As allies of the United States try to recover from President Donald Trump’s sudden decision last week to initiate troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria, pundits and politicians both in the US and beyond continue to warn that the move will have catastrophic consequences.
Trump’s decision came following a telephonic conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago. We know little about what took place between the two men, but it is now clear that the US president made up his mind without consulting the Pentagon or his European and Arab allies in the anti-terror coalition. The shock waves echoed around the world; and reactions continue to pour until today. The move, delivered through a series of tweets, was welcomed by Ankara, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. And it was attacked by French President Emmanuel Macron, who described the US as “an unreliable ally”.
Such a shocking move will have grave consequences not only on the trajectory of the Syrian crisis, but also on America’s standing in the Middle East and beyond. It is also grounded not on genuine geopolitical reasons, but on a superficial view of America’s role in the world and viewed as a purely financial transaction. “We spend trillions and get nothing in return,” Trump tweeted, adding that the US will not be the policeman of the Middle East. Trump handed over the responsibility of eradicating what remains of Daesh to Erdogan, who now emerges as one of the likely winners.
But things are not as simple as they appear. Trump’s decision may have long-term repercussions for America’s foreign policy, but in the short-term, he seems to have extricated himself from what he believes is a costly and fruitless military adventure in Syria.
Pundits and national security experts will continue to debate the meaning and consequences of Trump’s unilateral move, which has driven his Secretary of Defence James Mattis to resign in protest and delivered a harsh rebuke from lawmakers on both sides of the political divide in Washington.
Here is a preliminary take of winners and losers — for the time being — from Trump’s decision.
Turkey’s Erdogan has been vying to move his troops east of the Euphrates in northeastern Syria for some time in a bid to quash Syrian Kurdish militias, who are allied with the US in the fight against Daesh. There are reports that he is sending reinforcements across the border. Ankara says it is determined to destroy PKK militias, but Erdogan may have broader plans to extend his stay in northern Syria. The Syrian army has reportedly begun preparations to send thousands of soldiers towards Manbij in anticipation of US troop withdrawal. The Russians are not far away as well. The region may witness major military confrontations and may shift alliances with the Kurds opting to side with the regime.
Russia has been critical of US military presence in Syria and has called on Washington to pull out. With that happening soon, Moscow’s influence in Syria will grow exponentially. Russia has played all parties carefully and maintains contacts with the Kurds as well. But the challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants 2019 to bring a final political settlement, is to keep his allies from fighting each other.
Iran is certainly relieved that the US is pulling out. It has its own geopolitical agenda in Syria and it is now in a position to implement it freely. But it too must navigate carefully as it tries to position itself between Turkey and Russia while supporting its proxies in the region.
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is certainly relieved that the US has chosen to withdraw. But he will have to rely heavily on Russia’s support if his troops are to replace the Americans. One major hurdle will be Turkey and its own plans for northern Syria.
Daesh will benefit from the vacuum created by US withdrawal and the pressure that will bring on the Kurdish Democratic Forces (KDF). It remains to be seen if the western coalition will hold as the US pulls out. Daesh may have been handed a lifeline through Trump’s decision.
The anti-Daesh coalition has been rattled by Trump’s sudden move. One likely replacement of US leadership will be the French. But the stakes for Macron will be high.
Israel also stands to lose as the US withdraws. Its main objective is to undermine Iran’s influence in Syria while keeping Hezbollah from building its arsenal close to its borders. Its reliance on Moscow’s good offices will grow as it tries to impose new rules of engagement in Syria.
America’s Arab allies, such as Jordan and Iraq, are mystified by the US move, especially as they continue to warn of a possible resurgence of Daesh in eastern Syria and along the borders with Iraq. On another level altogether, many Arab partners will be wondering if Trump’s Syria decision will initiate a major departure from Washington’s long-standing Middle Eastern policy.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.