Barely two months after President Trump unexpectedly announced that he plans to withdraw US troops from Syria, his decision continues to attract media attention and commentary. While commentary was initially directed toward speculation on the reasons why he decided to withdraw from Syria so abruptly, speculation nowadays seems to be fixed on what exactly is meant by a “rapid withdrawal” and what this decision means for American interests.
From this speculation has been born the criticism, which continues unabated and can be heard from commentators from across the political spectrum in a range of domestic and international quarters. Much of this criticism seems informed by the view that leaving Syria would undermine American strategic interests in the region as it would a) send the wrong message about America’s commitment to engaging in the region or b) leave a vacuum that regional and global rivals as well as a host of non-state actors would rush to exploit to America’s disadvantage.
As things stand, however, it is unclear if leaving Syria would be as disastrous to US strategic interests in the region as critics have claimed. Nor is this decision likely to portend the dramatic about-turn in American policy that supporters of this decision have asserted it does. Indeed, judging by the Trump administration’s stance towards Venezuela for example and the gung-ho manner in which it has dismantled global arms control infrastructure, the US shows little inclination to abrogate its right to intervene militarily throughout the region. This includes reserving the right to surveil and assassinate at will through drone and targeted assassination strikes ideological adversaries that do not share the US’s worldview; acts which, troublingly, no longer seem to be classified as acts of war, in the popular mind at least. In fact, far from being detrimental to US interests, leaving Syria now, while that country is still unstable, might advance American interests in the long run.
Firstly, from an economic point of view, leaving now absolves the US from having to foot the bill for reconstruction and nation-building efforts. As successive administrations have learned from the US’s never-ending campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, these programmes are a veritable “black hole” for taxpayer funds while they seem to offer little if any guarantee of success. In addition to avoiding having to shoulder this burden, leaving without having to commit funds to these projects would highlight the weakness of relying solely on a military approach and the shortcomings of entering into an alliance with Russia. Realistically, the Syrian regime will not be able to rely on its key partner whose military support was crucial to its survival to provide funds for rebuilding the country.
Consequently, they would have to seek funds elsewhere. Speculatively, the only sources from which the Syrians could get this money are the Chinese or the Gulf States. If from China, it risks drawing China into competition with Russia in a strategically important area, which has traditionally been considered part of the Russian sphere of influence. In doing so, it would exert a strain on this relationship, which could be exploited by the US in future. If funding is obtained from the Gulf States, it allows these countries to gain political traction over the regime of Bashar al Assad and would thereby afford the US a measure of influence in that country via proxy.
In terms of its alliances, withdrawing from Syria mitigates the possibility of contentious disagreements degenerating into open confrontation with the Turks thus deepening their rapprochement with the Russians. Turkey is a key North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally which, for all its intransigence, the US would be loath to see courted by other suitors, especially since enlisting Turkish support to employ its soft capital in the Turkic speaking states of Central Asia might be crucial in making them more amenable to buying into the investments and proposals championed by US led interests (such as strategic pipeline routes) with which the US and its partners could counteract Russian and increasingly Chinese, through its Belt and Road funded initiatives, influence in the region. On a more practical level, maintaining relations with Turkey ensures access to this friendly ally’s airbases. This preserves the US’s ability to quickly launch attacks in Syria and across the wider region to thwart ISIS or any other enemies deemed to have fallen afoul of US policies.
Moreover, for all the Turks’ posturing and their almost daily threats to invade Kurdish controlled areas in northern Syria in defiance of their US ally, their desire for a full-scale invasion of northern Syria is likely to be rather weak. Battling a refugee crisis that will probably worsen after the Syrian government’s long-awaited attack on rebel-held Idlib province, still dealing with the economic fallout caused by another of President’s abrupt policy decisions last year (viz. increased tariffs on Turkish iron and steel imports), and with lingering questions surrounding the loyalty of the army after a not too distant coup attempt, it is reasonable to presume that the sentiment that embarking on a costly military adventure might not be the most prudent course of action for the Turkish government right now predominates amongst the Turkish leadership. Seen from this perspective, Turkey’s threats to invade appear suspiciously like a ploy to persuade the Americans to remain in Syria in order to curtail greater Kurdish demands for full independence or statehood than to withdraw abruptly. If so, the supposed existential threat, which they pose to the Kurds might be rather exaggerated.
