For the third time, President Trump is trying to withdraw from Syria. For the third time, his own allies, including Lindsey Graham, are attacking him — and pressure is piling high on the White House to find some kind of way to remain in Syria to keep America’s allies, the Kurdish-dominated YPG, from enduring a major Turkish offensive.
But I think this will be the last Syrian ‘withdrawal’ — not merely because third time’s the charm, but because as impeachment now closes in, Trump needs to build up his base’s loyalty. And there have been few greater rifts between Trump and his otherwise fanatical base than Syria.
Thus to close the ranks, Trump will probably give his Alt-Right base what it has long sought in Syria — and in doing so, will help solidify their neo-isolationism as part of the Republican Party’s platform for many years to come.
Syria: where the Alt-Right meets the Old Left
Syria is a weird place in American politics. Its Ba’athist state ideology is rooted in anti-Israeli resistance and Arab socialism — old school planks of America’s Old Left, and ideas which, in the early days of the 2011 Syrian uprising, pulled many Left-wing Americas towards affinity with the murderous Bashar al-Assad. Noam Chomsky, amongst others, has at times defended Russian airstrikes and Assad’s own war crimes.
The Old Left anti-imperialism knee jerk was predictable. What was surprising was the surge of their ideological rivals, the Alt-Right, rushing to agree with them. By 2012–13, an odd assortment of Old Left vanguards and Alt-Right activists had weaved a narrative arguing against U.S. involvement in Syria.
To the Alt-Right, Syria is a symbol of everything they despise about American foreign policy. It is a country without strategic resources, like oil, making it worthless from a pure dollar standpoint. It is very far away, with Europe and America’s Middle Eastern allies absorbing its refugee crisis, making it not very urgent to the U.S homeland.
And to the Alt-Right, the civil war is a battle not between the legitimate aspirations of a downtrodden population and a totalitarian government but a struggle between an authoritarian but still preferable regime facing down a horde of ‘globalist’ jihadists — flipping the whole script on who is the good guy and the bad guy.
That last part is the most important in understanding the Alt Right’s fixation on Syria: to them, Assad is the “least bad” of the actors on the ground, and he ticks their boxes in a number of important ways. He is a brute but secular dictator; he, therefore, is an ally against jihadism. He is nominally anti-Israel; for the white supremacists, this is a plus. But that doesn’t totally exclude the non-white supremacists; Assad’s tacit, long-standing truce with Israel negates his rhetoric. The white supremacists focus on the de jure state of war between Syria and Israel; the rest of the Alt-Right can focus on the de facto peace now decades old. The anti-Israel rhetoric, coupled with no real follow-through, thus bolsters two planks of the Alt-Right in Assad’s favor.
Assad’s enemies, meanwhile, are nothing more than anti-Christian, anti-Western jihadists created by the same nefarious forces that produced 9/11 — whether that’s the more realistic narrative of the Gulf Arab states or a shadowy, ridiculous global Illuminati cabal. All the Syrian rebel factions are just jihadists of differing stripes, their records of Assad’s war crimes mere “agiprops” created by their well-financial backers. Even if Assad isn’t exactly ideal, his enemies are the epitome of evil, however, the varying factions of the Alt-Right define that word.
But more than anything, the Alt-Right is motivated by the notion that this is a blow against the Forever Wars they believe dominate American foreign policy. A scroll through Reddit’s now-quarantined /r/The_Donald reveal this strong sentiment. Comments that talk about the ‘forever war’ lead the discussion on Trump’s tweets:
And it is this sentiment, far beyond the specifics of Syria, that matters. The Alt-Right is now in the bloodstream of the GOP: it is the party’s base, and will be for many years to come, even as it evolves and fractures. They may debate the specifics of isolationism, but seem unlikely to cast it aside entirely: instead, it will motivate their decisions in the GOP’s primaries and shape the party’s overall conversation towards foreign policy.
That is a remarkable change in a party that just 16 years ago rallied to President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, and which ran on that wartime platform and won in 2004. Much has changed about the party, but its shift towards isolationism is perhaps is most dramatic — and leaves the world wondering just what kind of American retrenchment is steadily unfolding in front of us.