Tuesday,22 January, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)
Tuesday,22 January, 2019
Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)

Ahram Weekly

US withdraws from Syria

The US decision to withdraw its forces from Syria has shocked many in the Syrian opposition and even many Americans themselves, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

US withdraws from Syria
US withdraws from Syria

Syria’s Kurds were among those most shocked by the decision of US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria at the end of last year, though their disarray was echoed among many in the Syrian opposition and some in the US government and military.

The Kurds control swaths of territory in northern Syria and form the Syrian Democratic Forces affiliated to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that Turkey categorises as a terrorist group.

They entirely depend on US support for protection against Turkey and the Syrian opposition that they have fought against throughout the Syrian Revolution. Without the US backing, the Kurdish militias would not have survived in the face of the enemies of the Kurds, whether Turkey, the armed Syrian opposition or the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

Some US officials also criticised Trump’s decision to withdraw, describing it as a “great victory for IS, Iran, [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad and Russia,” adding that it could “make it more difficult to find partners to confront radical Islam”.

Members of Congress condemned what they called a “rushed” decision that “does not serve US interests and undermines its credibility with allies in the Middle East” – a reference to the US abandoning the Kurdish militias fighting in northern Syria.

The Kurds viewed the sudden US decision as a “stab in the back and a betrayal of the thousands of fighters who have died for the cause.” They then decided to switch sides and embrace the Syrian regime, surrendering their positions to regime forces in response to threats from Turkey and the Syrian opposition.

A spokeswoman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia, said these troops and the regime were “one family”. The Syrian army announced its troops had taken back control of the town of Manbij from the Kurds upon the latter’s request and raised the Syrian flag there.

Russia, Iran and the Al-Assad regime have all welcomed the US decision to withdraw, viewing it as a victory for their policies. However, regime forces have not in fact entered Manbij, and according to local residents the regime and the Kurds simply contrived a ruse whereby the Kurds raised the Syrian flag over military installations for propaganda purposes.

Some Kurdish sources said the US decision to withdraw and its deal with Turkey would allow regime troops to deploy on the frontline between the Kurds and the Turkish troops in northern Syria to separate the two sides under Russian supervision. Flags would be raised on government buildings in Manbij, they said, but without the presence of regime forces or actual military control.

Trump said his decision was intended to protect the lives of US soldiers in a war that did not concern them and to cut the material costs of the war for the US forces in Syria. However, not a single US soldier has been killed in Syria, and there are only 2,200 US personnel in Syria, far fewer than the 15,000 in Iraq.

The cost of the US presence in Syria is also paid for by the Arab Gulf countries.

The US decision seems more likely to be related to Turkey. Statements by Turkish officials prior to Trump’s announcement showed Turkey’s intention to take the war east of the Euphrates River in order to dismantle separatist Kurdish groups and push them back from the Turkish border.

The US responded at the time by saying that its partnership with the Kurds was “temporary” and was a military and not a political alliance, hinting that the US would soon abandon its Kurdish clients.

Several US statements noted that Washington’s relationship with Ankara was a strategic one, especially since both countries are key members of the NATO alliance.

The US announced the timeframe for withdrawing US troops from Syria would be 60 to 100 days, but that state department personnel would be removed immediately from the country. Many Syrians believe that the US decision will not be applied verbatim or will be modified to keep some forces, especially in eastern Syria, to fight IS remnants on the border with Iraq and block Iranian expansion.

The US will only withdraw from north and northeastern Syria, such sources say, leaving these areas to be policed by Turkey. This will still create a new reality on the ground, however, and impose new alliances that could lead to open-ended battles that serve the Syrian regime and Russia.

The opposition believes Al-Assad and his allies will benefit most from Trump’s decision because they will be able to take back a large part of the country in the north as they did in the south when the US abandoned the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) after a deal with Russia.

Southern Syria was handed over to the regime without bloodshed due to an unfair deal that resulted in the relocation of fighters from the south to the north, leaving the south open to the Russians and the regime.

The new decision will see the surrender of areas under the control of the armed Syrian opposition, with the blessing of the US and under the auspices of Russia. Turkey will likely insist on continuing its fight against the Kurds, aiming to take control of the area and expel the Kurdish militias to protect its borders.

Israel is also concerned about Trump’s decision, the consensus among Israeli commentators being that it is a “slap in the face” for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu while “rewarding Russia and Iran” which are Al-Assad’s partners in the war.

There is concern that Iran’s Al-Quds Brigade will try to take advantage of the US withdrawal to infiltrate regime forces in northern Syria and guarantee that the arms corridor from Iran to Syria via Iraq remains open.

In recent years, relations between the separatist Kurds and Iran have warmed, and it is possible they will form an alliance. Some Arab sources say that Trump’s decision was preceded by talks with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Russia will rein in the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, a client of Iran in Syria, in return for the US withdrawal while allowing Israel to attack Iranian targets in Syria.

Turkey is continuing its negotiations with Russia, with a military intelligence delegation visiting Moscow this week to develop understandings about the fate of areas under Kurdish control. It is likely Turkey will impose its terms since it is a US ally, and it has presented itself as warring against terrorist groups such as IS, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front associated with Al-Qaeda and Kurdish groups it lists as terrorists.

Many believe the US decision to depart from Syria is a green light for Iran to become more involved in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, facilitating the rehabilitation of Al-Assad on the world stage. It crowns Russia as the sole superpower in the Middle East and will allow it to breathe a sigh of relief though this will come at the expense of a greater Iranian presence in Syria.

The US may well come to regret leaving the Syrian arena before guaranteeing a political solution. The decision raises the question of whether the US will leave Syria for good, not only for the sake of its interests but also for those of its allies in the Middle East, among them Israel.

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