It’s no longer possible to accuse U.S. President Donald Trump of inconsistency, at least on Syria. In December, before taking office, he said Washington should stop trying to topple regimes; he was referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose removal had become a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Mideast policy. And last month, Trump made perhaps his most significant decision to date – to stop aiding the Syrian militias fighting Assad.
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On Wednesday, The Washington Post said this decision provided Russia with final confirmation that it owns Syria. And not only Russia. Iran is also very happy with Trump’s decision to pull the rug out from under the dozens of militias still fighting Assad.
The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest predictably proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war.
Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s “service” in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily fighting Assad. Other militias, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that coordinates their training and military activity and also funds them. But not all these militias obey orders from the Jordanian headquarters, and even those that do don’t necessarily stick to the missions assigned them.
Moreover, some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help, for obvious reasons. One is the Al-Qaida affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups that are still fighting, but mainly among themselves.
The realization that support for the anti-Assad militias failed to produce significant results on the ground persuaded Obama to limit his support to money and arms, and under no circumstances to send American soldiers into the field. Trump, who launched 60 missiles at the Syrian base from which Assad’s army may have used chemical weapons, ended his military involvement in the anti-Assad battle with that.
American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds with a minority of Arabs. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones and, above all, steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran.
Trump’s decision also eliminates the diplomatic advantage (admittedly of little practical value) that the militias gained from appearing to have a steadfast Western backer who would prevent a Russian and Iranian takeover of Syria. But this isn’t a revolutionary change since Turkey, once Assad’s bitterest opponent, made clear months ago that it wouldn’t oppose his continued rule “during a transition period” for which it specified no time limit. And this week French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Assad’s removal isn’t a precondition for negotiations on Syria’s future.
Thus, aside from Saudi Arabia, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.
This raises the question of how countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have borne the brunt of financing the Syrian opposition (each country to its own militias), will react to the American decision. Presumably they will continue funding and arming their pet militias. That will pointlessly extend the fighting, but it will protect their own interests.
The most dangerous divergence among the major powers’ interests, however, is the rising tension between Turkey and Washington. It hit new heights this week when the Turkish news agency Anadolu published a map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, replete with the number of American soldiers serving on each. This infuriated not only Washington but all NATO members, because never before had one NATO country revealed another’s military secrets. Even worse, the publishing of the map and numbers endangered American soldiers and the bases where they’re stationed.
Granted, the location of some bases had been published several months before, and was already known to militias active in northern Syria. But never before has such precise information been leaked by an ally.
The reason for Turkey’s leak was its deep unhappiness over American aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey suspects the SDF’s Kurdish fighters of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which Ankara defines as a terror group. And it fears that some of the American weaponry the SDF is using against that Islamic State in Raqqa has been given, or will be given, to Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey.
Washington’s promise that the weapons have been counted and will be collected from the Kurds when the campaign is over hasn’t assuaged Turkey’s concerns, and rightly so. A lot of American weaponry made its way to terror groups after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington sees the Kurds as an effective and essential fighting force against the Islamic State, so it has no intention, at least for now, of halting aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The distinction Washington has drawn between Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, which merit aid, and non-Kurdish militias fighting Assad, which no longer do, could increase clashes between the Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting alongside Turkey to expand the Syrian territory under Turkey’s control.
Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, defined the United States’ support for the Kurds as a “strategic mistake,” arguing that Raqqa could be captured by Turkish and American forces. Turkish officials say Ankara offered to contribute tens of thousands of soldiers to such an effort, but Washington wanted 80,000, which the Turks considered excessive. Moreover, they said, the United States didn’t really have a serious plan of action.
Now the concern is that Turkey’s expanding involvement in Idlib province and the expected clashes between its troops and local militias could force the United States, which wants to decamp once Raqqa is taken, to keep its own forces in the field to prevent a war between Turkey and the Syrian militias.
Problems for the Kurds
But if Turkey is pleased by America’s disengagement, the U.S.-backed Kurds should worry. Continued American assistance is assured as long as the war against the Islamic State continues, but it’s likely to end once the circumstances change, because Turkey, despite its clashes with Washington, will remain a more important ally than the Kurds, whose role will end together with the Islamic State.
Thus the Syrian Kurds are likely to seek a more reliable ally than the United States in their war against Turkish domination, and it’s not ridiculous to think that Iran, which has proved a loyal patron of Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, might fill this role. Iran already has close ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, and it doesn’t have any disagreement with the Syrian Kurds over Assad staying in power.
With Iranian and Russian support, the Kurds could win a seat at negotiations on Syria’s future, from which they have hitherto been excluded under Turkish pressure, with American consent.
Trump’s decision recalls Washington’s abandonment of the Iraqi Shi’ites whom it encouraged to revolt against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. The aid the United States promised never arrived, and tens of thousands of Shi’ites were killed.
Back then, President George H.W. Bush feared that helping the Shi’ites would empower Iran, so he chose to leave Saddam in place as a bulwark against Tehran. Now Trump is lifting the last obstacles to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria while relying on Russia to stop the Iranian inroads. A scenario where the Arab states would utilize Washington’s disengagement to offer Assad a return to the Arab fold and massive aid to rebuild his country in exchange for reforms that would include sharing power with his political rivals isn’t currently in the cards.
Thus all eyes will now be on Russia and Iran. The Russian forces that entered Daraa province this week to supervise the truce, the redeployment of Hezbollah forces to match the planned map of other de-escalation zones and the relative quiet in Daraa all indicate that Syria and Iran understand each other’s interests.
The next step is to stabilize the cease-fire zone and distance the fighting from the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Turkey, Russia and Iran are also discussing establishing a de-escalation zone in Idlib. These will be the real tests of Russia’s ability to manage Syria.
With Washington having left the field (aside from the war on the Islamic State), Iran and Turkey, as partners in the diplomatic process, will both have their positions bolstered. Under other circumstances, Israel could use Turkey as a strategic partner to protect its interests. In the current circumstances, Israel is suspicious of Turkey and worried by its closeness to Iran and Russia.
More importantly, however, Israel must now adapt its strategic paradigm to a situation in which Russia has become a dominant player in Syria in particular and the Mideast in general, while the Americans are heading back across the ocean.