Just weeks after the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iranian militias, had taken control of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days of the Turks, thanks to an understanding with Russia, seizing control of the northern city of Afrin, US President Donald Trump declared that the US would withdraw its forces from Syria and let “others” deal with the situation.
His announcement on 28 March gave the impression that Washington has decided not only to abandon the Syrian opposition to the combined forces of the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, but that it has also decided to abandon its own strategic interests in the Middle East.
Much of the US government seemed as confused as everyone else by the announcement.
The US State Department acknowledged that it had had no prior knowledge of what Trump had said. His remarks also came only a few weeks after former US secretary of State Rex Tillerson had unveiled the US’s new strategy for Syria, in which US forces figured prominently for the foreseeable future.
The confusing and contradictory messages from Washington came a few hours after the Russian Defence Ministry had affirmed that the Pentagon had deployed heavy military hardware at the Al-Tanf military base in southeastern Syria.
Trump’s announcement was also only days after the US had brought together representatives of key states in the region for an urgent meeting on Syria in Jordan.
There were also leaks that the US was planning a debilitating strike against the Syrian regime.
A few days before the Trump announcement, Syrian opposition fighters in Eastern Ghouta were compelled to surrender their last strongholds to the regime.
They had held out for over a month under intensive regime and Russian aerial bombardement that had claimed more than a thousand lives.
This was accompanied by the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants from the area.
Not a single response came from Washington, still presumably the most influential “friend” of the Syrian opposition, as the area was handed over to the Russian and Iranian-backed regime that constitutes the main enemy to the US in Syria.
In northern Syria, Turkish forces and Turkish-supported militias occupied Afrin, the capital of the Afrin province, after the predominantly Kurdish forces of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Party withdrew from the city.
The Turkish military expansion into northern Syria was coordinated with Russia, again without objection from Washington, the most powerful ally of the Kurdish secessionist party.
The two developments have shifted the balance in favour of the tripartite Astana Alliance made up of Russia, Iran and Turkey and at the expense of the US-led International Coalition in Syria.
The latter is represented almost exclusively on the ground by the US, whose effective area of control has receded in tandem with the retreats of the Kurds and the militant Syrian opposition.
It is difficult to make sense of Washington’s actions, or inactions, which have made it possible for Turkey to occupy an important portion of northern Syria to the detriment of its Kurdish ally and for the regime Russia-Iran Alliance to gain almost complete control over the environs of Damascus.
It is equally hard to understand how the US now plans to combat Iranian influence in the region, while helping to clear the way for Iranian expansion in the “de-escalation zones” in southern Syria where Israel has also drawn a red line.
It is even harder to understand why the US wants to withdraw from a strategic and oil-rich area of Syria bordering Iraq and effectively hand it over to Iraqi militias loyal to Tehran.
When Trump said he planned to let “others” handle Syria, he presumably cannot have had Iran in mind or even the Syrian regime with its irregular militias from Russia.
However, if he cannot allow the regime, Iran and Russia to fill the void, who does he have in mind? The only candidate would seem to be Turkey and the militias it commands.
A week before the Trump announcement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was at pains to distinguish Trump, whom he praised, from the US “deep state,” which he held accountable for all the sins committed by Washington against Turkey and in favour of the Kurds.
Two days after Erdogan’s remarks, Trump urged French President Emmanuel Macron to work with him to strengthen Washington’s and France’s relations with Ankara, a fellow NATO member and a trusted ally of the US and the West as a whole.
The US could be contemplating a Turkish-US pact to block the path of the Iranian Crescent of influence in the region, freeze Kurdish secessionist projects and confront the Syrian regime.
If so, it could be contemplating a way to draw Turkey, either directly or via the Turkish-controlled militia brigades in Syria, into the areas the US currently controls.
In the process, the US could smooth out rough spots and sell out its Kurdish ally after having embroiled it in alarming animosity with Syria’s Arabs.
Nothing could be better guaranteed to win Ankara’s heart, wrap it in NATO’s embrace and distance it from Moscow and the Astana Alliance than such a strategy.
The US could be thinking along such lines, but both the state department and even the Pentagon were taken by surprise by the president’s announcement. Is Syria now on the threshold of a snowball phenomenon set into motion by a wild declaration that will now evolve into official US policy in Syria?
A US troop withdrawal from Syria is laden with dangers. It invites a brutal clash between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds and a confrontation between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
It will hand Moscow leadership in the Middle East and position it as the sole international player in Syria. It will upset relations between Amman and Washington and destroy the Syrian opposition’s confidence in the US.
A US troop withdrawal would also mark a reversal in Washington’s recently escalating stances towards Iran and leave the field open to Iran to further its designs.
These began on the ruins of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, extended to Lebanon, where its Hizbullah ally is now in control, and are being completed in Syria where the Al-Assad regime has handed Tehran the keys to further military, economic, social and religious expansion.
On the other hand, Washington’s withdrawal from the region may also sow more confusion among its adversaries than among its friends. Moscow and Tehran will be left to deal with the many thorny problems that Washington had been handling, and Russia will not be able to handle all these alone.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly