What Does the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Signify?
Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
Trump’s unilateral decision on December 19, 2018 to rapidly, in 60-100 days, withdraw American military units (2200 men) from northern Syria (currently controlled by pro-Kurdish YPG – “People’s Protection Units”) radically alters fragile military-political balance not only in Syria but the entire Middle East.
Trump has declared alleged defeat of “Daesh” (ISIS) as the underlying reason for this decision. However, in reality, it seems that to avoid the direct Turkish-American confrontation during the expected Turkish military operation in northern Syria some kind of agreement has been reached with Ankara. It is noteworthy that Washington and Ankara, at the same time, have reached yet another deal on the $3.5 billion sale of the “Patriot” air defence systems to Turkey. With this move USA is trying to dissuade Turkey from purchasing the Russian produced S-400s.
Incidentally, removing troops from Syria was also one of Trump’s campaign promises. He, for a number of times, even declared that he would uphold the promise. However, at that time, he was detered by the Pentagon.
Nevertheless, the decision came as a surprise. Just one week earlier, in their statements, American high officials made it clear that they had no intention of leaving Syria and were contemplating longterm stationing.
Reactions of the various parties
Trump’s decision was met with an ambivalence both in the USA and in the international arena.
The most significant and controversial was the resignation of the Defence Secretary James Mattis. His perspective and President Trump’s position have diverged.
The Pentagon, which traditionally opposes weakening of American positions in the Middle East, tried to balance the situation with its statement. The statement asserted that the USA is moving to the next step in the fight against terrorism. However, no specific description of this “new phase” was given.
Sections of American lawmakers (including some Republicans) also disliked Trump’s decision. They argued it was unacceptable to leave the future of Syria in the hands of Russia and Iran. They deemed it equally inappropriate to abandon their allies (Israel and the YPG) amidst the fight, since, as they argued, this would hurt the US prestige in the international arena.
Interestingly, Washington’s position was not cherished by its European partners as well. Paris has decided to maintain troops in northern Syria and to that end stepped up communication efforts with the YPG. On this matter Washington was not endorsed even by such close ally as the United Kingdom since, they, rightly, believe that the threat emanating from “Daesh” and Jihadism at large in the Middle East has not yet been eradicated. To be sure, territories controlled by these forces has shrunk however, the amount of fighters in their disposal and financial sources remain formidable.
Out of the regional countries the US decision would most adversely affect Israel, inasmuch as already not insignificant Iranian influence in Syria will further rise. For the first time, Influence in Syria granted Iran an ability to approach its archenemy – Israel through so called “Land Bridge” (Iran-Iraq-Syria). Therefore, Israel is constantly conducting air strikes against the Iranian military bases in Syria. After the announcement of Trump’s decision, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu did not conceal his country’s determination to amplify intensity of the strikes.
Inside the Syria, loyal US ally – pro-Kurdish YPG, which with a huge human sacrifice managed to liberate and occupy vast territory previously under the “Daesh” control, is in a dire situation. Throughout the years Washington intensively trained and equipped the YPG, this has often strained American-Turkish relations. For quite some time Turkey has considered the YPG as an extension of a terrorist organization – PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and is now planning to carry out military operation against them. Already, on December 21, Turkish units started artillery barrage against the YPG in northern Syria. Meanwhile, American military units are beginning to leave previously held positions. Therefore, the YPG swiftly initiated series of negotiations with the Assad regime. Negotiations aim to prevent possible Turkish military land operation in northern Syria. The YPG has 40 000 combat experienced army however, they possess neither an air force nor air defence systems. Consequently, without an assistance, their survival will be very hard.
Naturally, Moscow and his allies in the region (Iran and the Assad regime) already praised Washington’s decision. American pullout from the region creates most favorable situation for them.
Interestingly, on December 20, on the second day of the announcement of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Hassan Rouhani visited Ankara and met with the President of the Turkish Republic Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among the topics discussed between the leaders was a possible cooperation in Syria.
“Daesh” considered Washington’s decision as a new opening for the realization of their goals and called upon its followers to arrange new assaults during Christmas and New Year holidays.
Enforcement of Trump’s decision might lead to:
- A significant reduction of the USA influence in the region, while the political weight of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime will increase.
- A Significant damage to the USA prestige in the international arena. In the future, countries and powers who would consider allying with the USA, in their decision will certainly have to factor in the case of Syria.
- Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, and Turkey, by means of force or an agreement, will try to occupy territories in the northern Syria currently under the YPG’s control (approximately 30% of the country). It will considerably alter the local balance of power.
- With all of these developments the YPG will not be able to fight with “Daesh”. Hence, “Daesh” will become active again. Especially, when they still have approximately 14 000 fighters in the region.
- Since the YPG is considered by Ankara as an existential threat, operation against them will require coordination with Moscow, the very least because since the fall of 2015 Russia controls Syrian air space.
- Along with the increase of Iranian influence, security of Israel will come under an additional pressure. In order to neutralize threats emanating from Iran Israel will be forced to intensify attacks, and to that end, increase cooperation with Moscow, as a result, increasing the degree of its dependency on Russia.
- Pullout of the USA from the region removes a significant deterrent for Iran and creates a possibility for the temptation of a military response against Israel. This kind of development might have unforeseen repercussions for the entire Middle East region.
- In such circumstances two aspects are important for Georgia:
A) A galvanized “Daesh” might lead to the reactivation of its fighters, as it happened in the fall of 2017, when Chatayev and his team were able to penetrate Georgia.
B) A significant decline of the American positions in the region and increased Russian influence (including on Israel and neighbouring Turkey) will have a negative impact on the security of Georgian.
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