but then all the establishment, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Pentagon, everybody said, “No, no that’s irresponsible”, but his instinct is right. Get out.

    So yes, a war of regime change, which Trump has previously wanted out of, and the “establishment”/”permanent state” says no, then and now–different reasons, of course, but their song remains the same. Which is not to argue that Turkey is not a big winner. But the US is there illegally, has always been there illegally, and has shown a penchant for some horrible actions. There may be some benefits to us staying there, but I would argue that the costs have already been too great, and they are bound to get worse, not better.

  8. Brooklin Bridge

    If one were to scour the earth for someone equally fickle as Trump on the one hand and equally delusional in perception of their own grandeur on the other, they would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Erdogan, not to say that other choices don’t exist.

    So, what ever advantage Trump feels he is going to obtain by pulling out American troops from northern Syria, getting satisfaction from Erdogan is probably going to entail a very bumpy ride. Perhaps Trump has some other prod up his sleeve. Also, I’m not clear on how pulling troops out of Afghanistan, assuming he follows through on that as well, would fit into such a plan.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      While I think MOA in his 12/20/18 post goes a little overboard on, “It was this decision [pulling troops and air support out of Syria], and that he [Trump] stuck to it, which finally made him presidential.”, it does seem likely there are other reasons for the decision besides smooching with Turkey, or -if there IS no other reason- that Trump is more of a flashy risk taker than a great “deal maker.”

  9. VietnamVet

    Occupying a third of Syria in the middle of a mini world war is not in the United States best interests. It is what Israel, Saudi Arabia and corporate contractors want. This, Brexit and the Yellow Vests uprising are inexplicable unless one recognizes that the global economic institutions have relegated sovereign Western States into bought toadies. The New World Order intentionally exploits human labor and the environment. Donald Trump being a singular boss oligarch is chafing under the restrictions and is acting out. Unless the public interest and good governance are restored, the chaos will get worse. Chances for a restoration are not good when the Senior Senator from Oregon, Ron Wyden, accuses Russia of using Facebook to destroy American democratic values. This is crazy.

  10. The Rev Kev

    The withdrawal is a good Christmas present with the troops on the ground I bet. With so few US troops they could never really do much except be placeholders. Even grabbing Syria’s oil fields in the east was problematical as there was no reliable way to get the stuff out to the market. As far as I can see, the purpose of these troops was to try to force Trump to own this illegal occupation and make it “his” war. Of course as events unfolded there was the possibility that Turkey would get into a major conflict with the Kurds that the US are standing up in their own occupation of Syria. This might have lead to Turkey going over to Russia and Iran and maybe, just maybe, someone said to Trump that he would then be forever know as the President that “lost Turkey”. Not good if you want to get re-elected in 2020.

  11. Willem

    So that was it. The US was in Syria… to protect the Kurds from Turkey!

    Pity that Cockburn can’t expose the truth and nothing but the truth that is that American troops were/are in Syria to protect and defend the interest of American business. And that ISIS is mercenary army payed by SA and (formerly) Qatar. Perhaps Cockburn doesn’t say all this, because we all know this.

    Here is Vonnegut explaining Cockburn’s writing behavior in slaughterhouse 5 (these PR agents are all the same)

    I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.

    I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God—from whom?”

  12. Glen

    I support the withdrawal, and would like to see it vastly expanded. Our military is everywhere:

    “The Pentagon stated in 2013 that there are “around” 5,000 bases total, with “around” 600 of them overseas. ” (from wikipedia)

    The DOD’s actions are not making the US more safe; it is the opposite. We are the most feared and hated country in the world. Our military needs to be REDUCED to save our country – it is a vast wasteland of blood and money. In fact, it should be law that anytime the President says we are at war that we must have draft, a citizen army. This will force all Americans to be much more concerned about our military stupidity.

    Want to make us safer? Medicare-for-All. A Green New Deal. A new Glass Steagall. Attack global warming if we’re going to attack anything.

    Will the Democratic party act on this? No. Instead, a frustrated citizenry will vote them out tat he first chance. They get desperate to find somebody, anybody, who will represent them.

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