On 19 December, US president Donald Trump announced a snap decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. At first he said the troops would be out within 30 days, but now it looks like several months at least. The plan is now conditional on assurances from Turkey regarding the safety of the Kurds in Northern Syria.
Trump’s move outraged the “common sense” of bourgeois foreign policy. US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Trump’s special envoy for anti-Daesh work, Brett McGurk, both resigned. Mattis was angered by Trump criticising American allies and other NATO members regarding their commitment to operations in Syria and Afghanistan. As the de facto head of the Armed Forces, he had attempted to shield them from Trump’s vagaries.
Within days of Mattis’s resignation Trump felt the need to make a surprise visit to troops in Iraq. For Mattis, the removal of US troops is also a betrayal of the Kurdish YPG forces which dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella group that the US has backed to fight Daesh. US troop withdrawal will leave them open to assault by Turkey, something which Erdoğan has made clear is his intention. Turkey wants to drive all Kurdish forces away from its border with Syria. Its actions in Afrin in March 2018 show that it is prepared to invade Syria to do that.
It did that when US forces were on the ground in Syria, and the US has never provided the SDF with the heavy weaponry and artillery that it would needed to fight a regular army rather than Daesh. But probably the presence of US troops has deterred Turkey from invading on a larger scale. Now US National Security Advisor John Bolton says: “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that is not fully co¬ordinated with and agreed to by the United States... the president’s requirement [is] that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”
Noam Chomsky, a longtime leftist and critic of the US military, has opposed the withdrawal, saying that the US troop presence “is a holding operation, pending some diplomatic settlement that might provide the Kurdish regions with some degree of security and autonomy within Syria.” In fact any such diplomatic settlement seems remote.
The hopes of the uprisings in 2011 against Assad have been dashed. The largest rebel held enclave, Idlib, remains under siege. The militias that govern it are hardline Islamists and now have no chance of challenging for power in Syria. US withdrawal will only cement a hegemony which Assad already has.
The Free Syrian Army is still able to secure funding from Turkey, now the largest sponsor of anti¬Assad rebels. The funding that used to come from the Gulf states has dried up. The Arab League, a pan¬Arab alliance of states which expelled Assad in 2011, is shifting. On 17 December, Sudanese President Omar Bashir visited Syria on behalf of the League. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which dominate the League, now view consolidating Assad in Syria as the final death knell for the Arab Spring.
The Saudis cannot yet be seen to engage directly with Assad, but they can use Bashir as an intermediary. Iran has not been as successful in Syria as it hoped. Assad has remained in power, and Iranian intelligence and militias have helped him militarily, but the Saudis can hope that offering Assad money for reconstruction will counter Iranian influence.
For Israel a hollowed¬out Assad regime that is weak but stable enough to stop a Sunni-Islamist takeover and has some autonomy from Iran is an acceptable outcome. John Bolton visited Israel in January following the withdrawal announcement to calm the fears of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that it would leave Israel vulnerable to attack from Syria. Israel has de¬escalated activity in the Golan Heights and will not openly contest US troop withdrawal.
Russia, Assad’s major military ally other than Iran, must see the US troop withdrawal plan as a vindication. Russia can live with Iranian influence in Syria, but won’t view rival Saudi influence as a threat either. Russia has also developed a relationship with Turkey, and after Russian intervention Turkey has said it is willing to accept Assad remaining in power if he wins a “free election”.
Daesh still has an estimated 14,000 fighters in Syria. Without much territory and with a weakened command structure, they are in no position to fight the government; yet, as a guerrilla force, it cannot be considered defeated. The sectarian grievances it feeds on are still live. It now has some influence in Libya. It has launched assaults in Egypt and still has Boko Haram and others internationally pledging allegiance to it.