Reports concerning President Trump’s intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria should come as no surprise, at least for one reason. Trump usually changes policies like one changes socks, and there was no reason to assume he would act any differently in Syria.
It’s true that back in April he declared he would pull out American troops, but since then he changed his mind, coming into serious conflict with the Pentagon and the State Department. Only three weeks ago, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, said an American withdrawal from Syria is contingent on an acceptable diplomatic resolution in Syria and the establishment of a reasonable regime there. In other words, victory over ISIS, which until then was the main reason for the U.S. presence in Syria, was replaced by a new argument: waiting for a stable regime in Syria.
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Even in this, the U.S. contributes nothing, since the management of diplomatic developments in Syria is entirely in the hands of Russia, joined by Turkey and Iran. Predicating American withdrawal on a diplomatic resolution not only failed to impress Russia and its allies, it put America in a position in which it was dependent on Russia’s ability to reach such a resolution. It actually made finding one much harder, since as long as Kurdish forces believed they had an American umbrella against Turkey, which would enable them to continue holding territory they had acquired and use it as a bargaining chip before withdrawing, Russia had a hard time forming a united coalition of rebels who would accept Russia’s blueprint for a solution.
If Trump sticks to his decision to withdraw and doesn’t yield to pressure exerted on him by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, or if he wakes up with some new fantasy, the U.S. will evacuate the base at al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which acted as a deterrent to the entry of Shi’ite militia units into Syria. The U.S. will also evacuate its northern bases, which served as a base for strikes against ISIS, and it will also give up the idea of setting up observation posts along the border with Turkey which would protect the Kurds. This would leave the city of Manbij, now under Kurdish rule, open to a Turkish occupation, from where it could spread to other Kurdish enclaves east of the Euphrates.
It’s true that the extent of American forces in Syria was not sufficient for conducting significant tactical operations, but their very presence marked a territory of control and deterrence, preventing conflict with Russian, Turkish, Syrian and Iranian forces. Thus, the U.S. prevented the expansion of the Turkish invasion eastwards from the city of Afrin, by warning that hurting American soldiers would lead to painful retaliation.
Wariness of a conflict with American forces led Turkey to sign with clenched teeth an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. in jointly monitoring the city of Manbij, which had become a source of diplomatic conflict between the two countries. The American obstacle will no longer deter Turkey, and the Kurds will have to decide whether to wage a long and possibly hopeless war against Turkey, or to seek shelter with Moscow, without being able to pose conditions regarding future arrangements in Syria.
The Kurds are undoubtedly the biggest losers following the U.S. decision. This won’t be the first time in their history in which the U.S. is shown to be an unreliable ally. The State Department is rightly concerned that withdrawal from Syria would provide further proof to American allies that there’s no one that can be trusted in Washington and that Trump’s commitments are not worth the virtual space his tweets occupy.
However, the value of America’s commitment to its allies, with all its importance, is for now secondary to the main issue, which is the foreign forces involved in Syria, mainly those of Iran. One of the reasons given by the U.S. for its continued presence in Syria was based on the equation that as long as there are foreign forces in Syria, American troops would also continue their mission. Russia and Iran countered that their presence was legitimate since they had been invited by Syria, in contrast to the U.S. and Turkey, who had invaded the country.
The U.S. ignored this argument, and even though it clarified that the removal of Iranian forces would not be achieved through military means but through diplomatic ones, it was clear that the Iranian presence gave justification for its operations in Syria. American withdrawal will now be presented by Syria and Iran as a rout, which could impact the status and influence of the United States in the region, including Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia, which could view an American retreat from Syria as a serious blow to the joint campaign against Iran.
For Israel, the U.S. presence in Syria did not carry much weight in terms of its campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, but it had great importance in setting the rules of the game with regard to Russia, in delineating regions of reduced conflict in southern Syria and in removing Iranian forces from the Golan border. In all of these, Washington was either directly or indirectly involved, through its backing of Israel in multilateral meetings, and through its presence in Syria, which gave it the status of an active partner. Furthermore, as long as there are American bases in Syria they enable some military “elasticity,” which allows increasing the number of troops when more extensive local interventions are needed, without this appearing as a game-changer or a precedent.
Withdrawal of these forces means that any new deployment in Syria will now become a complex and prolonged political move, requiring Congressional approval, since such a move could be interpreted as an act of war. Trump can now boast that he’s fulfilled a campaign promise, returning troops home, but at the same time he’s disengaging the U.S. from another arena in which it could have had great impact.
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