Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Sparks Talk of Realignment

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

January 14, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump announced in December, via Twitter, that he had ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. The announcement, which caught even his own administration officials by surprise and has since been walked-back slightly, is seen by many as a betrayal of the Kurdish forces which led the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Arab leaders have been taken aback by the announcement, fearing that U.S. withdrawal will lead to a further entrenchment of Iranian influence in the country. In light of these developments, many Arab observers and government officials are now calling for a renewed engagement with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The news of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria  has been touted by Iranian government officials has a victory for the country. According to the Iranian news site Press TV, “Iran’s security chief says the United States has been forced to decide to leave Syria because it has suffered a strategic defeat there, and that Washington will ultimately have no choice but to leave the whole region…. Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, however, said, ‘The U.S. has had no role in defeating Daesh in Syria and has suffered defeat in its strategy there’…. Shamkhani said U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Iraq portends ‘a dark future’ for the United States. ‘Today, a trend has begun against the forces of instability in our region, which has somehow prompted the compulsory exit of the United States’.”

President Donald Trump has suggested that his decision was affected by assurances made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara would continue the fight against the Islamic State forces in Syria. Writing for Hurriyet Daily News, Turkish commentator Bora Bayraktar believes that the United States still has an important role to play in Syria and that “Turkey and the U.S. have to work together on a common ground, with an inclusive plan with local actors, cleaned from terrorists. The two countries can bring Astana and Geneva processes closer and strengthen legitimate opposition forces. Uncertainty is deep and the visibility is low in Syria’s foggy political atmosphere. Moving slow and being cautious is the best way to act for each actor, now.”

Daily Sabah’s Kiliç Buğra Kanat argues that the U.S. withdrawal constitutes a turning point for how to approach the Syrian crisis, by shifting the focus to stabilization and reconstruction efforts: “There is not enough emphasis on human security following the end of the war in Syria. So far, most stabilization efforts have focused on the more conventional understanding of security in Syria. Even on this issue, however, significant questions are unresolved. The security of the country can only be provided by eradicating terrorist groups from Syrian territories and a meaningful political process that achieves effective and functional governance structures in the country.”

Others have been less sanguine about the dramatic U.S. turnaround. In a rather lengthy op-ed for the Kurdish news site Rudaw, Arnab Neil Sengupta characterizes Mr. Trump’s decision as a “betrayal” and a “reality check” for the stateless Kurds: “Events of the year that has just gone by have underscored once again the stark fact that independent and sovereign statehood is the ultimate currency of power. Bereft of political unity, a powerful military, and a strong economy, there is very little chance of getting fair treatment and justice for any group of people…. Trump’s determination to hand over Syria to Washington’s rivals may have momentarily tilted the balance of regional power in favor of the Kurds’ foes, but paradoxically it has strengthened the moral and legal arguments for Kurdish assertiveness, muscle-flexing, and self-rule going forward.” 

Arab observers have been equally dismayed by the U.S. administration’s unilateral move. A Jordan Times editorial, for example, refutes outright Mr. Trump’s reasoning for the withdrawal: “One of the reasons offered by U.S. President Donald Trump for ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the north of Syria was his conviction that his country can no longer remain the policeman for world order. As a matter of fact, however, the U.S. military interventions in many parts of the world were not ever intended to just police international peace and security, but rather to serve the U.S.’s own geopolitical goals and interests…. So there is no truth to Trump’s claim that the U.S. has been acting benevolently to protect international peace and order…. There is no shame in such a posture. That is how power politics around the world work. The U.S. is no exception, with or without Trump as president.”

A National editorial believes the developments of the last few weeks, including the “arrival of Syrian government forces in Manbij, at the behest of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), marks a striking turnaround in Syria’s years-long war….  With American military and diplomatic influence waning, that task now falls to Arab states. That is why the UAE this week re-opened its embassy in Damascus – not to exculpate Mr Al Assad but to ensure Arab voices help to shape Syria’s future. That, too, is why the Arab League is considering re-admitting Damascus after expelling the country in 2011…. we have reached a pivotal moment. Mr Al Assad will be tolerated, but the Iranian threat cannot be. Curbing it diplomatically might now fall to those who Tehran’s activities endanger most in the Arab world.”

Opining for Al Ahram, Hussein Haridy takes issue with the lack of coordination by the White House on such an important decision, adding that the United States disrespected Arab leaders by outsourcing “the mission of eradicating IS to Turkey, the very country that facilitated directly and indirectly the geographic expansion of IS in both Syria and Iraq… In normal times, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria should have been coordinated with Arab countries, some of them very close allies of the United States. To conduct such coordination with a regional power occupying the northern part of Syria, and showing no sign that it would withdraw its forces from Syria anytime soon, is a betrayal of Arab trust on the part of the United States.”

Faced with a fait accompli which is likely to further embolden the Syrian president, Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin calls on the Arab states to retake the initiative and rethink their relationship with Mr. Assad: “An urgent debate is raging about the appropriate posture to adopt toward the Assad regime. … It would be tempting to base Syria policy on red lines and inflexible principles: The Assad regime is responsible for shocking crimes against humanity and lacks legitimacy on all levels. However, regional geopolitical realities compel us to consider the wider picture…. Now is thus the moment for the Arab world to take the bull by the horns and forcefully involve itself in resolving the Syrian conflict, asserting its rightful place at the negotiating table, while spelling out to Assad why his higher interests lie in realigning his strategic relationships…. On the face of it, there seems only one viable path for the Syrian Arab Republic.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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