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A convoy of US armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij in March 2017. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai- Earlier this year, United States President Donald Trump warned that US troops would be coming out of Syria “very soon”. The comment at the time caught major policy-makers off guard and prompted strong reaction from within the US administration as well as America’s key allies in the region — namely Saudi Arabia.

Again on Wednesday, Trump announced unilaterally, that US troops would withdraw, which was met with a new rounds of condemnations.

American and foreign officials fear that such a move would hand the country over to Iran and Russia, weakening the US hand in the region and alienating key allies. “Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smouldering underfoot,” said retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Nato commander. To the list of victors, Stavridis adds Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, whose ability to manoeuvre will be greater now. Washington can no longer play a decisive role in forcing a political agreement on Syria that might have removed Al Assad from power.

“Pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake,” Stavridis said in a tweet. “Big winner is Iran, then Russia, then [Al] Assad. Wrong move.”

For many, the withdrawal also represents the US ceding its traditional dominance in the Middle East. Already, Iran, Russia and Turkey are months into negotiations on Syria’s political future — keeping the US out of those deliberations.

The withdrawal rewards two of America’s most fierce adversaries, Iran and Russia, who have been steadily carving out parts of the country for their own purposes and in cooperation with Al Assad.

We have won against Daesh. We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly, we’ve taken back the land. After historic victories against Daesh, it’s time for our troops to come back home.

- Donald Trump, US President

If Iran moves in to fill the vacuum that a US pullback would leave, it will finally have its pathway to the sea. And Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to add to the foothold he has been building in the Middle East.

Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf, have long complained of Iranian expansionism and interference in their domestic affairs.

A US troop pullout from Iraq in 2008 under the then US president Barack Obama left a gaping power vacuum in the country which Iran swooped in to fill — much to the ire of the Gulf countries.

Saudi Arabia, America’s closet ally in the Middle East, has also voiced concern over the decision. “We believe US troops should stay for at least the mid term, if not the long term. Iran, through proxy militias, will establish an overland supply route that leads from Beirut through Syria and Iraq, to Tehran,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman said in April.

Speaking to Gulf News, Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of International Relations at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, went even further. “US withdrawal will be a major historic miscalculation, exact high costs for the US and the region and the costs would far outweigh the benefits. It will create a vacuum that will be filled by Iran, therefore enhancing the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli showdown.”

An immediate ramification of a US troop pull out will be felt by Syria’s Kurds, who had helped the US defeat Daesh on the ground. Without the US to protect them, Turkey will inevitably confront them in a major show down. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been warning all of last week that an incursion into Kurdish-held territories was “imminent”.

On Thursday, Turkey said Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”.

“Now we have Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject,” state-owned Anadolu news agency on Thursday reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying during a visit to a Qatari-Turkish joint military base in Doha.

“Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want, when the time and place comes they will buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”

This will only weaken America’s credibility in the region and deliver a message that so-called allies could be abandoned at the drop of a hat.

“Trump is withdrawing from Syria under Turkish threat, ceding one third of Syria and any influence over the political outcome,” Martin Indyk, a former US assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to Israel, tweeted. “The days of American dominance in the Middle East are over. All hail Putin, Erdogan (and Khamenei,” he wrote, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Last but not the least, a US pullout runs the risk of allowing fertile territory to Daesh or other extremist groups to surface again.

Again, one must look at the scenario in Iraq under Obama.

The expansion of Iran alienated the Sunnis, pushing some groups towards radicalism and terrorism.

While US presence in the Middle East comes with its challenges, the benefits far outweigh the risks.