President Donald Trump’s recent announcement regarding the withdrawal of US troops from northwestern Syria carries a mixed message about the future of America’s role in Syria. His decision brings resentment in the Kurdish camp as it termed this as a ‘stab in the back’ after they helped the United States defeat the ISIL. This announcement has brought unexpected twists in the situation, as it would allow Turkey to launch a military operation against Kurdish fighters whom it considers terrorists.
The President has been criticized even by senior members of his own Party including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He has also been criticized by his close friends Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley, former US Ambassador to the United Nations. They concede, directly or otherwise, that this has been a big betrayal of the Kurds, which amounts to backstabbing them.
On Dec 2 last year, President Trump had announced that he would withdraw from Syria and there had been an outcry in the United States. Mitch McConnell had a resolution passed and sent a clear message to President Trump to hold back. Trump held back his decision to withdraw. But, frankly, people following American policy in the Middle East knew that such a decision would come sooner or later because it squares up with President Trump’s election promises. In his first election campaign, he had categorically said that he would bring back US troops home from Syria and Afghanistan. He had enunciated his doctrine ‘America First’ which meant that Americans should not be fighting in wars or places which were not really their own or which did not involve their interests. In the last few days, the situation became clearer and there was a Telephone call reportedly between President Trump and President Erdogan. Apparently, Erdogan said that he would be sending his forces prompting Trump to announce the withdrawal of US forces from Syria.
The point is that it took the American establishment by surprise. They were not expecting something to come so suddenly. That is why there has been this outcry and criticism against him.
Of course, there have been some voices of support for him within the Republican Party. Republican Senator Rand Paul has come out and supported Trump’s decision. But the broad feeling is that President Trump has betrayed his closest ally in Syrian, an ally which has fought as an integral part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State. And, it had made huge sacrifices in the war against Islamic State. There is a growing feeling that the IS forces are regrouping.
Now, a lot of the fighters is now being held as prisoners inside the area controlled by the Syrian Kurds. There’s a fear that if Turkish forces were to invade the Syrian Kurdish territory the fighters who are guarding the prisoners would rush to fight off the Turkish forces giving an opportunity to IS prisoners to escape. The overriding feeling is the region could be plunged in turmoil once again.
Apart from the Israelis, it makes the Iranians are very uneasy. In fact, on Oct 8, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif telephoned his Turkish counterpart and urged him not to cross over into Syria because the balance of power in that region will be totally upset with a Turkish incursion into Northern Syria. Of course, the Turks say they want to establish a peaceful corridor along the Syrian border. They say that they are housing 2 million Syrian refugees and want to relocate them inside Syria. So they need a long peaceful corridor and the Syrian refugees will be accommodated there.
Obviously, the Turkish invasion will be met with Kurdish resistance and there will be another flare-up which disturbs this already troubled region. So, the Iranians and the Israelis are worried. Analysts feel that although the initial pullout has begun, there may be some pressure on President Trump to still retain some of US troops there.
On another note, Russia is now seen as a dependable ally. It has been engaged deeply with developments during the last three to four years in Syria. Russia is consistently supporting Iran in this region. Putin has by far managed good working relationship with Israel, with Netanyahu in particular and other Gulf States like Qatar, UAE and Jordan in the Middle East.
Having said this, Russia is also taking interest in peace-meal steps to bring stability and expressed its support for the Syrian constitutional committee or group to work for a new Constitution which will involve all groups including the opposition. They have managed to bring about stability in this region. More and more countries are now looking not to America but to Russia to manage conflicts within the broader region of West Asia.
Of course, American lawmakers insist that the American decision to withdraw its forces from Syria will benefit the Russians, the Syrian government, and Iranians. If it rejuvenates the Islamic State. In a nutshell, the entire situation will be up in the air, there will be upheaval and it would be very difficult to forecast how things will unfold. This particular episode where Americans plan to withdraw from the Syrian Kurdish areas and thereby plunge the region into more turmoil will be something that will not only be criticized in the US but will also be watched with great trepidation in other parts of the world.
Md Sharif Hasan is a faculty at the Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi.