OUT OF SYRIA

FrontLine - - CONTROVERSY - BY JOHN CHERIAN

Da­m­as­cus is spared regime change as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump orders the with­drawal of U.S. troops from Syria in a sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion to the U.S.’ es­tranged NATO ally, Turkey, which de­manded that Wash­ing­ton dis­con­tinue its back­ing of

the Kur­dish mili­tia.

PRES­I­DENT DON­ALD TRUMP’S DE­CI­SION TO with­draw the 2,000 per­son­nel of the United States’ Spe­cial Forces from Syria sur­prised not only his se­nior Cab­i­net mem­bers but also the U.S.’ close al­lies. In­flu­en­tial sec­tions in the U.S.’ po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ments seemed to be taken aback by Trump’s an­nounce­ment on De­cem­ber 19 on the with­drawal of the rel­a­tively small num­ber of troops sta­tioned in Syria. Both the neo­con­ser­va­tives in the Repub­li­can Party and the lib­eral in­ter­ven­tion­ist hawks in the Demo­cratic Party ex­pressed their anger at the de­ci­sion. The cor­po­rate-funded me­dia and think tanks were united in their crit­i­cism of Trump’s move.

Repub­li­can Se­na­tor Lind­say Gra­ham, who had un­til re­cently sup­ported al­most all of Trump’s hawk­ish for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tives, said that he was “blind­sided” by Trump’s de­ci­sion. He and five other Sen­a­tors be­long­ing to both par­ties wrote a let­ter to Trump im­plor­ing him to change his de­ci­sion and keep the U.S. troops on in Syria. The Demo­cratic Congress mem­ber Nancy Pelosi, who is all set to re­gain her House speak­er­ship, said that Trump’s ac­tion was guided “by per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives” and not by na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

Two days after Trump’s an­nounce­ment, De­fence Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis put in his pa­pers cit­ing the with­drawal of U.S. troops from Syria as the main rea­son for his res­ig­na­tion. It was also re­vealed to the me­dia that Trump had con­cur­rently or­dered the with­drawal of 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Mat­tis, a re­tired four-star gen­eral, was among Trump’s close ad­vis­ers in gov­ern­ment who had ob­jected to the with­drawal of the troops from Syria. Mat­tis ap­par­ently also dis­agreed with the halv­ing of the U.S. troop num­bers in Afghanistan. In his let­ter of res­ig­na­tion, Mat­tis blamed Trump for di­min­ish­ing the U.S.’ role in global af­fairs.

Trump had ap­par­ently wanted troop with­drawals in Syria and Afghanistan to start much ear­lier, but Mat­tis and other se­nior of­fi­cials had per­suaded him to de­lay the in­evitable. Trump had run for the pres­i­dency on an “anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ist” plat­form. In March, he said in a speech that the U.S. forces in Syria “will be com­ing home very soon”. Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from Syria is also an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the re­al­ity on the ground and the U.S.’ di­min­ish­ing power in West Asia. It has dawned on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is the win­ner of the war that was im­posed on

the coun­try and that there will be no regime change in Da­m­as­cus.

In the first two years of his pres­i­dency, Trump sent out mixed sig­nals on Syria. In Jan­uary 2018, his ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­posed the set­ting up of a 30,000-strong U.s.backed force in north-eastern Syria along the Turk­ish bor­der. In Oc­to­ber, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John Bolton stated that the U.S. would stay on in Syria as long as Iran con­tin­ued to ex­ert its in­flu­ence in the re­gion. James F. Jef­frey, the U.S. Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Syria En­gage­ment, said in a speech to the At­lantic Coun­cil two days be­fore Trump made his an­nounce­ment that Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-as­sad was mak­ing a “big mis­take” if he thought that U.S. troops were go­ing to leave Syria any time soon. Syria, he said, had be­come a “great power con­flict”.

THE DAESH FAC­TOR

But as has been his wont, Trump sud­denly changed tack and went against the ad­vice of the mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment when he made the de­ci­sion to with­draw from Syria. He pro­claimed that the Daesh (Is­lamic State) had been de­feated in Syria. “We have de­feated the Daesh in Syria. My only rea­son for be­ing there in the Trump Pres­i­dency,” Trump wrote on Twit­ter. The Pen­tagon spokesper­son, how­ever, had a dif­fer­ent take on Trump’s claim that the Daesh has been de­feated in Syria. She said that though the U.s.-led coali­tion had lib­er­ated the ter­ri­tory that was un­der the con­trol of ex­trem­ists, the mil­i­tary cam­paign against the group would con­tinue.

