The announcement on December 20th that US forces will withdraw from northeast Syria, where they had been supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fight against ISIS, stunned the world. 2018 has been a rollercoaster year for US engagement in Syria: President Trump, who had promised during his presidential campaign to bring US troops home, said in April 2018 that “it is time” to get out of Syria. In September 2018, Trump was convinced to stay in Syria indefinitely to achieve American objectives, namely to defeat ISIS, signaling continued US presence in the country for the foreseeable future. And on December 19, just one week after Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, said « Nobody is saying that [IS fighters] are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas, » and three days after James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria, spoke out against a possible Turkish operation against the SDF, the news suddenly broke that the order had been given to withdraw US diplomats in the area within 24 hours, and all US forces in 60-100 days. In doing so, President Trump has also acted against the opinions of National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (who resigned in protest on December 20).
It was also announced just the day before the withdrawal announcement that the US had finally agreed to sell Turkey the Patriot missile defense system, a Turkish demand that the US had long refused, pushing Turkey to instead place an order with Russia for the S-400 missile defense system. The prospect of a NATO country using a Russian-made system is a potential security threat for NATO, risking the compromise of its technology, but it is unclear whether the American acquiescence is too late to change Turkey’s mind. Either way, it has been a great week for Turkey, and a pretty good one for Iran as well, where the US has decided to grant their wishes and retreat further into isolationism.
The field is now completely conducive for long-term Turkish, Iranian, and Russian presence in their respective parts of Syria, and for them to freely assert their interests in the country. Turkey has long been threatening a military intervention against the Kurdish YPG, who was a US ally in the SDF and who Ankara considers an offshoot of the PKK – a terrorist organization for Turkey. Previously, this threat could have brought the Turkish army in confrontation with the American forces, but this is no longer an obstacle. In other words, the US is serving its faithful YPG allies on a silver platter to Turkey’s wrath. This drastic change in policy is further difficult to understand because it leaves Syria wide open for Iranian forces and their Shiite allies, which Iran will interpret as Washington’s lack of interest in the region and from which it will greatly benefit. If withdrawing from Syria is so easy, then what would be the sustainability of its engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan? (And surely enough, it was also announced on December 20, the day after the withdrawal from Syria was announced, that President Trump had at the same time ordered the withdrawal of about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. This amounts to about half of the number currently there, and Afghan officials reportedly had no prior warning about the decision.)
The withdrawal is also a victory for Russia, who can completely dominate Damascus to achieve its hegemonic ambitions. Syria will thus become a Russian-Iranian base, while its north will be under a form of Turkish military occupation. The country will be divided between these three powers, where Iran will have an uninterrupted corridor from Tehran to Beirut and its ally, Hezbollah. This will add an additional factor of instability, forcing Israel to anticipate and act proactively in the north of its border to weaken Hezbollah. The immediate consequence will surely be a war between Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas in 2019, with the help of Iran’s allies in Syria.
These decisions demonstrate the absence of any form of stability or coherence in Washington’s Middle East policy, causing any future allies to think twice before assisting US forces. This withdrawal, motivated by the supposed defeat of the Islamic State, will in reality open the door to a much wider conflict in the coming years.
By Ardavan Amir-Aslani