The deceased leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Image: SalamPix/ABACA)

So, after years of looking, US troops found Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder of ISIS, while they were clearing out of northern Syria, and killed him. What a coincidence, hey! What extraordinarily good luck to land a blow on ISIS just as the withdrawal is giving it a chance to restart! And, of course, what bollocks.

Baghdadi’s whereabouts has clearly been known for a long time. We are so far into these simulacrum wars that that sort of thing doesn’t surprise anymore. It doesn’t fool anyone in the media or political classes — nor is it meant to. It’s a purely formal move to shape the narrative for a knowing audience.

War is now being run like the writers’ room of a Netflix series trying to find something to tie up season three. Or, in the case of the Iraq occupation, season 17.

Iraq is, of course, where the US troops “withdrawn” from Syria have been sent. Iraq is coming apart because of the gaps between the Shiite minority rulers of the country (as established post-invasion in 2003), and the Sunni majority ruled by them — as well as the corruption, inequality and economic division that has resulted since.

In TV that’s what they call a “callback” to an earlier plot point. Here’s another one: the US troops that aren’t being withdrawn are guarding oil fields. Ah, remember 2003?

So, Baghdadi had been kept in Tupperware for God knows how long. All major players would have known somewhat where he was; Turkey not least because it has essentially funded, supplied and protected ISIS since its creation. Reconstituting the terrorist group through escaped ISIS militia is a bonus of the Turkish invasion of Syria. A renewed ISIS keeps pressure on Shiite Baghdad; on Iran, its backer and ally; and on Kurdistan which must mount a defence, limiting guerrilla operations in Turkey.

The US is not in any way out of operations in the field; it is simply cut out of the negotiations because a contingent of troops that served as a convenient place marker in Rojava have now simply become additional personnel in existing forces.

Leaving aside the betrayal of the Rojava Kurds, that doesn’t matter overmuch. But it’s worth noting that this is neither a withdrawal to US borders, nor an effective international presence, but the worst parts of both. Any suggestion of a deliberate or unified US strategy would have to have a very persuasive argument to it. The most likely explanation is that Trump made a deal with Erdogan on the phone, with the Donald — the cosseted soft son of a New York millionaire — overwhelmed by a hardman from Turkish politics.

In the aftermath, White House staff and the military scrambled to give the move a rationale and due process. “Forever wars” was shoved in Trump’s mouth; it’s a phrase from upmarket commentary Trump has rarely, if ever, used. US forces got out so fast that Syrian militias could make mocking videos of their jumbo peanut butter jars and Barbie doll collections left behind. Exiting the troops to Western Iraq is probably nothing more than avoiding a bad photo-op of US troops getting out en masse in helicopters like you-know-when. For the US, that whole thing deserves that overused word “fiasco”.

I’m always ready to find out there’s a unified logic beneath it. But until then I’ll believe this is how the US is governed now.

The avalanche of calumny that was heaped upon Obama’s head for creating a piecemeal, steady, reflexive realpolitik which involved backing off overextension, has now been shown to be a preceding phantom, a rehearsal for the real thing. Yet the episode shows how opaque, and resistant to rationality, politics is becoming — a war of fantasies.

To land this failure on Trump, the left — MSNBC etc — would have had to go full liberal interventionist. They would have had to label it “America’s humiliation”, invoke World War II and anti-fascism, and play the footage of the overtaken US headquarters 500 times. They should have done it too.

Whatever the Kurds’ operations in Turkey — and their brutality should not be underplayed — the Rojava/ISIS line had been the front line of humanism vs. the fanatical moral nihilism of a punk death cult.

Now that that has been betrayed, the anglosphere right are happy to justify it because it allows them to cosy up to religious reactionary global “strongmen” in what is, for many sad-sack right pundits, clearly a semi-eroticised process.

Still, how that plays in the heartland remains to be seen.

Both right and left now ascribe vastly more meaning to foreign policy than used to be the case. Middle America is now post-empire; turned inward to low wages, basic cable TV, cheap carbs. It’s just getting by. Foreign policy is an elite game.

The easy invasions that once delivered a sugar jolt are gone, and attempts to get a “Saddam spider hole” buzz — with a suspiciously similar narrative — will fail. Though, for season 17, it’s a hell of a callback.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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