Syria at war: How departure of US forces opens up a Wild East

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center), and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shake hands after a joint statement following the consultations on Syria, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Dec. 18, 2018.
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Many analysts warn that ISIS could bounce back in the vacuum caused by a US departure from Syria. But the US presence has also served as a block to other parties seeking influence over the vast northeastern territory held by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, intent on regaining control over the country; Turkey, which is threatening to invade northeast Syria to crush the Kurdish element of the SDF; and Iran, which is interested in ground supply routes to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Much depends on the nature of the US withdrawal and its support for the Kurds, who have done most of the heavy-lifting in the fight against ISIS. Will the US air war against ISIS continue? What signals will the United States send to Russia? Will the US dissuade Turkey? “My sense,” says Frederic C. Hof at the Atlantic Council, “is that there is not a lot of time to decide.... Unless we can come to some specific understandings with the Kurds ... they will likely retire from the ISIS fight, consolidate in the northeast, and reach out to the [Assad] regime and the Russians for a cooperative arrangement.”

Why We Wrote This

Syria's civil war has been especially destructive. How stabilizing has been the minimal US military presence on the ground? The list of local, regional, and global actors affected by a US withdrawal is long.

President Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria could make the eastern third of the country an open arena for several competing forces and herald a new chapter in the country’s bloody civil war, just as it was beginning to wind down.

Some 2,200 US Special Forces are deployed in the vast terrain east of the Euphrates River, where they support and train the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local Arab and Kurdish militia that has played a leading role in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Mr. Trump declared victory over ISIS as the reason for pulling out of Syria, but many analysts warn that the extremist group could bounce back in the vacuum caused by a US departure. The US troop presence has also served as a block to other parties that might seek influence or control over the territory.

Why We Wrote This

Syria's civil war has been especially destructive. How stabilizing has been the minimal US military presence on the ground? The list of local, regional, and global actors affected by a US withdrawal is long.

They include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has long stated his intention to restore full control over the entire country, and Turkey, which views the YPG, the Kurdish element of the SDF, as a terrorist organization, and is threatening to invade northeast Syria to crush the force. Then there is Iran, which is steadily entrenching militarily in Syria, a consequence of the key role it has played in helping safeguard the Assad regime. The US departure from eastern Syria potentially eases the way to develop ground supply routes between Iran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, while all parties are mulling the consequences of Trump’s decision and assessing courses of action, much depends on the nature of the US withdrawal and future support for the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which has done most of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

“What the Kurds do will depend, I think, on how the precise implementation of President Trump’s decision plays out,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and former envoy to the Syrian opposition under President Barack Obama. “Will this simply amount to the removal of US ground forces from eastern Syria? Will the air war against ISIS remnants in support of YPG ground operations [against ISIS] continue? Will the US military communicate to Russian counterparts that the Euphrates River remains a ‘do-not-cross’ de-confliction line? Will US air assets and the [SDF] continue to defend that line? Will the United States dissuade Turkey from invading northeast Syria?”

Kurdish options?

These questions are apparently being debated within the administration in light of Trump’s decision. The Pentagon reportedly is mulling using Iraq as a base of continued operations – such as air strikes or Special Forces raids – against ISIS in Syria.  

“My sense, however, is that there is not a lot of time to decide,” Mr. Hof says. “Unless we can come to some specific understandings with the Kurds that might mitigate President Trump’s announcement, they will likely retire from the ISIS fight, consolidate in the northeast, and reach out to the [Assad] regime and the Russians for a cooperative arrangement.”

Indications of such a Kurdish appeal were evident Friday. Syria said its troops had entered Manbij, a northern town reportedly still patrolled by US Special Forces, though CNN quoted an unidentified US official as saying the Syrian claim was premature.

The SDF has warned that a US withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence, reversing the gains of the past 18 months during which the group’s self-declared caliphate – which once extended across the Syria-Iraq border – shriveled to a few isolated locations in the desert of eastern Syria and villages along the Euphrates.

But overshadowing the prospect of a revitalized ISIS is the possibility of a Turkish military invasion of mainly Kurdish-populated northeast Syria to fight the YPG, which is linked to the Kurdish Workers Party – classified by Ankara as a terrorist organization. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned of an imminent offensive, and the US presence in the region was seen as a check to his plans. Following Trump’s tweeted announcement of the US withdrawal – shortly after a telephone conversation with the Turkish president – Mr. Erdoğan said the planned offensive would be postponed, but added “this is not an open-ended waiting process.”

“In the upcoming months, on the ground in Syria, we will follow a style of incursion that eliminates both [Kurdish] elements and remnants” of ISIS, Erdoğan told business leaders in Istanbul.

