On 19 December last year, US President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw US troops from Syria after more than four years of the US presence in the country.
However, this week Washington announced that it would keep 200 soldiers in northern Syria under the protection of various US military bases in the region and in Syria itself.
The troops will represent a toehold for the US in Syria, meaning that the US will not in fact be leaving Syria and that its withdrawal has turned into a redeployment.
The decision to keep 200 US soldiers in Syria confirms that the White House has decided to prevent Turkey from interfering in areas east of the Euphrates River and comes amid reports of talks by the US administration with actors in the Syrian crisis about creating a safe zone in northern Syria and deploying forces to monitor it.
Pentagon Spokesman Sean Robertson said that US troops would create a safe zone in northeast Syria as part of a multinational force in cooperation with NATO members that would be free of any Turkish or Syrian opposition forces.
US-supported Kurdish militias in northern Syria welcomed the move, since it will protect the region under their control which they describe as the “Kurdish region” of Syria even though the majority of the original residents there are Syrian Arabs.
Although Washington has not entirely retracted its decision to withdraw its forces, keeping a token number of troops in Syria means an understanding has not been reached with Turkey about Turkish troops in the area. It also means that European countries will also be encouraged to keep their forces in northern Syria.
It will now be difficult for Turkish forces to expand east of the Euphrates in northern Syria, since the presence of a single US soldier will be enough to protect all the Kurdish militias that Ankara wants to eradicate from the region because they pose a threat to Turkey’s security.
Turkey views the Kurdish forces as an extension of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that Ankara lists as a terrorist group.
The US has been pressuring Turkey to distance itself from the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria and coax it into an alliance with Saudi Arabia to isolate Iran. In return, the protection of the Kurdish militias in northern Syria will end.
However, Turkey does not trust US promises, and it has hesitated about moving towards Washington’s position without concrete guarantees. It has formed an alliance with Russia, Iran and China, put pressure on Europe through the issue of the refugees, says it could surrender Idlib in northern Syria to Russia, and has indicated it could send the three million refugees living there to Europe.
Several conflicts are now underway in Syria. The first is the war on the Islamic State (IS) group, and the second is the revolution against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that has ruled Syria as a sectarian dictatorship for decades and has committed multiple crimes against humanity.
The third is the war between Syria’s separatist Kurds, who saw the Syrian Revolution as an opportunity to secede and form an independent Kurdish national entity.
The US has used the Kurds to fight IS, but this has upset Turkey because of Kurdish ambitions to create a separate state that would include large swathes of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The fourth conflict is a multilateral one, with the US and Russia as major players in dividing up the Syrian cake. The final one is between Iran and the Arabs, a conflict which Iran has launched in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in order to take control of the Middle East as part of its strategy to become an influential player on the global stage.
Amid all these conflicts, US interests would be best served by remaining in Syria even after IS is defeated. The US understands that withdrawing its troops would mean an immediate loss for the Kurds, which whom it is allied, and victory for the Al-Assad regime to regain control across Syria and continue ruling a hereditary state.
It would also mean victory for Russia, which would become a leading player in the Middle East, and it would mean increased Sunni and Shiite radicalism and the creation of a climate encouraging the formation of nationalist, religious and ethnic states in the region and more crises for the US.
Some in the US believe that contrary to Trump’s claims IS has not been entirely defeated. Both Syria and Iraq lack the political institutions that can ensure stability, and this has been exacerbated by Iran’s sectarian war against the Sunnis in the region.
One of the problems of US policy is that it is based on Trump’s slogan of “America First,” and Trump has not engaged in wider consultations on the Syrian crisis or looked beyond present circumstances to the re-establishment of the Syrian state.
Trump has not sought answers on how to rein in Russia and Iran, calm Turkey or appease the Arabs.
Such questions have complex answers, and dealing with them is beyond Trump’s abilities or experience. Instead, he decided to declare victory over IS and abruptly pull US troops out of Syria, only to later go back on his decision when its inadequacy became obvious.
But the US still does not have clear plans in the region, making its present strategies more mystifying.
Five conflicts are being fought out in Syria, with the US being the only country that can end them through alliances or the use of a big stick.
Yet, the US has only sought to manage the crisis in Syria without playing a role in its solution. It continues to watch the Syrian tragedy from afar, a strategy which will cause it to lose its credibility and prestige and could result in many other problems in the long run.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: America first, Syria last