Trump's move to pull out of Syria has been called a surrender and a betrayal of allies. Yet it may increase American leverage in an extremely messy situation.
The Syrian government, having perpetrated numerous war crimes over the past six years of civil war, is likely the biggest winner of President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops out of Syria. Some have termed it a “surrender.” Yet the Syrian regime has all but won the war with the help of Russia and Iran — and the US may well have more to gain than to lose from increased leverage with unruly NATO ally Turkey.
US allies on the ground — chiefly the Syrian Kurds, who were instrumental in destroying the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate but whom Turkey has been preparing to attack — are now expected to turn to Damascus and Moscow for patronage.
Trump’s announced withdrawal has prompted the Kurds to justly cry betrayal. They have been betrayed numerous times by foreign allies over the past decades, but this time they are not entirely without options. What is missing from most Western media accounts is that the Kurds have had a long and complicated relationship with both the Assad regime and the Russians. It was the regime that originally allowed them to take over areas of northeastern Syria in 2012, when it was under pressure from rebels elsewhere.
“Russia is obviously satisfied with Trump’s withdrawal decision as this leaves the door open for a quick consolidation of earlier gains by the Assad regime,” George Voloshin, a geopolitical expert at Aperio Intelligence, a UK-based strategic intelligence company, told WhoWhatWhy. “With the US due to leave, [Syrian President Bashar] Assad should be able to eliminate the last pockets of resistance.”
But many analysts say that at this point, America could only delay, not stop that, at the price it was prepared to pay. To domestic audiences, Trump has marketed his move as a way to disentangle his country from another protracted and costly foreign military campaign. On Tuesday, as Turkey’s government loudly prepared for war and less loudly attempted to scale down its militant rhetoric, Trump dropped another Twitter bombshell: Saudi Arabia, he claimed, had agreed to pay for rebuilding Syria, instead of the US.
Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. See? Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away. Thanks to Saudi A!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
If that doesn’t work out as intended — and especially if the American withdrawal results in increased carnage and chaos — Turkey, and other NATO allies in Europe, would bear the brunt of the fallout. It is they, rather than the US, who face another potential flood of refugees.
Either way, some of America’s responsibility for the mess that is Syria will be transferred to friends and foes alike.
Meanwhile the withdrawal removes a major bone of contention with Turkey, home to NATO’s second-largest army, which sees the Syrian Kurds as a strategic threat to its territorial integrity.
Turkey has fought a four-decade guerrilla war against Kurdish insurgents on its own territory, and disagreement over the Kurds almost brought the two NATO heavyweights to the brink of war in February. Now their relations can be expected to gradually improve.
According to various reports on Tuesday evening and Wednesday, some sort of a Turkish military operation against the Syrian Kurds may be imminent. Syrian rebels allied with Turkey are likely to spearhead the assault.
Sources among the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army are telling me the offensive to capture the city of Manbij from the YPG/SDF is set to begin.
Some of the forces a short while ago. pic.twitter.com/XwJVTt6bqa
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) December 25, 2018
Troops, tanks, artillery and military vehicles were dispatched to #Syria border from multiple points across #Turkey, some already crossed into Syrian territory and on the move toward #Manbij, Turkish TV claims. pic.twitter.com/zjZAxhni93
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) December 26, 2018
But most observers expect the operation, if one materializes, to be fairly limited in scope. Turkey already has boots on the ground in several areas in Syria — including the formerly Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, which it conquered in a similar invasion earlier this year — and it could conceivably settle for expanding its “safe zone” on the Syrian border.
“I think everybody [in the international community] looks at a Turkish invasion as the worst-case [scenario],” Joshua Landis, a prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told WhoWhatWhy. Besides the US, just about every regional and global power has stakes in Syria and “they have a lot to trade with,” he added.
Ankara has been left in an almost comical situation. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been threatening to invade Syria and demanding that the US get its troops out of the way, but he was reportedly so shocked when Trump agreed during a phone call that he ended up asking Trump to delay the withdrawal.
“Turkey has come to learn the maxim, be careful what you wish for,” Jenny White, a prominent Turkey analyst at Stockholm University, told WhoWhatWhy.
“With the US suddenly withdrawing, the Syrian Kurds will have to quickly find new friends. Aligning themselves with the Syrian government, Russia and Iran present themselves as possibilities. Putting Turkish troops in harm’s way to face that messy front may not play well to Turkey’s public and will complicate Turkey’s attempts to contain Kurdish ambitions in Syria. In response to Trump’s decision, Turkey already called off a planned military operation in the region [last week].”
Much of Erdogan’s posturing, just like Trump’s, is likely designed for domestic audiences. He faces an important local election in March and the economy is bad — whipping up nationalist sentiment by escalating the campaign against the Kurds has been a tool he has used several times in the past few years.
However, the complex situation on the ground in Syria is hardly the stuff easy victories are made of. The Islamist rebels — whom the Turkish strongman has championed throughout the civil war — have splintered, including into many groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and other terrorists, and have largely been driven to a single province near Turkey’s border, Idlib province. While Erdogan plots to add to their estate territories held by the Kurds, he would be vulnerable to attacks there, experts say. In September, he barely managed to thwart a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib by cutting a deal with the Russians.
“Idlib is the next big problem, and it has tens of thousands of Islamist rebels who are considered terrorists by the international community, and by Turkey,” Landis said.
“They have not given away their guns, they are still active there and are a big pretext for Syria and Russia to make an invasion and take it [Idlib] away from the Turks. And Turkey doesn’t want that, because all those rebels would be driven into Turkey, and who knows, scattered around Europe, so the Europeans and Turks are all terrified at this, and they have a lot to trade with… I can imagine that there is going to be a lot of wheeling and dealing with these issues.”
Russia, in a sense, stands to fill the shoes of the US on the ground, as the strongest remaining foreign power in Syria. A Turkish delegation to discuss Syria is expected in Moscow as soon as the weekend. Yet, managing an extraordinarily complex situation involving so many disparate actors can also turn into a headache for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
France, Britain, and Israel — alongside numerous other regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia — all have stakes in Syria, and in some cases, such as France, have soldiers on the ground they have said they don’t intend to withdraw.
Nor is it clear to all that the US withdrawal, whose timeline appears flexible, is as absolute as advertised by Trump.
“The [US] air campaign continues,” Dimitar Bechev, a prominent regional expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told WhoWhatWhy. “The US has forces in Iraq. It is more of a [fluid] decision by Trump than a complete withdrawal.”
Putin, in fact, said he was concerned that the withdrawal decision may not be sincere at his annual press conference last week. He himself has announced no less than three Syria withdrawals over as many years.
As friends and foes alike recover from the initial shock of Trump’s withdrawal announcement, numerous intense negotiations are going on behind closed doors, experts say. The significance of the move, and the future of much of Syria, will be decided there. By cutting some of his liabilities and keeping his options open, Trump may in fact have gained some leverage.