By Talmiz Ahmed
Three weeks on from the announcement by US President Donald Trump that he would be withdrawing the 2,000 US troops that are currently stationed in Syria, the decision continues to reverberate across the Middle East, with regional policy-makers attempting to understand the implications of this dramatic initiative and shape strategies to safeguard their interests.
Trump himself continues to contribute to the confusion with his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks. While earlier he had suggested that the withdrawal would be completed in a month, it seems it will now take four months. Again, even though earlier it seemed that the troops would be going home, Trump made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Dec. 26 and indicated that the troops in Syria might be deployed to Iraq to fight the remnants of Daesh from across the border.
Then, during a televised Cabinet meeting on Jan. 2, Trump dismissed Syria by saying: “They (Iran) can do what they want there, frankly.” Trump’s complicated approach has been reflected by his officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo staunchly stood by his president, saying firmly that US troops would be withdrawn, while adding innocuously that the goals of the administration had not changed, i.e., to counter Daesh and Iran.
Meanwhile, National Security Adviser John Bolton firmly contradicted the president, saying that the withdrawal would be conditional — the conditions being the final defeat of Daesh and a guarantee from Turkey that it would not attack the Kurds.
Later, Bolton received a cold reception in Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described his reference to seeking Turkish guarantees for the Kurds as “a serious mistake” and affirmed that Turkey saw no difference between Daesh and the Kurdish “terrorists.”
The Turkish media set out its own conditions relating to the US withdrawal: One, that the US either destroy its 22 bases and facilities in Syria or hand them over to the Turks; and, two, that weapons supplied to the Kurds by the US be taken back so that they don’t reach the Kurds in Turkey.
Some US commentators have seen in this scenario a disjointed US approach and the absence of a clear-cut policy for the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the region’s principal players in Syria are confused about how to shape their response. Turkish forces were poised to launch an attack on the Kurds east of the Euphrates before the Trump announcement, despite the threat of a confrontation with US forces located there. They now see the US withdrawal as a diplomatic victory.
But the US announcement has revealed new difficulties for Turkey. Erdogan has assumed responsibility for the final destruction of Daesh, but Daesh elements are said to be far south of the Euphrates, close to the Iraq border, so an attack would pull Turkish troops into new areas deep inside Syria. Such an incursion would be resolutely opposed by Syria and Iran, who wish to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. Thus, for now Turkey has delayed its war plans and is in consultation with Russia to seek a settlement of the Daesh and Kurdish issues.
Iran believes there will be no change in US hostility toward itself and its role in Syria and the region. It sees merit in adopting a low-key approach, mainly by pushing forward the proposal to set up a constitutional committee for Syria that had been agreed to at the Sochi Congress in January last year.
Again, it has not publicly criticized Turkey’s planned attacked on the Kurds, but has joined Russia in promoting an Assad-Kurd rapprochement and in persuading Erdogan to see the advantage of a buffer zone at the Syria-Turkey border that would be patrolled by Syrian troops.
Russia is today playing the principal behind-the-scenes diplomatic role to influence Syrian affairs in consultation with the major domestic and regional players.
Moscow obviously sees the Astana peace process as the best hope for Syria and is therefore committed to keeping the alliance intact and moving forward on political issues, such as the constitutional committee. It is also a restraining influence on Turkey’s belligerency: It has made clear it will militarily prevent Turkish attacks on the Kurds and, with Iran, is supporting the buffer zone idea.
Russia shares concerns with its Astana partners relating to the revival of the threat from Daesh. It also fears that the US could encourage certain extremist militants to promote attacks on the partners and foment disorder as an excuse to stay on in Syria and the region. The US’ intention to use Iraq to attack Daesh forces and to check Iran’s regional interests is particularly alarming for Russia and Iran.
Moscow is happy with the Arab nations’ recent engagement with Syria and would welcome its readmission into the Arab League, seeing in this the first step toward greater regional stability and a possible source of funding for reconstruction in Syria. The challenge it will face is how to address Damascus’ concerns about Turkish and Iranian regional intentions and specifically the presence of their forces and allies in Syria.
Though fraught with grave uncertainties, we are perhaps seeing a fresh phase and a move toward peace in the Syrian imbroglio, which will witness new claims, new alliances and new competitions.
(Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)