There’s lots of outrage about the US abandoning its Kurdish partners in Syria, and rightly so. But the far greater impact of President Donald Trump’s completely mishandled Syria withdrawal is that millions of other Syrian civilians will soon find themselves living under the control of the Bashar Al Assad regime or Iranian forces.
The US withdrawal from northern Syria abandons a five-year project that kept a full third of Syria free from Al Assad’s control. That region has Syria’s richest oil and agricultural resources, as well as millions of innocent people who held out against Al Assad and his partners for almost nine years. But now, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have made a deal with the Al Assad regime after being left high and dry by the US.
Since Trump ordered the full withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria, the US military has been leaving Syrian towns where it has been present for years. Regime-allied Russian forces took control of the city of Manbij yesterday. Regime elements and their Russian partners are already moving into the cities of Kobani and Raqqa.
But that’s just the beginning. Turkey seems interested only in a safe zone along its border. The rest of Raqqa, Deir Al Zour and Hasakah provinces will now inevitably fall into regime hands, sooner rather than later. “In withdrawing from Syria, the administration is handing on a silver platter a third of Syria to the Al Assad regime and Iran,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.
The regime has brutally punished any perceived opponents in places it already took over, including Homs and Aleppo. In the northeast, many local activists worked with the SDF, who are now working with the regime. All of their lives are now at grave risk.
A tweet can change things
Farther south, where US forces haven’t yet withdrawn, they are coming into conflict with advancing regime, striking them from the air to protect their own position. In Deir Al Zour province, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units and Iranian-backed militias are just waiting for US troops to leave so they can take over that province, as well. US officials note that a small US military contingent would remain in a base called Tanf, for now, but that could change in a tweet.
Iran will then control not only most of the country’s oil and agricultural resources but also will cement its ability to move people and weapons over a huge swath of land from Tehran to Beirut. Trump is handing Iran more power than it ever got as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal.
Iran’s logistical task in supporting Hezbollah will become greatly simplified, said former State Department Syria official Frederic Hof, now at the Atlantic Council. Meanwhile, extremism in these areas will only increase as people continue to resist Al Assad and Iran’s control.
Al Assad will inevitably give Daesh space to resurrect itself.
Iran will then control not only most of the country’s oil and agricultural resources but also will cement its ability to move people and weapons over a huge swath of land from Tehran to Beirut
More war crimes
As if all of that weren’t bad enough, Trump’s hasty and unplanned troop withdrawal has also worsened the fate of millions of Syrians living in Idlib province, where the Al Assad regime has actually stepped up their wanton killing of civilians with barrel bombs, chemical weapons and other instruments of war crimes. While the world looks away, Idlib is being destroyed.
Trump obviously doesn’t care about the fate of Syrian civilians. On Twitter, he publicly welcomed the idea of Al Assad retaking control of the parts of Syria that have remained free for almost nine years.
On a conference call Monday, a senior administration official said US goals in Syria remain unchanged: defeating Daesh, rolling back Iran’s presence and pressuring Al Assad into a political solution. “The withdrawal of US military forces is a change in the means that we use to try to achieve those ends,” the official said. “It’s not a change in the ends themselves.”
But those goals have now become virtually impossible to achieve thanks to Trump’s callousness and shortsightedness. And for years to come, the world will be dealing with the consequences — including more terrorism, more refugees, more Iranian expansion, more war crimes and a grim future for millions of innocent Syrians.
Josh Rogin is a prominent American columnist, political analyst and foreign policy expert.