Trump, Syria, and the Threat of Region-Wide War
There is now a real and present danger that Syria will become the site of a conflagration even more destructive than the one raging there for the last seven years. But the biggest loser is likely to be the country that abandoned the fight.
BEIRUT – The die, it seems, is cast for a rapid end to the United States mission in Syria – and, with it, the chances of a peaceful and sustainable resolution to that country’s brutal seven-year civil war. The chemical attack allegedly carried out last week by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Douma, the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region, shows just how dangerous that prospect is for Syria and the world.
US President Donald Trump’s bluster in the wake of the chemical attack exposes the incoherence and contradictions of his approach, as well as his lack of any real strategy in Syria. Ordering an attack or two against Assad’s forces, as he might do, would neither alter the balance of power there, nor improve Trump’s position in the war-torn country, let alone the Middle East in general.
To be sure, Trump’s top military advisers have persuaded him to keep in place the 2,000 military personnel currently stationed in Syria. But he has already limited America’s objectives there to eliminating the small remaining Islamic State (ISIS) presence – an effort that should take about six months.
In constraining America’s commitment, Trump has forfeited the opportunity to help shape Syria’s future, reinforcing the widespread perception – which has taken hold among friends and foes alike – that US global leadership is in retreat. He has also disregarded the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, the worst since World War II.
Ironically, this narrow approach also undermines the effort to achieve Trump’s sole objective, as a lasting defeat of ISIS and other jihadists will demand a credible political transition that permanently ends the civil war. Such a transition will be possible only through diplomatic engagement by actors with stakes in Syria.
With Trump’s withdrawal implying that the US and its allies have lost the war, Assad already feels emboldened to forge ahead – with Russian and Iranian support – with his plan to recapture the remaining rebel-held territories at all costs. After establishing “facts on the ground,” Assad and his allies would be able to present the world with a fait accompli: Assad remains in power, without making any real concessions to the opposition.
Local and regional actors that placed their faith in America’s commitments will pay a bloody price. In particular, the Kurds – America’s most reliable and effective ally in the fight against ISIS – are likely to be left out in the cold, despite official US assurances about security arrangements after the US withdrawal.
Already, Kurds have criticized the Trump administration for sacrificing them at the altar of America’s strategic relations with Turkey. The US turned a blind eye to Turkey’s recent invasion and occupation of the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in northwest Syria, which led to the slaughter of more than 1,000 Kurds, including scores of civilians.
With a US withdrawal, the Kurds may feel compelled to ally with Assad for protection. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters have already deserted the fight against ISIS in northeast Syria, journeying to Afrin to resist the joint assault by Turkey and a splinter group of Syrian rebels. Some young Kurds have begun to join Assad’s paramilitary units to avenge the loss of Afrin.
But it will be a difficult battle, as America’s departure is likely to strengthen Turkey’s hand further. After all, without the US, the other main foreign powers in the Syrian conflict – Turkey, Russia, and Iran – will be able to consolidate their spheres of influence and divide the spoils of the post-war reconstruction among themselves. While their specific interests may differ, all three countries share a vision of a “soft” partition of Syria that reduces Assad and the rebels to mere proxies.
Russia and Iran will be the two biggest winners. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the kingmaker whose timely military intervention saved Assad’s regime from defeat and turned the war’s tide in his favor. Whereas the US is almost nowhere to be seen in Syria, Russia is everywhere, constantly rearranging the pieces on the conflict’s chessboard.
Russia’s coordination with all major regional powers – including Turkey, a NATO member – attests to the dynamism (and cynicism) of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. As the US pulls up stakes in Syria, Turkey’s military and economic ties to Russia will only deepen.
Like Russia, Iran has invested plenty of blood and treasure to save Assad’s regime – and reaped handsome returns. Iran is now the most influential regional power in Syria, as it is in Iraq and Lebanon. But the rush to fill the vacuum left by the US might provide the spark that ignites a region-wide war. There are legitimate concerns that Israel might use the withdrawal of US troops as a pretext to intensify its attacks on Iran and Hezbollah in Syria – a decision that could escalate into all-out regional conflict, one that draws in the US, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for regional hegemony.
Even leaving aside Trump’s hostility to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement – which adds yet another source of risk to an already perilous situation – there is now a real and present danger that Syria will become the site of a conflagration even more destructive than the one raging there since 2011.