The American Withdrawal: Winners & Losers
March 5, 2019
Author: Caleb Larson. Holds an MPP degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. Meeting Russia 2018 Alumnus.
"We have defeated ISIS* in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." So closed the December 19th workday, throwing the foreign policy establishment in Washington and other capitals into disarray.
A US withdrawal from Syria has enormous implications for the ongoing conflict and will certainly alter the balance of power. The following explanation illustrates which parties stand to gain from an American retreat from Syria and which parties stand to lose.
Photo: Flickr.com (DVIDSHUB)
First and foremost, ISIS stands to gain from a US withdrawal from Syria. Despite Trump's claims that ISIS has been defeated, ISIS as a group still operates in Syria and poses a real threat. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that ISIS currently controls 2% of Syria's territory, and fighters continue to stream into Syria to join ISIS' ranks, numbering anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000. Capitalizing on a US withdrawal would be a huge propaganda opportunity for the terror group, who has shown a high degree of video production and recruitment savvy in the past. Further compounding an ISIS rebound, Kurdish fighters have indicated that they would be forced to release approximately 1,100 captured ISIS fighters and 2,800 members of the fighter's families. Reduced pressure on ISIS at this crucial moment in the fight, so close to elimination from Syria, could result in a significant rebound in their numbers and capabilities.
Although both the United States and Turkey are NATO allies, relations between the two countries have been prickly. A US withdrawal would likely give Turkey a free hand to pursue an expansionist foreign policy in Syria at the expense of both the Kurds and Free Syrian Army. Indeed, several independent analysist have questioned Turkish motivations in Syria, suggesting that Turkey's real objectives are a crackdown against the Kurdish YPG.
A long-term strategic goal of Turkey is to prevent a Kurdish state from forming along their southern border. To that end, Turkey controls much of the territory abutting their border west of the Euphrates. Turkish concerns about their border have caused confrontations with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces around the Syrian border city of Afrin as well as to the east with the Kurdish-controlled northeast corner of Syria.
In a high-profile piece in the New York Times from January 7th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported Trump's unilateral withdrawal declaration, saying that Turkey can "get the job done in Syria."
In response to Turkish intentions, White House national security advisor John Bolton's recent visit to Ankara attempted to extract Turkish assurances that the US Kurdish allies in Syria would not be targeted by Turkey, and that a US withdrawal is pending until such assurances are given. Despite this, both Turkish and US administration officials acknowledge Turkish reliance on American logistics for future military operations, constraining Turkish ambitions in Syria.
While Turkey does have the second-largest standing army among NATO countries, Turkish ability to coordinate and conduct operations without American support are concerning and questionable at best. The principal Turkish deficiencies are lack of effective airpower, and the difficulty maintaining long and exposed supply lines. Overall, Turkey does not have the strength to continue the fight against ISIS without American support and has indicated they will continue to cooperate with the United States post-withdrawal logistically.
Perhaps in acknowledgment of Turkish reliance on American support, Ankara reaffirmed Turkey's commitment to a 32 kilometer security zone along their border with Syria, a move likely to placate Kurds and aimed at providing a measure of safety and security between Turkey and the Kurds.
The United States has vehemently condemned the al-Assad government, striking Syrian government targets on multiple occasions and arming anti-government factions with varying degrees of success. At first blush, a US retreat from Syria would seem to be a boon for the Syrian government. However, the vast majority of direct-action operations against the Assad regime have been conducted via air strikes. Fewer operations have been conducted against the Assad government directly by troops on the ground, but an American withdrawal would certainly help to clarify a complex battlespace, and certainly removes the Assad regime's strongest opponent.
Both the United States and Israel have explicitly stated their desire to counter Iran and have done so via airstrikes against Iranian-allied groups. In a rare admission, Israel recently acknowledged Israeli airstrikes purportedly targeting weapons catches near the Damascus airport.
One of Iran's goals in Syria is to establish a land bridge from Israel to Lebanon in order to render aid to Hezbollah, an objective that would become more manageable in a post-America Syria. Other Iranian-allied groups will also experience less pressure from American air power, although there is speculation that Israeli airpower would step up in order to keep up the pressure on Iran.
In short, with the US out of Syria, Iran will have greater leeway to pursue an expansionist foreign policy and Tehran will likely be able to expand their operations in Syria.
Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict began in September of 2015 at the behest of the Assad regime. Russia maintains approximately 4,300 troops and 60-75 aircraft in Syria. A US withdrawal from Syria would be a boon for Russia, as avoiding US forces would greatly simplify a complicated battlespace environment.
