West Asia

Out of Syria

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U.S. Special Forces personnel at a front-line outpost outside the northern Syrian city of Manbij, a February 2018 picture. Photo: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

President Donald Trump with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on July 11, 2018. Photo: Tatyana Zenkovich/AP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: REUTERS

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters raise the opposition flag as they arrive in the rebel-held border town of Qirata, on December 25, 2018. Photo: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/ AFP

Damascus is spared regime change as President Donald Trump orders the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in a significant concession to the U.S.’ estranged NATO ally, Turkey, which demanded that Washington discontinue its backing of the Kurdish militia.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP’S DECISION TO withdraw the 2,000 personnel of the United States’ Special Forces from Syria surprised not only his senior Cabinet members but also the U.S.’ close allies. Influential sections in the U.S.’ political and military establishments seemed to be taken aback by Trump’s announcement on December 19 on the withdrawal of the relatively small number of troops stationed in Syria. Both the neoconservatives in the Republican Party and the liberal interventionist hawks in the Democratic Party expressed their anger at the decision. The corporate-funded media and think tanks were united in their criticism of Trump’s move.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, who had until recently supported almost all of Trump’s hawkish foreign policy initiatives, said that he was “blindsided” by Trump’s decision. He and five other Senators belonging to both parties wrote a letter to Trump imploring him to change his decision and keep the U.S. troops on in Syria. The Democratic Congress member Nancy Pelosi, who is all set to regain her House speakership, said that Trump’s action was guided “by personal or political objectives” and not by national security interests.

Two days after Trump’s announcement, Defence Secretary James Mattis put in his papers citing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria as the main reason for his resignation. It was also revealed to the media that Trump had concurrently ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Mattis, a retired four-star general, was among Trump’s close advisers in government who had objected to the withdrawal of the troops from Syria. Mattis apparently also disagreed with the halving of the U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan. In his letter of resignation, Mattis blamed Trump for diminishing the U.S.’ role in global affairs.

Trump had apparently wanted troop withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan to start much earlier, but Mattis and other senior officials had persuaded him to delay the inevitable. Trump had run for the presidency on an “anti-interventionist” platform. In March, he said in a speech that the U.S. forces in Syria “will be coming home very soon”. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is also an acknowledgement of the reality on the ground and the U.S.’ diminishing power in West Asia. It has dawned on the international community that the Syrian government is the winner of the war that was imposed on the country and that there will be no regime change in Damascus.

In the first two years of his presidency, Trump sent out mixed signals on Syria. In January 2018, his administration proposed the setting up of a 30,000-strong U.S.- backed force in north-eastern Syria along the Turkish border. In October, National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that the U.S. would stay on in Syria as long as Iran continued to exert its influence in the region. James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, said in a speech to the Atlantic Council two days before Trump made his announcement that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was making a “big mistake” if he thought that U.S. troops were going to leave Syria any time soon. Syria, he said, had become a “great power conflict”.

The Daesh factor

But as has been his wont, Trump suddenly changed tack and went against the advice of the military and security establishment when he made the decision to withdraw from Syria. He proclaimed that the Daesh (Islamic State) had been defeated in Syria. “We have defeated the Daesh in Syria. My only reason for being there in the Trump Presidency,” Trump wrote on Twitter. The Pentagon spokesperson, however, had a different take on Trump’s claim that the Daesh has been defeated in Syria. She said that though the U.S.-led coalition had liberated the territory that was under the control of extremists, the military campaign against the group would continue.

The French government issued a statement saying that its small military contingent would remain in eastern Syria as the Daesh continued to be a threat. French President Emmanuel Macron said that he “deeply regretted” Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria. The U.S.’ other allies, such as Britain and Germany, had also been critical of Trump’s move. Israel was particularly upset and viewed the move as a concession to Iran and Hizbollah.

It is a fact that the Daesh no longer poses a threat. It has been defeated in the rest of Syria by the Syrian people and their army, assisted by Russia, Iran and the Hizbollah militia. The other terror groups in Syria were armed and trained by the U.S., its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies and regional proxies. They are still fighting in Idlib province under the protection of the U.S. and Turkey. The Syrian forces have called off their offensive to free the province for the time being to allow civilians to leave towns controlled by jehadists.

