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The Possible Consequences of American Withdrawal from Syria

A US withdrawal will mean that lucrative Syrian territories, about one-third of the whole of Syria, will be earmarked for a takeover.

If US President Donald Trump has been the subject of much contention since he became president, his decisions have seldom left the world more speechless, or dare I say it, more dumbfounded than his recent order to withdraw all American troops from Syria.

Out of what seems to be nowhere, especially when we consider that only a few weeks ago senior US officials like John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, affirmed how committed the US was to a long-term presence in Syria, the president announced to the world that American troops would come home now that ISIS was defeated.

In typical Trump style, the news broke on Twitter before it could reach the mainstream media.

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True to his political rationale, which rationale has often run contrary to the advice of his own administration and military brass, Trump deemed fit to recall the troops and essentially end America’s military intervention in Syria. However one chooses to look at it, such a turnaround will have far-reaching repercussions for both the region and the United States.

But what does it mean? What does such military contraction entail for the United States?

Interestingly enough, or rather more telling of the times we live in, Trump has received more criticism for his recall of troops than many presidents had to weather for opening new military fronts.

As Trevor Timm noted in an opinion piece for the Guardian in reference to the furor Trump’s decision started in Congress: Maybe if Congress has not used the last decade to totally abdicate its constitutional responsibility to debate and approve of wars the US is involved in, and if they were actually up front to the American people about the extreme costs of fighting yet another war, they would have a leg to stand on. But their stance seems to now be: We only get upset when troops get to come home without our approval, not when they are deployed in yet another war zone.”

Rather than debate the how and why behind Mr Trump’s decision, let’s not fool ourselves into believing that sense or reason sits in the Oval Office. I personally believe we should concentrate on the what now? Again, for better or for worse America remains a titan of geopolitics and the flutter of a wing in Washington is likely to be felt in the farthest regions of the world. By this token, it is evident that a disengagement in Syria will transform the immediate region’s political dynamics and potentially consolidate emerging geopolitical trends, namely the rise of Turkey and Iran as power-brokers and players in the region.

Whether one agrees or not with President Trump’s decision, whether or not he may or may not have acted in the best interests of both the US and Syria (in that American boots will no longer trample on Syria’s sovereignty) really is of little consequence in this Great Game of politics we are seeing play out on our screens. Rather it’s what will manifest in terms of conflict resolution or what experts warn would be the great unraveling of the Middle East.

If the Kurds, America’s allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) appear to be the main losers (with one tweet President Trump reneged on years-long promises of support for the Kurdish cause against Turkey), it is actually Saudi Arabia who just lost yet another jewel to its crown at least as far as regional control goes.

Of course, many experts are deploring such military disengagement in the name of political loyalties and continuity. In comments to the Telegraph, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted: “It’s a sad state of affairs when our key allies on the ground, who’ve shed blood and thousands of lives for our fight against Isil [ISIS], are to be well and truly abandoned.”

But as I said, the Kurds here are but a secondary casualty of Washington’s realpolitik, Riyadh is the one partner that stands to lose the most, most likely to the region’s overall benefit, but then again, it could prompt Riyadh to act rashly in the Syrian war proper.

As of right now, the US through its Kurdish allies controls Syria’s most lucrative territories, major oil and gas fields, agricultural land, main water resources and such. A US withdrawal will mean that those territories, about one-third of the whole of Syria will be earmarked for a takeover. While international law would dictate that the Syrian government will resume control, several regional powers would rather see those areas fall to their authority, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia via its proxies, those radicals the mainstream has often painted as moderates.

It is likely now that Damascus will rely on both Russia and Iran to reclaim its lost sovereignty and thus use the return of its national wealth to establish long-term commercial ties with both Moscow and Tehran. This, of course, will dramatically shrink America’s footprint in the region while further anchoring that of the region’s new superpowers, Russia and Iran.

Turkey is a more complicated beast because there’s the fear of further regional fragmentation, this time along ethnic lines. That said, it is likely Ankara will strike a deal with Russia and Iran in order to consolidate its stand against Saudi Arabia as the main leader of the Islamic world, a title Turkey has long wanted to reclaim since the fall of its Ottoman Empire in WWI.

It leaves us with the tempestuous child of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia. If the kingdom’s political reach has shrunk dramatically this year as many chickens have, in fact, come home to roost, the result of deplorable policies and a tendency to rely on threats to stifle criticism, Riyadh could still explode the region by reverting to its terror modus operandi, the deployment of mercenary radicals to sow unrest and play up sectarian sentiments.

By leaving, right or wrong, Donald Trump created a vacuum that will need filling by what and, more importantly, by whom will determine whether or not 2019 will see a reprieve in the violence in the region.

2019 promises, to say the least, to be dramatic and eventful!


Catherine Perez-Shakdam

Catherine is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former consultant to the UN Security Council on Yemen. Her work has been published in the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Express, Epoch Times and countless other media.

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