“But leaving Syria is apt to be perceived as abandoning the Kurds and sends the wrong message about America’s loyalty to would-be allies in the region”, one hears some readers protest. To these readers, it is pointed out that, for all US and Western statements of support, genuine support for Kurdish national aspirations is likely to be thin given the extreme reluctance to tamper with the colonial borders that were foisted upon the region which powerful countries have exhibited lest other restive minorities (the long-suffering Palestinians in particular) begin to believe that independence is possible through the support of powerful countries.
Mindful of this unwillingness, the best alternative available to Syria’s Kurds once the guns fall silent might resemble the situation which pertains across the border in neighbouring Iraq where power in this loosely incorporated fiefdom is mediated via a few powerful factions who alternately compete or cooperate for resources. Speculatively, so long as local powerbrokers there remain satisfied with the status quo, their ambitions partially satiated, and desist from making bold moves toward declaring formal independence (such as by threatening to follow through on the results of the 2017 independence referendum for example), the US, Turkey, and various regional and international players besides, the Syrian government among them, may be willing to turn a blind eye to Syria’s Kurds and tolerate the relative autonomy they enjoy.
Leaving the job of defeating ISIS incomplete is also not without its merits. Driving ISIS into retreat but not defeat would severely cripple its ability to mount elaborate attacks on foreign soil (read: in Western countries) but not eliminate the pretext its existence provides the US political establishment for expanding the scope of oppressive measures that it and other Western governments have introduced domestically post 9/11. Without the cover the threat of ISIS provides, more citizens are likely to question the cost and necessity of the massive surveillance and security infrastructure, which has been established since the inception of the never-ending War on Terror. Should the majority of ordinary Americans come to resist these policies, politicians will be denied the ready justification to erode democratic rights and civic accountability it provides and which both left and right wing politicians have so eagerly invoked.
Ironically, the greatest threat posed to the US realising the potential benefits of withdrawing its troops from Syria appears to emanate from long-time ally Israel. For a host of domestic and international reasons; ranging from growing international isolation caused by an increasingly vocal Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for example to an embattled Prime Minister embroiled in numerous scandals who is set to face a stern test in upcoming elections for another term; news that the Americans plan to withdraw from Syria are likely to arouse and stoke a collective national sense of vulnerability and fears of encirclement. In a bid to allay domestic fears of abandonment by their hitherto staunchest ally, Israel might opt to adopt a more belligerent footing as a warning to neighbouring countries not to test its resolve and to signal its determination to act even without the protective presence of the Americans.
Somewhat cynically, it may also do so to provoke actions, which might lead the Americans to reconsider or reverse altogether President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. More frequent Israeli displays of aggression of the sort seen on Christmas Day along with more concerted Israeli diplomatic attempts to extract greater concessions from the Americans are likely to form part of this calculated effort to soothe domestic fears of abandonment and anxiety. Using similar reasoning, the urgency with which Israel is trying to convince the US to recognise its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights could also be viewed as evidence of this strategy. While these actions would appear to benefit Israel, in the short term at least, the bitter enmity they cause between Israel and its neighbours is likely to make this region far more volatile in future and thus render Israel more vulnerable.
And if the arguments above are not persuasive enough, one need only consider the relatively meagre size of the force currently stationed in Syria that is due to be withdrawn to conclude that its withdrawal is hardly likely to significantly diminish the United States’ military capacity in the region or dramatically tilt the balance of power in favour of America’s rivals. In contrast, removing them from an active theatre of war where multiple actors are operating and where alliances are constantly shifting reduces the possibility of battlefield miscalculations igniting a wider conflagration. By mitigating the tragicomic possibility of great powers stumbling into a war by accident, this move may serve to defuse global tensions. If for no other reason, observers in the vast majority of countries throughout the world ought to welcome President Trump’s decision.
On the basis of the arguments outlined above, one contends that the pending American withdrawal from Syria is hardly the game-changing decision, which pro and anti-war critics of this decision have portrayed it to be. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how this decision would harm rather than benefit US interests vis-à-vis those of its rivals in the region. It may thus be unfair to deride President Trump’s decision as being that of a “Russian Agent” and premature to celebrate it as the beginning of a new era of peace in the region.
* Doctor Gerard Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Population and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.