The US president Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US military forces out of Syria has certainly surprised many in the world, especially those closest to him i.e., James Mattis, the Pentagon and the hawks who wish to continue to use Syria as a proxy battlefield against Iran and Russia. Political pundits in the West have accordingly raised a lot of (pseudo) hue and cry, with many of them expressing fears that the withdrawal would ‘create’ safe-heavens for the terrorists to re-group, that Iran will have a free-hand to expand as much as it wants and that the US relations with its Western and Eastern allies would be negatively affected. The ground realities of the Syrian war, however, indicate that none of these exaggerated fears have any real substance. On the contrary, these fears rather obfuscate the actual state of affairs in Syria.
For the president Trump, the decision to withdraw from Syria is certainly yet another fulfillment of one of his election-campaign promises. But it wasn’t just the urge to fulfill this promise that made Trump withdraw. The US, as it stands, had virtually lost the war in Syria, and its troops were getting dangerously exposed, encircled and were under grave threat as occupants of Syria. Partly, this is because of the inability of the US to prevent Turkey from continuing its offensive against the Kurds. And, once the Turkish military crushes and scatters the Kurdish militia, it would leave the 2,000 US troops trapped inside Syria like sitting ducks. And, where these troops to engage in a conflict, or become subject of attacks and were a great many of them to die, the political backlash at home would be too enormous for Trump to handle; hence, the decision to ignore Mattis, who wouldn’t be facing this backlash after all.
And, even if the US wanted to use these troops to bring more of the Syrian territory under their control, the Russian military hardware installed in Syria makes such a venture not only extremely difficult, but also costly. And, things have already moved from S-300 system. Most of all it has to do with the Polyana D4M1 system – the state-of-the-art Russian interface system for Syrian Air Force and defense, helped, of course, by information supplied from Russian AWACS (the A-50Us) and Russian satellites. Therefore, if US troops in northeast Syria were attacked by the Syrian Arab Army– with aerial support – it would be a catastrophe for the US, a situation that could never bode well for Trump, who certainly is seeking a re-election. A seemingly ‘victorious’ pull out of Syria would, however, play differently in American politics.
Other than Kurds, there aren’t very many allies the US can rely on in Syria. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordon have already almost existed from the conflict. Russia, Iran and Turkey have been dominating the Syrian end-game for about two years now. The only country the US could have hoped to rely on was Turkey, a NATO ally, but the recent past of cold-relations with Turkey, and the US willingness to sacrifice its relations with Turkey on the altar of Kurdistan, have already put Turkey firmly in the Russian camp, leaving the US with no allies on the ground, except, of course, some British and French operatives and a host of mercenaries.
The ground realities of the war in Syria have already changed to an extent that the US can no longer manipulate things to its advantage. It is, as such, not a just a coincidence that Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria came just when the three main guarantors of peace in Syria—Russia, Iran and Turkey—signed in Geneva an agreement, stipulating a pan-Syrian 150-member strong committee to draft a new constitution that would pave the way for UN-supervised elections and a peace process that would encourage millions of refugees to return to their homeland.
While the Astana Group and the UNO are still to reach an agreement, the US withdrawal from Syria means that the prospects for a well-negotiated peace plan are brighter than ever. The US, as it stands, had been more or less a spoiler in Syria. Instead of truly fighting the ISIS, it was more interested in funding “rebels” to send Assad home. Instead of fighting ISIS, it allowed terrorist groups to take shelter in its security zones. To speak of one example, the Al-Tanf base and its 50-square-kilometer security perimeter did this job well for the US. Similarly, the “no-fly zones” that the US had were a serious impediment for the Syrian and Russian jets to hunt down the ISIS fighters. In fact, these fly-zones were nothing short of de facto US air cover for the terrorist groups, which the Western political pundits think would find space to re-group after US withdrawal. The reality, however, is that these groups would lose the safe-heavens that the US had been providing them.
Therefore, in many ways, the US departure would help matters from reaching a political formula to creating political stability and wipe the remnants of ISIS. In other words, the fear being expressed in the Western media that the US exit from Syria would turn Syria into some ‘geo-political power play’ between major powers looks completely unfounded. The Geneva agreement, notwithstanding the work that is still to be done, on pan-Syrian constitutional committee, a logical progression out of the Astana process, has already shown that these powers are highly unlikely to engage in some fierce competition against each other and that the emphasis continues to firmly remain on accommodating varying interests through political means.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.