Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Trump shook up the Washington establishment and Middle Eastern and world politics on Wednesday by abruptly announcing by Tweet a full and immediate withdrawal of US military forces from northeast Syria.
Trump’s motives for what he does are never easy to fathom. He may have been driven by a desire to please his base, which has been shaken this fall by a massive blue wave in the House midterms and a series of legal scandals sending members of Trump’s circle to prison and threatening Trump and his family members themselves. Trump campaigned in 2016 on contradictory principles, but one of his planks was to “give Syria to Putin” if the latter would defeat ISIL (the so-called Islamic State Group).
In recent weeks, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening to invade Manbij, a Syrian city that the Kurds and the US took from ISIL, but which lies west of the Euphrates and so in what Erdogan considers a Turkish security zone. US troops regularly patrol Manbij and are embedded among allied Kurdish troops there, so that the possibility of a military clash between NATO allies was looming.
Turkey had also been threatening to buy a Russian anti-aircraft system instead of US Patriot missiles, which had angered Washington. As soon as Trump tweeted his withdrawal from Syria, the Turkish purchase of billions of dollars worth the Patriot missiles was announced.
It may be that Trump has decided that he doesn’t want to risk an escalation with Turkey over the leftist Kurds (did someone tell him they are anti-capitalists?), and it may be that Erdogan offered the quid pro quo of a $3 billion deal for Patriots if only the US would get out and allow Turkey to have a straight shot at the Syrian Kurds.
So who are the losers from a US withdrawal from Syria:
1. Israel is a loser. Syria has been roiled politically since 2011, and has become a playground for pro-Iran Shiite militias such as the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba. These Shiite militias hate the Salafi Jihadis most of all, but in second place is Israel. Israel was hoping that a long term US military presence in Syria would help block Iran in that country (which was never a very realistic hope). Israel can still strike Hizbullah directly in Syria, but sooner or later may be blocked by Syria’s new, Russian anti-aircraft batteries. If Syrians learn to operate them, those Israeli over-flights might be in trouble. Israel is gradually losing options for asserting itself over its neighbors militarily, a real sea change compared to the late 20th century.
2. The Leftist Kurds of the YPG could well be left high and dry by a sudden US departure. They will be left alone to try to stare down Turkey in the north and Baathist Damascus.
3. Iraq is a quasi-loser. Baghdad will be nervous about an ISIL resurgence in eastern Syria and northern Iraq without US vigilance and know-how, and will be required to some extent to fill in for Trump.
Then, who are the winners
1. Turkey is the big winner and by a campaign of bluster and actual military intervention may have helped push Trump finally to move. Turkey has succeeded in blunting the US push against Iran. It has outmaneuvered crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman by dribbling out evidence of his having ordered the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey also took Qatar’s side in the Gulf crisis that Bin Salman provoked.
2. Iran is a winner, since the hawkish faction in the Trump administration had wanted the US special ops forces in Syrian Kurdistan to take on Iran and its militia proxies in Syria. Syria is not that in sync with Iran, since it has a secular Baath government. But a Syria presence is a way for Iran’s leaders to remain relevant in the Levant.
3. Russia is a big winner. Moscow wants all of Syria as its sphere of influence and wants to help the Damascus regain the whole country. Moreover, Russia wants to show that it is a superpower, and will seek to become more of a broker among Middle East countries and factions.
4. The Baathist government of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited his position of president from his father Hafiz, is a huge winner. The Baathists will want to bring the Kurds in from the cold, and doing a deal to come back into Syria may be the only way the Kurds can protect themselves from Turkey.
5. The Twelver Shiite militias of Lebanon and Iraq are winners.
It is possible that Russia and the Baath government in Damascus will now play a bigger role in rolling up ISIL remnants and reasserting Syrian sovereignty throughout the country.
Russia and the Baath government in Damascus have been much more interested in fighting the al-Qaeda affiliate and other Salafi jihadis in the northwest of the country than they were in fighting ISIL in the east. The fundamentalist militias threatened Damascus or threatened to cut Damascus off from its main port, Latakia. From a Russian point of view, the Syrian fundamentalist guerrillas were dangerous because they had Chechen allies in their midst and their victory in Damascus might blow back into the Russian Caucasus.
Obama and his Secretary of Defense, under pressure to roll up ISIL after the fall of Mosul in 2014 and the attacks on Paris in 2015, needed ground troops supplied by a local ally who would fight ISIL with US air support. Only the leftist Kurds of northeastern Syria volunteered. This Obama Kurdish policy proved successful in demoting ISIL from a “state” to being a small set of terrorist groups without any particular territory.
The alliance of the Pentagon with the Syria Kurds, however, infuriated Turkey, which fought a 40 year dirty war in eastern Anatolia against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Turkey and the US consider a terrorist organization. The US denies, however, that the leftist Kurds of the “people’s protection units” (YPG) are affiliated with the PKK.
Turkey invaded largely Kurdish Afrin, the western-most Kurdish canton in Syria, last winter, and displaced thousands of its Kurdish inhabitants, bringing in Arab fundamentalists to populate this province. It therefore forestalled any move by the Kurds in the Syrian northeast to hook up with the ones in Afrin to establish a contiguous territory, which Kurds call “Rojava” all along the Turkish border.