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Syria: emerging consequences of the US withdrawal

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria has actors scrambling to make sense of the ramifications.

Photo: José M. Ruibérriz/Flickr
Photo: José M. Ruibérriz/Flickr
Published 18 Jan 2019   Follow @RodgerShanahan

Don’t confuse tactical loyalty with strategic sense. No Kurd in their right mind would have believed that the US presence was anything but temporary.

It’s a new year and another chapter in the long-running Syrian civil war. With ISIS nearly defeated on the Syrian battleground, President Donald Trump made the unilateral decision to withdraw US troops, without too much detail about where this action sat within broader Middle East security policy, or details about anything else, really. I commented at the time (see: What happens next? Trump’s sudden Syria exit) about some of the possible ramifications. While there has been some pushback and confusion about Trump’s decision, it appears to be going ahead sorta-kinda-sooner-rather-than-later.

Still, all this has a long way to play out. While no decision taken in the labyrinth of competing interests that is the Middle East is ever risk-free, the suddenness of Trump’s move has had many actors scrambling to make sense of its ramifications. Before the year gets too old, I offer a few observations about the myriad of issues surrounding the decision to withdraw.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Regarding its Syria policy, Washington will be criticised whatever it does, whenever it does it. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal on the eve of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh, argued that the withdrawal was a strategic mistake, entrenching Bashar al-Assad in Syria, along with Iranian and Russian interests. This is the same Turki al-Faisal who, at the start of 2013, advocated arming rebel groups with surface to air missiles, claiming that:

Foreign governments should have enough information on the rebel units to ensure that weapons only reached specific groups … You can select the good guys and give them these means and build their credibility.

So before placing too much weight on people’s criticism, it is important to try and understand their motives and look at their track record of strategic analysis.

Stormy weather friends

Don’t confuse tactical loyalty with strategic sense. It is natural that those members of the coalition that have fought with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will feel a sense of abandonment at the abrupt US departure. But the SDF contains both Arabs and Kurds, and no Kurd in their right mind would have believed that the US presence was anything but temporary.

The Kurds may well rue waiting too long to sort out their long-term relationship with Damascus, now their bargaining chip is pulling up stumps.

The Iran spectre is just that

Syria will not become an Iranian proxy. While Damascus has had to cede some economic political ground to Tehran, the thought that Iran will have anything approaching freedom of action in a post-civil war Syria defies logic.

Chinese and Russian business interests will likely compete more than successfully than with Iranian ones, and some Arab states are now sending business delegations and re-opening embassies to slowly try to re-engage with the regime.

Israel has also shown efforts by Iran to establish fixed bases and logistic hubs inside Syria comes at a great cost, due to Tel Aviv’s willingness to use airpower as a strategic constraint.

And the idea that Shi’a militias are going to have a large ongoing presence in the country ignores the fact that the average Syrian is not going to support an Afghan, Pakistani or even Iraqi militia presence once the fighting is over. The famed Iranian “land bridge” to the Mediterranean has always been more Washington hype than strategic substance.

Counting guns and material

One of the main problems with the potential hastiness of the US withdrawal is what to do with the weapons and equipment issued to the Kurds. A little over 18 months ago, the Trump Administration made the decision to provide the Kurdish element of the SDF with a range of weapons systems, over the objection of the Turks. The understanding reached with Ankara was that this equipment would be withdrawn when the Americans left.

But the practicalities of accounting for all this equipment will be challenging, to say the least. The optics of US-supplied weapons being used by Kurds against Turkish forces, or being absorbed into the Syrian military when Kurdish forces are reintegrated into the state, will not be good. Washington will want to minimise the chances of this occurring.

Ongoing threats

What happens to ISIS following a US withdrawal is important, but ISIS is not the only jihadist in town.

Overshadowed by events in the east of the country, the pro-al Qaeda jihadist collective Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham has defeated its largely Turkish-backed rivals for control of Idlib in northern Syria. This is another development to which we should pay careful attention.

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