Saturday,23 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,23 March, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Destabilising unpredictability on Syria

US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US is withdrawing its troops from Syria calls into question the consistency and coherence of US strategy in the region, writes Hussein Haridy


United States President Donald Trump startled the world, and maybe also his own National Security Council, when he announced at a news conference with the leaders of the Baltic States gathered at the White House on 3 April that he expected to decide “very quickly” whether to remove American troops from Syria.

He stressed that their primary mission was to defeat the terrorist group known by its Arabic acronym of Daesh (the Islamic State [IS] group) and that in his view the United States has “almost completed that task”. He added that such a decision would be taken in coordination with other partners in the Middle East to see what “we will do”. He added that the mission has been “very costly for our country, and it helps other countries a… lot more than it helps us.”

In order not to let any doubts remain about his intentions, Trump explained in his remarks that he wanted “to get out” of Syria and “to bring our troops back home”. Without going into details, he emphasised that the implicit reason was that he wanted to “start rebuilding our nation” of the United States.

The following day, the White House said in a statement, after Trump had consulted with his National Security Council, that the “military mission to eradicate IS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with IS being almost destroyed.” It confirmed the commitment of both the United States and its “partners” to eliminate the “small” IS presence in Syria. In order to help reassure US allies and partners in the region and in the US-led International Coalition, the White House promised to consult with them regarding future plans and to ensure that IS “never re-emerges”.

The basic facts in the White House statement about IS are not widely shared. On the contrary, the near consensus among military commanders in the Middle East, whether Americans or among US allies and strategic partners in the International Coalition, is that IS has started a counter-insurgency and that there is a need to remain engaged in the fight against this terrorist organisation that has the capacity to adjust to its military defeat in Iraq and Syria.

Their advice is that the United States should not repeat its strategic blunder of withdrawing too hastily from Iraq in 2011. This withdrawal has been widely credited for the emergence of IS in the first place in Iraq, allowing it to spread its terrorist tentacles across the Iraqi borders to Syria where it announced the city of Raqqa to be the capital of its fictitious caliphate.

Many US officials and Congressmen have also warned that an American withdrawal from Syria would hand the country over to Russia and Iran. The commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told a conference organised by the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank, a few days before the declaration by Trump that the US would need to continue working against the remnants of IS in the eastern part of Syria, stressing that the military campaign to defeat the group was not over yet. He drew attention to the need to have boots on the ground in order to succeed in the stabilisation efforts in the areas liberated from IS and to consolidate the gains that have thus far been achieved.

The Trump declaration on Syria raises serious questions about the consistency and coherence of the American strategy with regard to Syria. It calls into question the very future of the International Coalition against IS in case the United States suddenly decides to order the 2,000 American troops in Syria back home. The message is clear to IS, Al-Qaeda, and other affiliated groups operating in Syria and Iraq that the moment is not far off when American forces will withdraw. These terrorist groups will plan a return in force when the time comes.

Aside from the fact that it is not at all certain that the final and decisive defeat of IS is far off, the White House statement and the declaration by Trump are not in sync with the American strategy concerning Syria that former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson outlined at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University on 17 January. Tillerson’s remarks came in the context of a more forceful American foreign policy elaborated a month earlier by the Trump administration.

At Stanford, Tillerson made it clear that it was “crucial to our national defence to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria to help bring an end to that conflict,” calling previous American efforts to halt it “ineffective”. Commenting on the administration’s counter-terrorism policy, he said that it aimed at denying “terrorists and terrorist organisations the opportunity to organise, raise money, recruit fighters, and train, plan and execute attacks”.

According to the former US secretary of state, Washington believes that the situation in Syria is characterised by three main factors, namely that IS is not completely defeated, that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad controls about half of Syrian territory and from 80 to 90 per cent of its population, and that continued strategic threats to the United States, be they from IS, Al-Qaeda, or others, particularly Iran, still persist. To sum up the American strategic outlook, Tillerson stressed that “Syria remains a source of severe strategic threats and a major challenge” for American diplomacy.

In the meantime, he spoke of five key end states for Syria from the American perspective. They included the enduring defeat of IS and Al-Qaeda, the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December 2015), a stable, unified, independent Syria under post-Assad leadership, Iranian ambitions in Syria diminished and Tehran’s dreams of a “Shia Crescent” thwarted, the return of Syrian refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes, and finally a Syria free of weapons of mass destruction.

Judging from the strategic outlook that Tillerson detailed at the Hoover Institute in January, no impartial observer would argue that the Trump administration has successfully accomplished what it set out to do in Syria. A hasty American withdrawal from Syria, without handing over the eastern part of Syria to the Syrian government through the Russians, would roll back the military gains against IS and would have very grave repercussions for Iraqi security.

When the Arab heads of state gather for their annual summit meeting in Riyadh on 15 April, they should prepare themselves for the strong probability that Trump will decide, without prior warning, to disengage US troops from Syria. The Arab Summit is expected to come up with a new strategy concerning Syria that could prove to be a complete break from the strategy thus far that has destabilised not only Syria, but also the Middle East and North Africa as a whole. This new strategy should restore Syria’s membership of the Arab League as a precondition for an Arab commitment to work with the Syrian government to defeat terrorism and defend the independence and the territorial integrity of the country. The Arab world can no longer afford anything different.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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