Erdoğan’s domestic concerns

Nevertheless, the decision to invade northeast Syria may stem less from the threat posed to Turkey by the YPG and more out of domestic political concerns for Erdoğan in the run-up to municipal elections in March, analysts say.

“The rally-round-the-flag effect … seems to be his only hope to win votes,” says Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Erdoğan’s “ultranationalist allies have already made clear that they want to go ahead with full-scale military operations in eastern Syria. Erdoğan, desperate for the support of the ultranationalists, is not in a position to go against their will.”

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will intercede to protect its erstwhile Kurdish allies from a Turkish onslaught. But, Mr. Erdemir adds, “Erdoğan’s political survival instincts at home will trump any offer Washington can make.”


Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Pinned between the prospect of an ISIS resurgence and a Turkish invasion, the Kurds may find their only hope lies in reaching some form of accommodation with the Assad regime and the Russians, the main outside power in the country. If Damascus reasserts its authority over eastern Syria, perhaps with some limited autonomy for the Kurds and with Russian blessing, it might dilute Erdoğan’s enthusiasm for an invasion.

“Erdoğan would now prefer Assad’s direct rule in eastern Syria to self-rule by the [Kurds]. Erdoğan has long given up his goal of regime change in Syria, and killing the idea of Kurdish autonomy across Turkish borders has become a key objective,” says Erdemir.

Iran sees a US plot

It is for that reason that some in Iran view with suspicion Trump’s motives in withdrawing. While some in Tehran see it as part of a reelection bid by Trump, “other Iranian views, which likely will be shared by many at the top ranks of the regime, look at Trump’s decision not as a sudden emotional decision but as a calculated sinister step,” says Alex Vatanka, senior fellow and Iran expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“These observers believe that Trump is pulling out of Syria as part of a plan to break the Iran-Turkey-Russia alliance by pulling Turkey out with the promise of giving Ankara a free hand to crack hard down on the Syrian Kurds,” he says. “In this view, the decision to pull out of Syria was not just Trump’s decision but a US plot to prolong the Syrian war and deprive Iran, Russia, and Assad of a chance to solve the conflict politically.”

With its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and associated Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has played a pivotal role in protecting the Assad regime. Now it’s establishing a discrete but potentially potent military presence in parts of western Syria that bring it into closer proximity to Hezbollah and Israel.

For its part Hezbollah, which at the height of the war fielded 5,000 to 10,000 fighters in Syria, has returned most of its cadres to Lebanon, where they have switched their full attention back to Israel. Tensions lately have been running high, due in part to Israel’s discovery of cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon, allegedly constructed by the Iran-backed group, as well as Hezbollah’s ongoing efforts to improve the accuracy of its stockpile of guided missiles.

Israel’s close eye on Iran

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a hard-liner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, predicted that with the withdrawal of US forces in eastern Syria, Hezbollah could receive more weapons from Iran.

But the US presence in Syria has not been an insurmountable barrier to Iranian arms convoys coursing west through the deserts of Iraq and Syria. US forces currently deployed at the Tanf border crossing near Jordan effectively block the shortest route from central Iraq to Damascus, but another option, albeit more circuitous, is a route that crosses the border well to the northeast, travels along the west side of the Euphrates, and then turns toward Damascus at Deir el-Zour.

Still, Israel has signaled it will destroy consignments of Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah regardless of whether they are transported across Syria by ground or air.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said the departure of US troops from eastern Syria would not change Israel’s policy.

“Protecting our homeland begins with nipping major threats in the bud,” he said at an Israeli Air Force graduation. “We'll not accept Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which is meant to harm us, and we are acting to eradicate it.” The US withdrawal “doesn't change our policy. Our red lines remain the same – in Syria and everywhere else.”

Netanyahu spoke hours after reports of multiple Israeli air strikes Tuesday night against Syrian military bases around Damascus. It was the first significant Israeli air attack in Syria since mid-September, when a strike on missile facilities near Latakia in northwest Syria led to a Syrian air defense system shooting down a Russian surveillance aircraft. Russia blamed Israel then for “irresponsible actions,” and on Wednesday Russia again chided Israel, saying it had threatened the safety of two civilian airliners passing through the area.

Nevertheless, Iran’s interests in eastern Syria – unlike those of the Assad regime and Turkey – are limited, perhaps solely to establishing land corridors for arms transfers and possibly securing economic benefit from oil and gas fields east of the Euphrates.

“I just can’t see the Iranians investing too much in this project [in eastern Syria] at the moment given the situation on the home front and given that they have already helped secure Assad’s survival,” says the Middle East Institute’s Mr. Vatanka. “I would bet on the Iranians being cautious about their involvement in eastern Syria. They really don't have a strategic case to risk much there.”

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