President Vladimir Putin has certainly claimed in a recent news conference that he supports decision to withdraw, "Donald's right, and I agree with him." As the Syrian conflict winds down, a US withdrawal would concede any voice that the US would have in the post-conflict rebuilding process.
Despite tense moments in the past, Russia maintains relatively friendly ties with Iran, Israel, and Turkey. This relationship is delicate however, as all sides have differing strategic objectives. It is unclear how long Russia can maintain relations with these three countries without upsetting one or more parties, particularly the adversarial and seemingly irreconcilable Israel and Iran.
Without any American involvement, Russia would enjoy a great deal of influence post-conflict as the most competent and powerful actor in the region. Simply put, a United States withdrawal is a significant coup for Russia and will certainly give Russia a greater say in what post-conflict Syria looks like.
Perhaps most largely overlooked is the loss that a Syrian retreat would bring the United States. Virtually all world leaders agree on the existential threat that ISIS poses. By exiting Syria so swiftly, and so close to ISIS' annihilation, the United States is committing a grave strategic blunder.
The United States has a physical presence in Syria concentrated mostly in the country's northeast, where Syrian Kurds have established a de facto state. Along with more distant locations, there is also a US outpost in the sparsely populated southeast of Syria, approximately 10 kilometers from the border with Jordan and Iraq.
The United states initially sent 50 special operations soldiers to Syria in 2015 and an additional 250 personnel in 2016 to bolster the US presence in Syria for the fight against ISIS. That presence has expanded to reportedly 2,000 American Marines and other military personnel in Syria and augments the air and missile strikes that have taken place against ISIS and Syrian government positions.
To date, the American withdrawal has not yet included military personnel, although the former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State Brett McGurk have both resigned in protest of what they see as deeply flawed strategies. Both men had significant diplomatic and military experience in the Middle East. Their departure will certainly hinder American foreign policy interests in the region.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis astutely observed that the strength of the United States lies in the strength of alliances cultivated over decades. The immediate implications of this strategic error are that the United States will have less control in shaping the conflict and less power in shaping the post-conflict space. A more long-term assessment at this critical juncture calls into question the American commitment to its allies and greatly erodes American credibility on the international stage.
The primary concern among Israeli officials concerning Syria is that Iran will move to fill in a new power vacuum caused by the US leaving. The US and Israel obviously share close military ties. For Israel, the importance of a US presence in Syria is to act as an opposing force to Iran and Iranian proxies. Israel has launched several air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, but without an American counterweight against Iran, Israel is likely to increase its military involvement, especially via airstrikes.
Perhaps no single group stand to lose as much as the Syrian Kurds. The US has provided them with a measure of protection from both the Assad regime and from Turkey, who is staunchly opposed to the PYD and their military branch the YPG. Images circulated widely online of US convoys in Syria prominently displaying large American flags. Such displays were effectively blanket protection for Kurdish forces working with the United States.
The US has also contributed military trainers and advisors to Kurdish forces, and special operations teams have been seen working closely with Kurds in Syria. Turkish incursions into Kurdish held areas along the Turkish-Syrian border are likely to increase. Without a physical American presence in Syria, the Kurds have a much weaker bargaining position in their dialogue with the Assad regime for greater autonomy or eventual independence post-conflict.
The rapidity and lack of details concerning what a US withdrawal would look like have caused understandable confusion for US allies. One of the big questions is, barring a US ground presence in Syria, how would the US involve itself in Syria militarily? Would air and missile strikes from outside Syria continue? What about cross-border artillery fire from Iraq or Jordan? Would Israel or Turkey become more active in hosting US aircraft? Many questions remain.
If the United States would continue or intensify an air campaign, then perhaps aid to US allies would not falter as greatly or sharply as feared. Conversely, an air-centric campaign was a hallmark of the Obama administration's foreign policy strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan and highlighted the limitations of fighting an enemy in an urban environment from the air.
In the weeks since Trump's preemptive announcement of the United States' withdrawal, various administration officials have backed away from setting a hard timeline for American soldiers leaving. Some equipment has been withdrawn, but as of now, no soldiers have yet exited the country. Perhaps the United States will not leave as suddenly, or as completely, as President Trump's abortive tweet implied.
*Terrorist organization outlawed in Russia.
The article reflects the personal opinion of the author. First published at picreadi.com.
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