US troop withdrawal from Syria counterproductive
On Sunday, the Pentagon confirmed that the order to withdraw US troops from Syria had been signed. Last week’s announcement of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces, which have been deployed to help the global coalition fight Daesh, came as a shock to US officials, as well as to allies and partners worldwide.
Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest. Apparently angry at his letter of resignation, Trump asked him to leave at the end of December and appointed his deputy as acting defense secretary. Brett McGurk, who served as the special presidential envoy to the coalition, also resigned. Trump later said he had never heard of McGurk, despite the fact that he had been in that post for years.
As was to be expected, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime were delighted by the news of the US withdrawal and the apparent chaos it had caused. Turkey was also pleased, but was hoping for a gradual withdrawal to enable it to take full advantage of the new situation. That was reportedly the subject of a phone call between Trump and his Turkish counterpart on Sunday.
US forces and their allies control 25-30 percent of Syria, including some strategic locations. The withdrawal will have a serious impact on the fate of those territories. Iran and Turkey will likely seek to extend their control to those areas currently protected by US forces.
Without American help, local rebel groups are no match militarily for the forces of Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, and the multitudes of sectarian militias fighting alongside them, including Hezbollah. The rebels will be slaughtered or driven away en masse.
Since 2016, the US military has helped run, with Maghawir Al-Thawra rebels, the Tanf desert base, strategically located near Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq. The base is also close to the Damascus-Baghdad highway. US forces have kept a wide perimeter around it, striking any force that attempts to move down the highway or toward the base.
As soon as they leave, the Syrian regime, Iran and their allies will likely try to take these important assets. Tehran is keen to secure that part of the highway to facilitate the movement of its forces and materiel to Syria. Iran’s land bridge to Syria and Lebanon could become fully operational in a short time.
Next is the areas US forces control with Syrian-Kurdish rebels. With American help, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) drove Syrian regime forces out of large parts of the northeast in 2012, and has controlled those areas since. In 2014, with US support, the YPG resisted Daesh’s attempts to overrun those areas.
Iran and Turkey will likely seek to extend their control to those areas currently protected by US forces.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The YPG formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) when it entered into an alliance with local Arab rebel groups. The SDF controls nearly a quarter of Syria — almost all the areas east of the Euphrates river, including Raqqa (the former capital of Daesh’s caliphate) and some of the country’s largest oil fields. In addition, since 2016 the SDF alliance with local rebels has controlled the Manbij area, located west of the Euphrates.
Turkey has accused the YPG and SDF of being fronts for its arch enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara has announced its intention to attack both areas east and west of the Euphrates. With US forces out of the way, it is very likely to carry out those threats.
This US volte-face had been rumored for months, revived every time Trump tweeted about the cost of maintaining American forces in Syria. Despite his outbursts, American officials sought to reassure allies that the US was in Syria to stay. In January 2018, the US secretary of state gave a lengthy exposition of long-term policy toward Syria.
In August, the US appointed two senior officials to lead its engagement on Syria, stressing that it was remaining in the country despite rumors to the contrary. Former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey became the secretary of state’s representative for Syria engagement, and Joel Rayburn was appointed special envoy for Syria, in addition to serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs.
The appointments were meant to dispel notions that the US was disengaging from Syria and allowing others to decide its future. Those notions were given currency by Trump’s tweets about withdrawing troops and freezing funds earmarked for Syria. In a widely circulated tweet, he said the US “has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria.”
Also in August, the US reassured its allies that it was “remaining in Syria,” in McGurk’s words. He stressed that the US focus was still the enduring defeat of Daesh. “We still have not launched the final phase to defeat the physical caliphate. That is actually being prepared now, and that will come at a time of our choosing, but it is coming,” McGurk said.
After the group’s defeat, he added: “You have to train local forces to hold the ground to make sure that the area remains stabilized so ISIS (Daesh) cannot return. So this mission is ongoing and is not over.” But the withdrawal of US troops now seems certain after the order was signed. Its impact will likely be profound, in the immediate and medium terms, on the balance of power in Syria. It will most likely be the end of the US presence in the country.
In addition to its role in the air campaign against Daesh, US covert action, support for allies and diplomatic engagement will continue to carry out American policy toward Syria. Now more than ever, US allies and partners need to coordinate more closely to map out their own strategy for Syria.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1