Almost three weeks ago, US President Donald Trump abruptly decided to withdraw 2,000 US US forces from Syria, declaring that the Islamic State (IS) was “already beaten”. The move is expected to embolden both Russia and Iran, the foreign supporters of the embattled Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, in the civil war-torn country.
“We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly. We have taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” Trump said in a video posted on Twitter last December.
However, after a week, Trump seems to backtracked his sudden announcement, giving the US military four months to pull out the troops. Yet, it is not certain if the full withdrawal might take longer time or it might be suspended over the fear of the anticipated increase in Iranian influence not just in Syria, but on a wider scale.
The White House said that the military began pulling out the US troops in different areas in Syria, without giving a specific timeframe for the withdrawal or further details. Likewise, Trump said when he addressed the US cabinet for the first time in 2019.
Big win for IS
Trump’s announcement came as a surprise for US senior officials, and was criticised by the Republicans who view the decision as a “huge mistake.” In a statement, Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was among the first Republicans to denounce Trump’s decree. Graham said that the US withdrawal “is a big win for ISIS, Iran, Al-Assad of Syria, and Russia.”
“The problem with the current US approach to Syria is that it is like building an aeroplane while it is flying,” Nicholas A Heras, Middle East Security Fellow Centre for a New American Security informed Daily News Egypt.
Heras added, “Trump’s decision was so much of a surprise that the US government was not prepared to actually execute his order, which is why there is now a longer timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.”
On 2013, former US President Barack Obama decided to take military action against the Syrian government for its apparent chemical weapons use, two years after the Syrian demonstrations first broke out.
A year later, the US-led global coalition against the IS network was formed with the participation of 79 countries including France, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The coalition’s mission is to fight IS forces wherever they have been, in Iraq, and Syria.
The US military bases, which support Kurdish fighters in Syria, are located in areas such as the town of Manbij, the Ayn Issa Sub district, and Tal al-Saman north of the city of Raqqa. Moreover, the Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been the main ally for Washington in the battle ground, controlling much of the Turkish-Syrian border from IS.
During the US cabinet’s meeting on 2 January, Trump pledged to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria. However, he said that the US forces will not stay there forever. Trump also said that he was not happy that “the Kurds were selling oil to Iran.”
Addressing Trump’s remarks, Saleh Muslim, a senior Kurdish politician, said in a short interview conducted by Mutlu Civiroglu, the Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst, that the “Kurdish do not sell oil to Iran at all,” asserting that “their oil is only for domestic consumption.”
Following Trump’s December announcement, the Syrian army declared that its forces have entered the Kurdish-held Manbij town for the first time in six years, after Kurdish fighters appealed to Damascus to protect them from attacks carried out by Turkey. However, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian troops just entered a strip of territory at the edge of Manbij, and that they did not enter the town itself.
Empowering Iran in Middle East
Furthermore, during the January cabinet meeting, Trump justified his withdrawal announcement and said that Iran “can do what they want.” He pointed out that military exile from Syria operations will be slow.
“Al-Assad would hope to benefit from this situation, but much still depends on whether and how the US withdraws from Syria,” Heras stated, adding that “Americans are still worried about Iran spreading its influence throughout Syria and benefiting from the US withdrawal and how Trump’s team approaches this central dilemma will have a powerful effect on the future of Syria.”
Heras highlighted that “All the regional powers-and Russia-are interested to see how the Americans square the circle of wanting to withdraw from Syria while simultaneously diminishing Iran’s influence in Syria.
Furthermore, Heras articulated that “Trump’s administration is in the middle of a fierce internal policy fight, with the Iran hawks seeking a Syria withdrawal that minimises Iran’s ability to step into the breach that would be caused by the US leaving, while protecting Israel’s ability to turn Syrian into a free-fire zone to strike at Iran.”
Over the last year, Trump kept warning of pulling out US troops from Syria, but no one predicted that he will take such a significant decision abruptly in a surprise announcement last December.
Unlike the pull out of the US troops from Iraq in 2003, this withdrawal might “determine” the US strategic position in the Middle East, German journalist Kersten Knipp wrote in an opinion piece in Deutsche Welle earlier on April last year.
Knipp argued that the US withdrawal would be “be a fatal misstep,” adding that Trump “would be handing the region over to players that would create even greater chaos.”
Knipp opined that “a US pullback would seal the fate of not only Syria but the whole region, for decades to come,” adding that it “would lead to Russia’s dominance, however discreet. Less discreet would be Iran’s dominance over large swaths of Syria, through Lebanon to the border with Israel. The “Shiite Crescent” would become a stark reality.”
Al-Assad’s regime, which has been crowded out be most of the Arab and regional countries months following the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, is currently witnessing a breakthrough.
Two weeks ago, the UAE announced that it will reopen its embassy in Damascus, for the first time in seven years. The move—a significant diplomatic shift—is expected to boost Al-Assad’s regime and his influence in Syria.
The move also came after Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus, who became the first Arab leader to visit the war-torn country since the Syrian civil war erupted. Analysts predict that the UAE would be followed by other Arab countries, whose stances varied toward Damascus.
Moreover, Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League in 2011, is expected to return back to its past position before the Arab Spring.
“Al-Assad’s best hope presently is actually the Arab effort to re-engage with his regime, which is now fully underway,” Heras said.
Over and above, Heras added that ” Arab states are not working with Al-Assad out of any great love for the Syrian leader, but out of the hope that he can keep groups like Daesh and al-Qaeda at bay, and that over time they can convince him to be an Arab leader who reasserts his authority over Syria at the expense of Iran.”
“This new Arab Effort to re-engage with Al-Assad is meant to knock Iran down to size in a critical region of the Middle East,” Heras concluded.