Pro-Assad forces are seen as they advance towards the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta - AFP
CAIRO – 10 April 2018: To leave or not to leave has long been the question on the minds of the decision makers in Washington. One of U.S President Donald Trump’s election campaign promises was to avoid entangling the U.S. too deeply in foreign conflicts, and this meant accelerating the campaign against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, and subsequently withdrawing. Since Trump came into office, he has stressed that U.S. involvement in Syria is focused on eradicating the threat posed by ISIS. While the threat has been reduced, the fight is far from over as ISIS continues to control pockets of territory in Eastern Syria.
At this moment in time, an estimated 2,000 U.S. troops are operating in Syria, with the majority working alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily stationed in Eastern Syria. The cities of Manbij of Kobani, close to the Syrian border with Turkey, also have a large U.S. military presence, threatening to pit the U.S. against Turkey as Operation Olive Branch drags Turkish-backed forces across Kurdish-administered territory.
In a departure from the policy preferences of previous U.S. administrations, which often saw a long-term military deployment as beneficial to maintaining the interests of the U.S., Trump has vowed to end the U.S.’s military presence in Syria “very soon”. There have been many mixed messages from the United States. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised to continue military campaigns against Islamic terror groups in Syria, as has General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
The principal objective of both President Barack Obama and Trump in Syria is close to being achieved, but the fear now is that Trump will succumb to temptation and fully withdraw from Syria without securing a long-lasting victory. In Syria the notion of “victory” is highly subjective, and Trump’s eagerness to declare victory and withdraw would likely damage opportunities for peace and prosperity in the country any time soon.
Following the recent chemical weapons attack in Douma, which has reportedly killed over 40 people, the debate about a U.S. withdrawal has become further interlinked with the humanitarian question. Can the U.S., the self-proclaimed bastion and principal exporter of freedom and world peace, leave Syrians to suffer in the hands of Assad? The answer is likely yes, but Assad is not the only actor that threatens to damage the delicate balance of power in Syria.
Dozens of people were killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on April 7 in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus that has been under armed opposition control and besieged by the government since 2012. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has almost won back control of the entire Eastern Ghouta enclave in a Russian and Iranian-backed military campaign that began in February, and troops loyal to the government restarted their offensive to capture Douma on April 6, the last rebel-held bastion near the capital.
Although Assad and his allied forces have used chemical weapons regularly throughout the conflict, the Trump administration has drawn the line at the sarin nerve agent, and has avoided retaliating against Assad on the many occasions chlorine gas was said to have been used. This is likely a result of the lack of media attention, since chlorine attacks with low casualty rates attract less attention and outrage. There is still a debate over the nature of the chemical weapons used in Douma, and while initial reports seem to suggest chlorine gas was used, others have pointed towards sarin.
Ambassador Nikki Haley's remarks at an Emergency UN Security Council Briefing on Chemical Weapons Use in Syria (9 April 2018)
Trump’s air strikes in response to last year’s sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun makes it more likely that the U.S. will bomb Syria in retaliation once again. Trump has promised a "forceful" response to the alleged chemical attack. "We have a lot of options militarily," he told reporters, adding that a response would be decided "shortly".
Although it has been interpreted that the U.S. will lead a military response to the chemical attack, recent fears about a U.S. withdrawal from Syria has led other actors to take what appears to be a unilateral action. Russia has blamed Israel as being responsible for an attack on a Syrian regime airbase east of Homs on April 8, which signals a breakdown in the relationship between Israel and Russia, with the former not believing that Russia is fulfilling its duty of controlling Iran and its military proxies.
While capitalising on the outrage of the attack on Douma, Israel is also sending a message to Trump, highlighting the effect a U.S. withdrawal may have on regional politics. Israel is showing that the Syrian war is just as much about countering Iranian expansionism as it is about defeating ISIS. Not only this, but it is showing that Israeli intervention may intensify if the U.S. withdraws, further complicating the balance of power.
If the U.S. does withdraw from Syria, what are the other dangers?
