In a Tweet posted on December 19, 2018, after a two-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Donald Trump announced, the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, creating renewed media attention and diplomatic reactions around the topic of Syria. Reactions and comments since have been numerous, as have the changes in speech and timing in the US administration, highlighting internal divisions around Trump and his team and Trump’s pronounced taste for a solo exercise of power. The US President’s decision, which resulted in the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, came threats having been made by the Turkish President of an “imminent” military operation in northeastern Syria for several weeks.
Initially, Trump said that the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers would take place immediately but White House and Secretariat of Defense officials have since suggested that the withdrawal of US troops would be done over a timeframe of several months and would be coordinated with members of the Coalition. More recently, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, following a visit and interview with the Israeli Prime Minister, is seeking assurance from Turkey that Ankara will guarantee the security of the Kurdish forces currently supported by the States and member states of the Coalition, including France and the United Kingdom. However, John Bolton’s visit to Ankara did not go as planned and the Turkish President refused to receive him, scalded by Bolton’s statement at his joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since the 19 December decision, the situation has changed little on the ground. US forces are still present and no withdrawal or preparations for a possible withdrawal have been noted and US (and coalition) forces conducted 469 air and artillery strikes in Syria between 16 and 29 December, more than double the number of strikes carried out in the two weeks prior to the decision. The US military does not plan to stop its operations targeting the Islamic State group.
Despite the diplomatic confusion that reigns following the decision of the US President, it seems that it could, in a certainly unwanted effect by the US authorities, precipitate the territorial reunification of Syria, and strengthen the position of Bashar Al Assad both internally and externally.
A new strategic environment
The Syrian President, Russia and Iran have indeed begun to exploit the new strategic environment created by the eventual withdrawal of the United States from Syria. At the end of December, Russia, Iran and the Syrian President mobilized additional units in the Euphrates Valley in the province of Deir Ez Zor. These reinforcements – including elite units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as well as elements of the Russian armed forces – are stationed to cross the river and seize the oil-rich areas currently controlled by the US anti-IS coalition and its allies Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russia and Assad have also deployed reinforcements to block Turkey’s impending offensive against SDF in Manbij, northern Syria, on December 28.
On January 8, Russian military police also began to patrol an area near Manbij community, near the Turkish-Syrian border. Russian media reported that police units were patrolling an area between Al-Bughaz-Ajami, while posting a video of the patrol which was provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Although Russian forces seem to have patrolled only a small area where pro-regime forces operate, the deployment of such forces along the front line with Manbij is supposed to create the impression that the US-led coalition is gone and Moscow is now in command although coalition forces are still operating in Manbij.
Towards the reintegration of the Eastern Syria
The Russo-Iranian coalition is likely to dissuade the Turkish president from gaining further ground while preparing for political reconciliation between SDF and Damascus. Negotiations between the Kurdish autonomous government and the Damascus authorities are no secret and “operational” agreements have been found on topics such as the exploitation of oil wells in the Kurdish control zone as well as on the presence of Syrian security forces in the city of Hassakeh. However, the Kurdish leaders certainly thought they had time to continue negotiations, in a position of strength, because of Washington’s rhetoric about a long-term presence of US forces in the area.
The Kurds have now realized that the United States cannot be a reliable partner in the long term and, under the threat of Turkish military intervention, have once again turned to the authorities in Damascus and Moscow.
SDF commanders have recently acknowledged that they cannot withstand the combined pressures of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey without the support of the US coalition and have reopened talks – albeit in a weaker position of negotiating – concerning a diplomatic solution with Bashar Al Assad. Kurdish leaders have also called for new regime deployments to secure the Syrian-Turkish border, and the final outcome of ongoing negotiations will likely include the transfer of vast areas of northern and eastern Syria to regime forces. This will be the first step towards a reunification of Syrian territory, at least as far as the east of the country is concerned. As recently stated by a YPG (People’s Protection Units) commander, the reunification of Kurdish areas with the rest of Syria is inevitable, which the decision of the US President will have simply accelerated. In this regard, the Syrian Foreign Minister confirmed discussions between Damascus and SDF leaders to prevent any Turkish military operation.
At the same time, concerns over the security of Syrian borders have also brought Iraq closer to the Russo-Iranian coalition. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mehdi sent a high-ranking delegation to Damascus on December 30, led by Iraqi national security adviser Falih al-Fayyadh following which Bashar al-Assad cleared Iraq to conduct unilateral airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Russia and Iran are likely to attempt to encourage these closer ties as another means of increasing their influence over the Iraqi government and to develop a capacity for regional power projection at the expense of the United States in the Middle East.
In the end, Donald Trump’s decision, if implemented – what many, including the Russians and Iranians seem to doubt – could lead to the takeover by Bashar Al Assad of the east of the country and the strengthening of the Russian presence and Iranian on the Syrian territory, all this at a time when the Arab leaders open the doors to a return of Syria within the Arab League; all things that the American authorities seemed to want to avoid a few weeks ago.