The French gov­ern­ment is­sued a state­ment say­ing that its small mil­i­tary con­tin­gent would re­main in eastern Syria as the Daesh con­tin­ued to be a threat. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron said that he “deeply re­gret­ted” Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull out of Syria. The U.S.’ other al­lies, such as Britain and Ger­many, had also been crit­i­cal of Trump’s move. Is­rael was par­tic­u­larly up­set and viewed the move as a con­ces­sion to Iran and Hizbol­lah.

It is a fact that the Daesh no longer poses a threat. It has been de­feated in the rest of Syria by the Syr­ian peo­ple and their army, as­sisted by Rus­sia, Iran and the Hizbol­lah mili­tia. The other ter­ror groups in Syria were armed and trained by the U.S., its North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­i­sa­tion (NATO) al­lies and re­gional prox­ies. They are still fight­ing in Idlib prov­ince un­der the pro­tec­tion of the U.S. and Turkey. The Syr­ian forces have called off their of­fen­sive to free the prov­ince for the time be­ing to al­low civil­ians to leave towns con­trolled by je­hadists.

MOLLIFYING TURKEY

Trump’s an­nounce­ment on Syria came soon after he had a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with his Turk­ish coun­ter­part, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. A U.S. State De­part­ment of­fi­cial told the me­dia that Trump took the de­ci­sion after his talk with Er­do­gan. Turkey had been threat­en­ing to launch a full-scale mil­i­tary at­tack against the U.s.-backed Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Group (YPG) forces in eastern Syria. The U.S. ob­vi­ously pre­ferred not to get into a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Turkey, its NATO ally. Among NATO mem­ber states, Turkey has the sec­ond big­gest army. It has amassed troops and ar­mour along its bor­der with Syria in prepa­ra­tion for an on­slaught against the Kur­d­dom­i­nated YPG. The YPG is, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, the Syr­ian wing of the banned Kur­dish Work­ers Party (PKK). The YPG, with the sup­port of the U.S., now con­trols all the ter­ri­tory east of the Euphrates river. One-third of Syria, con­sist­ing of its sparsely pop­u­lated parts, are presently un­der their con­trol.

The area has a num­ber of oil and gas fields, which were un­der Daesh con­trol for a cou­ple of years dur­ing the Syr­ian civil war. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment will be ea­ger to re­take con­trol of the fer­tile area north of the Euphrates. Raqqa, the self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal of the Daesh, was also in this part of oc­cu­pied Syria. The town was ut­terly dev­as­tated by U.S. forces dur­ing their siege of Raqqa. More than 40,000 peo­ple were killed in the U.S. as­sault. Many hu­man­i­tar­ian groups want the U.S. to be tried for war crimes for its fail­ure to safe­guard civil­ian life in Raqqa.

Er­do­gan has for long ac­cused the U.S. gov­ern­ment of

prop­ping up the YPG and in­di­rectly giv­ing sus­te­nance to the PKK in­side Turkey. Turkey has re­peat­edly stated that it will un­der no cir­cum­stances al­low a part of Syria to be­come “a ter­ror cor­ri­dor” dom­i­nated by the PKK. Er­do­gan has been de­mand­ing the repa­tri­a­tion of the cleric Fethul­lah Gulen from his Amer­i­can sanc­tu­ary. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment has ac­cused him of be­ing the mas­ter­mind of the 2016 coup at­tempt that al­most top­pled Er­do­gan. Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Mev­lut Cavu­soglu claimed in mid De­cem­ber that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had ac­ceded to the de­mand and had started the ex­tra­di­tion process. The White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee Sanders gave the im­pres­sion that Trump was con­sid­er­ing the re­quest.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw troops from Syria is be­ing viewed as a sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion to Er­do­gan. The move could go a long way in re­pair­ing re­la­tions be­tween the es­tranged NATO al­lies. There are re­ports that Er­do­gan had threat­ened to quit NATO if the U.S. con­tin­ued to back the YPG. Re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries had be­gun to de­te­ri­o­rate after the 2016 coup at­tempt against Er­do­gan.

