Analysis

U.S. Exit From Syria Could Redraw the Map of the Middle East’s Blocs

Trump’s decision lets the Turks take over more Kurdish areas, while Russia and Iran can breathe a sigh of relief and go ahead with their own plans

U.S. Marines fire mortars from an undisclosed location in Syria, September 10, 2018.
Cpl. Gabino Perez/U.S. Marines/AP

Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35 stealth fighter, is biting its nails. Will Turkey’s multibillion-dollar purchase of 100 planes go through, or will Congress block it?

The main obstacle is Turkey’s plan to buy the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia. The Pentagon fears that this will damage strategic coordination among NATO countries, and more importantly, that the F-35’s classified technology might wind up in Russia, which could use it to improve its air defense systems.

Washington’s decision is complicated because Turkey was a partner in the plane’s development and invested $1.25 billion in it. Moreover, 10 Turkish companies have been trained to make parts for the planes.

Thus if Turkey is ousted from the project, it could lose around $12 billion in orders for parts. But American companies would lose the mammoth deal for the purchase of the jets.

>> Trump’s Syria withdrawal and Mattis’ resignation startle Israel – and undercut Netanyahu | Analysis ■ How Trump told Erdogan U.S. was leaving Syria ■ Will Turkey crush Syrian Kurds' secular utopia? ■ Israel left with false Russian promises, a volatile Trump

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018
Reuters graphic

Turkey has said the S-400 acquisition is a done deal, but the U.S. administration isn’t convinced. Therefore, it offered this week to sell 140 Patriot antimissile systems to Turkey for $3.5 billion if Ankara cancels the Russia deal.

Either way, these arms deals are intertwined with the three countries’ foreign policies, and especially the coming diplomatic and military moves in Syria. Turkey is furious at Washington for backing, funding and arming the Kurdish rebels in northern Syria. It has often proposed its army as an alternative to Kurdish forces in fighting ISIS, but has consistently been rebuffed.

The Kurds, who demonstrated impressive effectiveness in that war, not only served a vital military function but also gave the United States a foothold in the diplomatic process that Russia is leading to end Syria’s civil war and establish a new government. Turkey set up the National Liberation Front – comprised of Syrian militias including the Free Syrian Army – to gain military and diplomatic leverage in Syria. Washington used the Kurds for the same purpose. Part of their function was to ensure that American interests are upheld in the future as well.

To this end, the Americans planned to set up observation posts in Syria near the Turkish border to warn of and deter any Turkish assault on the Kurds. Granted, Washington’s official justification was to protect Turkey from attack, but Turkey didn’t buy it.

S-400 missile systems on Victory Day in Moscow, May 9, 2018.
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Kurds abandoned

This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he intends to send Turkish forces even deeper into Syria to liberate the city of Manbij from Kurdish control. This would violate his agreement with Washington under which American and Turkish forces would jointly patrol outside the city. Thus his announcement presented Washington with a dilemma – continue supporting the Kurds or acquiesce to Turkey’s demands?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all American forces – some 2,000 combatants and advisers – from Syria shows that Turkey won this round. The United States’ Kurdish allies have been abandoned, left with no American protection except diplomatic pressure, which has already proved ineffective.

>> Trump abandons Syria's Kurds: Will Turkey now crush their dream of a 'secular utopia?'

Members of the Maghawir al-Thawra Syrian opposition group receive training from U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers at the Al-Tanf, Syria, October 22, 2018.
Lolita Baldor / AP

It’s not clear whether Washington’s decision stemmed from an agreement under which Turkey would cancel or freeze the S-400 deal. But from Turkey’s standpoint, this is a green light to continue taking over all the Kurdish areas from the city of Afrin eastward, to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone like the one in Iraq.

Erdogan said he spoke with Trump this week about his intent to conquer territory east of the Euphrates River and “Trump gave his consent.” If that’s true, it seems likely there was some kind of deal linking America’s withdrawal to the S-400 purchase.

Russia and Iran, its diplomatic partner in Syria, can breathe a sigh of relief now that the United States is leaving and go ahead with their own plans. The Kurds say Russia is actually pushing Turkey to conquer parts of eastern Syria in order to force the Kurds to join the diplomatic process, which would eliminate one of the biggest obstacles to the formation of a unified rebel negotiating team.

This week, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed for Syrian government and rebel negotiators to meet in Geneva early next year under UN auspices. The conference is slated to include 50 government representatives, 50 rebel representatives and 50 “independents” about whose identity the parties are still wrangling.

The conference aims to create a constitutional drafting committee that would decide on issues such as the president’s powers, and also prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria. Washington recently said it wouldn’t oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad’s remaining in power if he won a free election.

U.S. troops in northern Syria, 2016.
Delil Souleiman / AFP

But it hasn’t said a word about what kind of government it wants to see in Syria, constitutional protections for minorities like the Kurds, security arrangements and the withdrawal of foreign forces. In short, America understands that it can no longer even influence, must less dictate, the shape of Syria’s new regime.

Idlib's future

One critical question relates to Syria’s postwar reconstruction, which is expected to cost $300 billion to $400 billion. Washington and Europe have both said they won’t contribute a cent unless there’s a consensual, stable government. But anyone who isn’t involved in the reconstruction won’t be able to influence the regime.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army must still conquer at least one major enclave to finish retaking the country. That’s the Idlib district, currently home to between 100,000 and 150,000 rebel fighters who moved there from throughout the country after Russian-sponsored cease-fire agreements.

In October, Idlib was on the verge of suffering a major offensive that could have killed of thousands of people. But under Turkish and American pressure, Russia agreed to postpone the assault in exchange for a Turkish promise to get the rebels to remove all heavy weapons from the city of Idlib and join the diplomatic process.

Idlib, which was declared a de-escalation zone under a Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement, is technically under Turkish supervision. But Ankara has only partial influence over the rebel militias, and none over the Al-Qaida-linked Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) and other extremist groups.

The fear is that if Turkey doesn’t keep its promise to Russia in the coming days, Russia will decide to help the Syrian army take Idlib by force. This fear has already led thousands of people to flee the city, and if heavy fighting does take place there, Turkey is likely to face a new flood of Syrian refugees.

Another thing Assad can be pleased about is the Arab states’ new attitude toward Syria. The first harbinger was the visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and Iraqi President Barham Salih is expected to follow suit soon.

Moreover, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi plans to take advantage of an upcoming economic conference in Beirut to ask Arab leaders to invite Assad to the Arab League summit in Tunisia in March. If Assad is invited, it will be the first time Syria has participated in an Arab League summit since it was suspended in November 2011.

The league has been strikingly ineffective in handling the Syrian crisis. But its unusual decision to suspend Syria was nevertheless an important symbolic gesture of protest against Assad’s slaughter of his own citizens.

Still, if Syria returns to the Arab League in the near future, that would be much more than a symbolic gesture. It would be a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t want Assad remaining in power. It would also be a clear sign both that the Arab coalition against Iran is developing cracks and that the stature of its leader, Saudi Arabia, is declining.

Trump is being pressured by Congress to freeze arms deals with Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia is now persona non grata on Capitol Hill. The Arab states are beginning to speak out against Saudi leadership and are also watching the United States leave Syria with its tail between its legs. And with all that happening, Russia presumably won’t remain on the sidelines.

All this shows that Trump’s withdrawal decision is another colossal error, or at least a poorly-thought-out move that could redraw the map of the Middle East’s blocs in a way that could undermine America’s position in the region – and certainly undermine Israel’s.