The Gray Lady has learned to code. Last week, the New York Times published a high-tech interactive map of Syria, which, given the newspaper’s usual stodginess, felt a bit like watching your grandmother turn on the oven with her iPad. The graphic swoops and pans over a topographical representation of the Syrian north, color-coded to indicate which parts are controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the rebels and the Kurds. The colors then shift and bleed together, as the political landscape changes to reflect Donald Trump’s withdrawal of American troops.
It’s all very cutting-edge. Yet the map has one fatal flaw: it isn’t of Syria at all. It’s of how foreign policy elites perceive Syria to be, a kind of visual readout of every hawkish prejudice about that luckless country. Think of it as Middle-syria, an imaginary land of heroes and villains, with moral imperatives as easy as those in a fantasy story.
In Middle-syria, the Kurdish forces allied with the United States are lionhearted do-gooders, yet are viewed almost inexplicably by Turkey as terrorists. Meanwhile, in the actual Syria, at least some of those Kurds have connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a radical front based in Turkey that’s been designated as a terrorist group not just by Ankara but by the United States. Syrian Kurdish militants are comprised largely of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militant wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). No less an eminence than former defense secretary Ashton Carter has said the PYD harbors “substantial ties” to the terrorist PKK. Foreign Policy reports that the two entities “share an intellectual lineage” and one YPG fighter said of her organization, “It’s all PKK but different branches,” adding, “They are all members of the PKK.”
Thus, while in Middle-syria Turkey’s aggression is wrought from sheer malice and imperialism, in the real Syria its actions are somewhat grayer. Turkey is a brutal bully, no question, but it’s also acting in its clear national interest against a group tied to a party that’s committed atrocities within its own borders. The United States would never allow an al-Qaeda-affiliated army to establish an enclave on its southern border; why should the Turks not want to prevent a similar situation? The Syrian Kurds did help the United States stop ISIS—actually it’s more accurate to say the United States helped the Syrian Kurds—but their status is nonetheless more complex than the valiant giant-slayers we’ve conjured off the page.
Aha, says the Times, but there’s more to it than that. After all, as their graphic asserts, by withdrawing the troops, Trump has forced the Kurds to make a deal “with an American enemy—the Syrian government.” This has “opened the door for President Bashar al-Assad to try to regain control of the whole country.” Such is the view from Middle-syria. Back in Syria, Assad is not “an American enemy,” not formally anyway, as Congress has never declared war on him. And the Syrian Civil War isn’t some up-for-grabs contest that the United States can still shape in its favor. Assad, backed by the Russians, has won, and his retaking all of Syria is only a matter of time. The Kurds, in need of a more proximate and durable guardian than a small contingent of American troops, were always likely to ally with him, irrespective of what Trump decided to do.
In addition to Turkey and Assad, Middle-syria’s bestiary of enemies also includes Iran, which leads the Times to fret that as a result of Trump’s pullout, Tehran “could gain a long supply route to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.” This is blatantly misleading. It’s true that an Assad victory could allow Iran to ship supplies overland through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon—the so-called Shiite crescent. But so far as Syria is concerned, such Iranian transit is nothing new. Bashar al-Assad has long allowed the Iranians to use Damascus Airport as a waypoint for supplies on their way to Hezbollah. If there is to be a Shiite crescent, it will not be because of Assad but because of America’s invasion of Iraq, which tossed out Iranian enemy Saddam Hussein and delivered Baghdad to the country’s Shia majority.
And we haven’t even touched on Middle-syria’s most hallowed myth: the so-called moderate rebels, who back in the real Syria have a stubborn habit of handing our weapons over to bloodthirsty jihadists.
This is how we look at foreign policy now. It’s how deeply intricate Middle Eastern scrums are made soluble in the 24-hour news cycle. Thus was there also Middle-iraq, scene of the heroic Surge and a war hard-won, only for the fainthearted Barack Obama to erase those gains by pulling out the troops. The bards, too, sing of Middle-libya, where the good people were freed by the United States from the tyrannical King Gaddafi. That the Surge involved literally buying peace from Sunni warlords, an arrangement that was never going to last, and the overthrow of Gaddafi resulted in violent anarchy that’s left some Libyans pining for the dictatorial days of yore, rarely draws the camera lens. The storybook narratives are far more gratifying; cue Hillary Clinton gloating about Gaddafi’s death, end-scene.
The problem with all this is what we might call irreducible complexity. That term, guaranteed to annoy any atheists in the room, is typically used by Christians looking to challenge Darwinism and the theory of evolution. It refers to the idea that biology as we know it is too complex to have evolved without an intelligent designer, though it’s sometimes applied more broadly, to the larger universe and the impossibility of its existing without God. That may or may not hold water, but what we can say is that our nation building in recent years has been plagued by irreducible complexity. Ancient sectarian hatreds have flummoxed us. Myriad tribal differences have overwhelmed us. The sheer variety of other nations has proven impossible for Washington to socially engineer. The legends might come in black and white, but the reality on the ground is always frustratingly kaleidoscopic.
None of this, by the way, justifies what Donald Trump did last month. The president’s troop withdrawal was hasty, heedless, and ham-handed. It made America look like a Turkish supplicant. It risked the release of ISIS prisoners back into the wild; it also risked the United States being drawn into a new Syrian war between NATO ally Turkey and Assad. And it wasn’t even a net withdrawal, as our departing troops were quickly offset by other American forces. Maybe, then, those of us who support a more restrained foreign policy should be aware that we can fall victim to this simplifying temptation, too, demanding that the troops come home without really thinking through what that will entail. The task of disentangling American empire from the world isn’t going to be an easy one. Still beats living in a fantasy though.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.