09.01.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Syria: Why the Reluctant Withdrawal?

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In an apparent about-turn, the Trump administration is re-thinking its decision to rapidly withdraw from Syria in order to, what its officials have said, ensure that the ISIS is completely destroyed and that the Turks don’t attack Syrian Kurds. While it is completely erroneous to see American officials ‘concerned’ about ISIS when they’ve done the least of the fighting in past five years to defeat it and when many of their tactics actually protected ISIS fighters from Syrian and Russian attacks, the decision to delay the withdrawal starts looking less strange when one puts it in the backdrop of the still-active western imperative of engaging Iran and Russia in a long-drawn conflict to force them to withdraw from Syria. If that can’t happen, as the western logic goes, a US presence will make sure that Iranian and Russian presence doesn’t exceed too much. We have already shown how the Arab states are already tactically ‘embracing’ Syria in order to make sure that they increase their presence through financial means, the US military presence is aimed at ensuring that Iran remains under pressure militarily as well.

Talk of ISIS and Kurds, therefore, is only a smoke-screen, and behind all the talk of delayed withdrawal is the fear of Russia and Iran getting emboldened. This had become quite clear within days after the announcement of withdrawal that Western obsession with Iran and Russia would eventually overpower this decision. James Mattis resigned first, triggering a wave of other resignations from the Pentagon, and the western media reports, allying with anti-Iran hawks in the US politics, didn’t miss the opportunity to fully fan the Russian and Iran phobia out in politics.

An article ran by Times argued that “a hasty withdrawal would empower Iran not just in Syria but also more widely”, and that “as things currently stand in Syria, were the U.S. to withdraw from the north-east, Iran will be able to use the area’s oil revenue to offset some of the economic losses it is incurring following the American reinstatement of sanctions after Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal.”

As such, Iranian roll-back from Syria is being seen as necessary not just in terms of ending the country’s expanding influence in the Middle East, but also crucial for making US sanctions successful in order to curb Iranian ability to ‘threaten’ or ‘attack’ other regional countries such as Israel. Accordingly, as the Times report argues, an un-checked Iranian presence “would be bad news for Israel’s security.”

Besides it, the western hawks, both official and un-official, also ‘believe’ that an Iranian presence will create conditions for the return of ISIS 2.0. A Bloomberg report, quoting Trump’s special representative for Syria, James Jaffrey, said that “a withdrawal without a plan to protect civilians from barrel bombs and Iranian-backed militias will create the same kind of opening al Qaeda and the Islamic State have seized before.” This is only a fancy way of saying that the US must not withdraw unless Iran is completely rolled back to the pre-war conditions. This is also a fancy way of saying that unless Israel’s core interests are fully protected, withdrawal must not happen.

The Israelis, as could be expected, were quick to paint this situation in terms of being ‘alone’ in the war on Iran. “This leaves us alone in the arena with the Russians,” told Michael Herzog, a former Israeli defense official, to New York Times, adding that “we are alone in the battle against Iran in Syria”, thus confirming that the supposed threats of ISIS regaining strength and that Iranian presence might create another ISIS are only meant to sugar-coat the real reasons behind the opposition against withdrawal.

A Brookings report was the sharpest of all, saying that “withdrawing from Syria will allow a Russia-dominated security architecture in the region and hasten the hegemony of Iran. While Iranian hegemony will be unacceptable throughout the region, other countries in the Middle East are too weak to effectively confront Iran without U.S. support and leadership. At best—and if left to fight on their own—America’s allies can sustain the proxy war but will only create a headache for Iran and Russia.”

Now that the about-turn has happened, the central role was played by none other than Lindsey Graham, whose anti-Russia and anti-Iran views aren’t new and who had gone on to blast Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, saying that “an American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia. I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.”

An opportunity for peace lost?

As such, Trump’s about-turn confirms that the hawks in the US have successfully prevailed and an opportunity for a negotiated peace has been lost. For instance, the US was already in the middle of co-ordinating its withdrawal with Turkey when the hawks attacked, laying the pre-condition of Turkish assurance of not attacking Kurds.

Trump had talked twice with Erdogan before the news of about-turn hit the media. In these talks, Erdogan and Trump had agreed to “ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria”, showing that the supposed threat of an all-out Turkish offensive on Kurds is only a misplaced one and that Trump and Erdogan’s discussion wasn’t influenced by this threat, or even a prospect of this threat. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had also confirmed that he would be traveling to Russia to “evaluate the process” of US forces’ withdrawal, meaning that diplomatic coordination was already taking place between these powers when John Bolton reversed it saying that withdrawal wouldn’t take place until Kurds are safe and ISIS defeated.

This pre-condition means that the US will now involve Turkey first in “hard-bargain” over its Kurdish policy; while the fact of the matter is that the US will be assessing whether they can convince Turkey of the imperative of rolling-back Iran from Syria. Based on an assumption of competition between Iran and Turkey in Syria that the US can exploit to its advantage, the US is exploring its options of achieving what has been the cardinal objective of entire Syrian war i.e., nipping the Iranian threat once and for all.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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