Mollifying Turkey

Trump’s announcement on Syria came soon after he had a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A U.S. State Department official told the media that Trump took the decision after his talk with Erdogan. Turkey had been threatening to launch a full-scale military attack against the U.S.-backed People’s Protection Group (YPG) forces in eastern Syria. The U.S. obviously preferred not to get into a military confrontation with Turkey, its NATO ally. Among NATO member states, Turkey has the second biggest army. It has amassed troops and armour along its border with Syria in preparation for an onslaught against the Kurd-dominated YPG. The YPG is, for all practical purposes, the Syrian wing of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The YPG, with the support of the U.S., now controls all the territory east of the Euphrates river. One-third of Syria, consisting of its sparsely populated parts, are presently under their control.

The area has a number of oil and gas fields, which were under Daesh control for a couple of years during the Syrian civil war. The Syrian government will be eager to retake control of the fertile area north of the Euphrates. Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Daesh, was also in this part of occupied Syria. The town was utterly devastated by U.S. forces during their siege of Raqqa. More than 40,000 people were killed in the U.S. assault. Many humanitarian groups want the U.S. to be tried for war crimes for its failure to safeguard civilian life in Raqqa.

Erdogan has for long accused the U.S. government of propping up the YPG and indirectly giving sustenance to the PKK inside Turkey. Turkey has repeatedly stated that it will under no circumstances allow a part of Syria to become “a terror corridor” dominated by the PKK. Erdogan has been demanding the repatriation of the cleric Fethullah Gulen from his American sanctuary. The Turkish government has accused him of being the mastermind of the 2016 coup attempt that almost toppled Erdogan. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed in mid December that the Trump administration had acceded to the demand and had started the extradition process. The White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the impression that Trump was considering the request.

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is being viewed as a significant concession to Erdogan. The move could go a long way in repairing relations between the estranged NATO allies. There are reports that Erdogan had threatened to quit NATO if the U.S. continued to back the YPG. Relations between the two countries had begun to deteriorate after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

Turkey has reasons to be happy as one of its main demands, withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, has been met by the U.S. Just before the announcement of troop withdrawal, the State Department informed Congress about a new $3.5-billion deal with Turkey for the sale of Patriot anti-missile systems. This could mean that Turkey may be having second thoughts about its stated intention to go in for Russia’s S-400 anti-missile systems. Erdogan also seems to have convinced Trump that Turkey was a better buffer to stop the spread of Iranian influence in the region than either the YPG or countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Kurds left high and dry

The Kurds have been left high and dry by their U.S. patrons. Despite having become a disciplined fighting force that played a key role in subduing the Daesh, they are not in a position to face a full-fledged Turkish military assault without the benefit of a protective U.S. military umbrella. Latest reports suggest that Turkey has deployed 15,000 Arab fighters along the border to take on the Kurds. The U.S. withdrawal gives the Turkish army the green light to start its operations against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) operating in north-eastern Syria that was cobbled up by the U.S. and its key Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia. Syria was expecting such a situation to evolve sooner or later. It has from the beginning maintained that the U.S. presence on its territory is illegal and “an act of aggression”. The U.S. unilaterally put itself on Syrian territory without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council.

The authorities in Damascus were confident that the U.S. military presence was unsustainable in the long run. Russia, Syria’s major ally, has accused the Trump administration of using the presence of the Daesh in a few small pockets in south-eastern Syria as a pretext to keep a military toehold in Syria and that the U.S military presence is hindering a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given the Trump administration’s decision on Syria a cautious welcome.

The Russian leadership is aware of Trump’s tendency to quickly backtrack on his commitments. The Syrian government has its contacts within the SDF. With a Turkish military push almost inevitable, the YPG will now have very little choice but to form a tacit alliance with the Syrian army. The two sides had an alliance when the civil war began in 2012.

The Syrian government had given the Kurds in the eastern region autonomy so that the army could focus on the various terror outfits that had cropped up all over the country. In all likelihood, the Kurds will once again reach an understanding with the Syrian government. In exchange for swearing allegiance to the Syrian state, they could be given limited autonomy to run their affairs once again. Turkey wants to control the territory in north-eastern Syria now under the U.S.-backed SDF forces and exert more leverage in the ongoing negotiations intended to draft a new constitution for Syria. Ankara, like Washington, is now reconciled to the fact that Bashar al-Assad is here to stay.