Turkey has rea­sons to be happy as one of

its main de­mands, with­drawal of U.S. troops from Syria, has been met by the U.S. Just be­fore the an­nounce­ment of troop with­drawal, the State De­part­ment in­formed Congress about a new $3.5-bil­lion deal with Turkey for the sale of Pa­triot anti-mis­sile sys­tems. This could mean that Turkey may be hav­ing sec­ond thoughts about its stated in­ten­tion to go in for Rus­sia’s S-400 anti-mis­sile sys­tems. Er­do­gan also seems to have con­vinced Trump that Turkey was a bet­ter buf­fer to stop the spread of Ira­nian in­flu­ence in the re­gion than ei­ther the YPG or coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia.

KURDS LEFT HIGH AND DRY

The Kurds have been left high and dry by their U.S. pa­trons. De­spite hav­ing be­come a dis­ci­plined fight­ing force that played a key role in sub­du­ing the Daesh, they are not in a po­si­tion to face a full-fledged Turk­ish mil­i­tary as­sault with­out the ben­e­fit of a pro­tec­tive U.S. mil­i­tary um­brella. Lat­est re­ports sug­gest that Turkey has de­ployed 15,000 Arab fighters along the bor­der to take on the Kurds. The U.S. with­drawal gives the Turk­ish army the green light to start its op­er­a­tions against the Kur­dish­led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Force (SDF) op­er­at­ing in north­east­ern Syria that was cob­bled up by the U.S. and its key Gulf al­lies such as Saudi Ara­bia. Syria was ex­pect­ing such a sit­u­a­tion to evolve sooner or later. It has from the be­gin­ning main­tained that the U.S. pres­ence on its ter­ri­tory is il­le­gal and “an act of ag­gres­sion”. The U.S. uni­lat­er­ally put it­self on Syr­ian ter­ri­tory with­out the sanc­tion of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

The au­thor­i­ties in Da­m­as­cus were con­fi­dent that the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence was un­sus­tain­able in the long run. Rus­sia, Syria’s ma­jor ally, has ac­cused the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of us­ing the pres­ence of the Daesh in a few small pock­ets in south-eastern Syria as a pre­text to keep a mil­i­tary toe­hold in Syria and that the U.S mil­i­tary pres­ence is hin­der­ing a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the cri­sis in Syria. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has given the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion on Syria a cau­tious wel­come.

The Rus­sian lead­er­ship is aware of Trump’s ten­dency to quickly back­track on his com­mit­ments. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has its con­tacts within the SDF. With a Turk­ish mil­i­tary push al­most in­evitable, the YPG will now have very lit­tle choice but to form a tacit al­liance with the Syr­ian army. The two sides had an al­liance when the civil war be­gan in 2012.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment had given the Kurds in the eastern re­gion au­ton­omy so that the army could fo­cus on the var­i­ous ter­ror out­fits that had cropped up all over the coun­try. In all like­li­hood, the Kurds will once again reach an un­der­stand­ing with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. In ex­change for swear­ing al­le­giance to the Syr­ian state, they could be given lim­ited au­ton­omy to run their af­fairs once again. Turkey wants to con­trol the ter­ri­tory in north­east­ern Syria now un­der the U.s.-backed SDF forces and ex­ert more lever­age in the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions in­tended to draft a new con­sti­tu­tion for Syria. Ankara, like Wash­ing­ton, is now rec­on­ciled to the fact that Bashar al-as­sad is here to stay.

U.S. SPE­CIAL FORCES per­son­nel at a front-line out­post out­side the north­ern Syr­ian city of Man­bij, a Fe­bru­ary 2018 pho­to­graph.

PRES­I­DENT DON­ALD TRUMP with his Turk­ish coun­ter­part, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, at the new NATO head­quar­ters in Brus­sels, Bel­gium, on July 11, 2018.

SYR­IAN PRES­I­DENT Bashar al-as­sad.

TURK­ISH-BACKED Syr­ian fighters raise the op­po­si­tion flag as they ar­rive in the rebel-held bor­der town of Qi­rata, on De­cem­ber 25, 2018.

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