Parsing the “Withdrawal” of US Forces from Syria – Is There a Way Ahead?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

In today’s current usage, ‘parsing’ is usually applied to data. As someone who acquired his vocabulary in the last century, I prefer to use ‘parsing’ to refer to the deconstruction of a sentence or expression to determine its meaning. I have been struggling to parse President Trump’s December 19th announcement regarding the imminent withdrawal of US forces from Syria, a statement that has been walked back by National Security Advisor John Bolton and the President’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

The torrent (there is no other adequate adjective – yet even ‘torrent’ has acquired a data definition) of commentaries and opinions unleashed by Trump’s statement and subsequent clarifications make it unlikely that any clarity will be forthcoming any time soon. The visits of Secretary Pompeo and Mr. Bolton to the region to assure allies and friends of what precisely is going on may make no difference. If Mr. Erdogan’s rejection of Mr. Bolton’s overtures is any indication, there is a long and winding road ahead.

Obfuscations aside, the visits of the US emissaries and the now growing body of commentaries from the region, do not offer more clarity on a policy that has implications beyond Syria and the Middle East. In fact, what was initially a chorus of disappointment and shock has been countered by a wave of argumentation in support of the President’s action largely because the US shouldn’t have been in Syria in the first place!

The debate continues about the short and long-term consequences. For example, an article in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) early on raised the specter of Turkey invading Syria to clean up what’s left of the US mission to defeat ISIS. “IS has not been sustainably defeated, Iran and its proxies remain active in Syria, and a political process to end the war has not yet taken root. If the administration truly aims to fulfill its stated objectives there, it should immediately implement an alternative course of action.” It notes its concerns in several areas: a premature attack by Turkish forces in the area might inadvertently harm US forces; a Turkish operation may not be adequate to defeat ISIS and it could derail efforts at establishing the proposed constitutional reform process, “and give Assad, Russia, and Iran excuses to reject talks intended to end Assad’s authoritarian grasp over time;” and finally, the withdrawal would undermine the growing rapprochement between Turkey and the US.

Yet it has become clear in recent weeks that in fact the withdrawal had been on the boards since March 2018 and only the timing and the lack of consultation internally and with allies was the surprising element. Far from being a spoiler, Turkey now has emerged as a partner willing to take up the crusade against ISIS and finish what America started, while also taming the Kurdish allies of the US. Its rejection of Bolton’s qualifiers demonstrated the lack of coordination and consultation that has bothered many analysts who expressed concern with the apparent void of an overall regional US strategy.

The impact on Syria’s neighbors raised alarms as neither Israel, Jordan, nor Lebanon were prepared for the shift in policy that has critical security implications. Although Erdogan’s conversation with Trump was supposed to be what lit the fuse, even Turkey was caught unprepared for next steps. A post in Al Monitor pointed out that “Damascus would be eager to re-establish its sovereignty over the area rather than see it overrun by Turkey. This would place the issue into the laps of Moscow and Tehran…some hard bargaining will take place between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran in the coming days and weeks. Moscow may try to facilitate a deal between the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and Damascus.”

The damage to the US role in the region was well expressed in an Al Jazeera post. “It is important to point out that US’ policy on Syria has been failing dramatically in the past seven years and Trump might just have put it out of its misery…Washington can neither make a deal nor confront Moscow in Syria nor does it seem invested in advancing a UN-led political process…Regardless of whether Trump’s decision will stand or not, the reputation of his administration will most likely suffer, as it is increasingly being seen by allies around the world as erratic and unreliable. The fact that the US is letting down its Kurdish allies will make it difficult for other forces in the Middle East to trust it. The US had no strategy of how to stay in Syria, now it is clear it has no strategy of how to leave.”

The weakness of the US position in Syria made the American withdrawal inevitable according to a Foreign Policy Research Institute article. “With this terrorist threat much diminished, the legal and public rationale for a continued US military presence has evaporated. The mismatch of the vital Russian and Iranian interests engaged in Syria against a weakening rationale for a US military presence in Syria provides leaders in Moscow and Tehran with a tremendous advantage. They have every incentive to match or exceed any US investment or action taken in Syria to preserve what they perceive as their own vital interests there.” Moreover, the article sees a light of sorts in leaving the field to Iran and Russia. “For the foreseeable future, a needy Syria will remain a drain on Russian and Iranian coffers while being unable to contribute anything of significance in terms of concrete military, political, or economic power to the region or beyond.”

Looking for more light on the topic of who won what, a posting in Lobelaw went even further, noting that “A sober analysis shows that Iran has gained very little in exchange for all of its financial and human expenditures in the Middle East, including in Syria. It shows the limits of Iran’s influence over Arab politics. It also shows how self-defeating Iran’s foreign policy has been over the last forty years.”

This sentiment was not widely shared by analysts looking at the implications of the withdrawal for Israel, most likely the impetus for the fence-mending mission by Bolton. The American withdrawal gives Iran access to more terrain and control over Syria and may encourage its proxy Hezbollah into increasing its pressure on Israel, which is still pumping its fists over the tunnels under Lebanon’s southern border. “Regardless of what happens next, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops will embolden Iran. And if Israel escalates its campaign against both Iran and Hezbollah, war becomes much more likely,” said an article in Vox.

What will transpire from the Bolton and Pompeo visits will give the US more time to consider how to best recover from Trump’s initial tweet by extending the timeframe for withdrawal, listening to the concerns of allies and others in the region, and sorting out some formula for engaging Turkey and the Gulf Arabs to generate a coherent strategy for accepting the Assad regime and eliminating the ISIS threat. How this will support Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is very unclear.