The Syrian civil war is the battleground of the Middle East, and the shape the conflict takes will dictate the political order and power balances in the region for years to come. Just like in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and arguably in Lebanon and Egypt’s Sinai, armed groups backed militarily and economically by foreign powers are taking advantage of Syria’s instability and are representing a plethora of interests. A U.S. retreat will embolden such militia groups, and deepen their influence in the country.
Syrian government forces brandish their weapons while standing on an armored personnel carrier after entering al-Shifoniya as they advance in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus on March 4, 2018 - AFP
The U.S. experience in Iraq, when Iranian-backed militias took advantage of the space left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, should be an example of the consequences of leaving a power vacuum in a fragile and receptive state. Iran entrenched its presence in Iraq under the auspices of Hashd al-Shaabi – the Popular Mobilisation Forces – which proved crucial to Tehran’s backing of the Assad regime, facilitating the flow of money, weapons and fighters to Syria.
A U.S. withdrawal would do little to impede Iranian expansionism, and would offer a clear path for Iranian-backed militias to solidify the so-called "Shia Crescent", extending from Iran to the Mediterranean. Iranian hegemony is unacceptable to many in the region, but the U.S. remains the only hostile actor to Iran that is able to directly impact the balance of power in Syria. If the U.S. is to withdraw, it is likely a sustained proxy war will be initiated against Iran with the backing of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. The long-term success of a proxy war is questionable, and invigorating the already entrenched Iranian Shia militias may further marginalize Arab Sunnis, intensifying sectarian tensions that contributed to the dramatic rise of ISIS in 2014.
For Russia, the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be a symbolic victory for Russian-advocated notion of non-intervention over the U.S. regime change rhetoric. Although Russia has already emerged as a “winner” in the Syrian conflict, a dire notion considering the human cost, a U.S. withdrawal would provide Putin with substantial political ammunition. Russia’s elevation to a key decision maker in Middle East affairs will also serve as a personal victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will use it to tap into Russian nationalist aspirations and expand his political base.
In addition, if the U.S. was to end its military campaign in Syria this would mean withdrawing from Kurdish-administered territory and abandoning its SDF ally, which has been central to the fight against ISIS. With the YPG, a major Kurdish faction of the SDF, acting alone, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to eliminate the Kurdish threat on the Turkish-Syrian border will be less likely to drag Ankara into a military and political quagmire with the U.S., meaning Erdoğan will have a greater opportunity to capitalise on his promises.
Turkish forces patrolling near the Kurdistan Region border - AFP/Mustafa Ozer
Erdoğan has vowed that Afrin is just the beginning of an outward-looking campaign in Syria, and has threatened to conduct military operations across six locations: Manbij, Kobani, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli in Syria, and Sinjar in Northern Iraq.
With the YPG focused on repelling attacks from Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, ISIS would see a greater opportunity to expand its pocket of control in the east of the country. The recent battle for Afrin fought between Kurdish forces and those allied with Ankara stretched Kurdish forces and resources thin, and in the absence of U.S. support, the Kurds would be subjected to intensified conflict from all sides.
The U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive political strategy in order to ensure the conditions that welcome an ISIS revival never surface. In the short term, this means mediating talks between Turkey and the YPG. A power-sharing arrangement, built around supporting autonomous zones, will be necessary to guarantee Ankara that Syrian Kurds do not pose a threat to the Turkish state. It is likely that the YPG will be forced to return its heavy weapons to the U.S. as part of any Turkish-backed peace agreement, a feature that would face intense scrutiny and could threaten short-term peace in the region.
The U.S. must decide what its primary objectives are in Syria, and the levels they are willing to go to achieve their objectives. The destruction of ISIS will be an initial objective. The group is largely destroyed militarily, and will not likely return with the same strength it had in 2014 owing to the heavy blows it suffered in Syria and Iraq. However, the organization can still ignite sectarian tensions and instability, and demands a continued U.S. presence to overcome. This may not have to be military in nature and infrastructure and economic programmes may take precedence.
Combating Iran will be a close second. For Iran, the end-game is a Syria that is open for Iranian militias and Hezbollah to use at their disposal, expanding Iranian influence. The restoration of Assad may provide this, and there is a fear that if the U.S. withdraws, the Syrian Arab Army may be rebuilt or officially supplement by Iranian-allied groups, much like in Iraq.