President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American troops from Syria drew widespread domestic and international criticism from sundry experts and observers both within and outside the political establishment. His decision was mainly criticised on the grounds that withdrawing troops from Syria would amount to a betrayal of the US’ Kurdish allies, send the wrong message to allies in the region and embolden regional and global rivals to act more aggressively to assert their interests and fill the power vacuum so created. It was subsequently argued that this would lead to a loss of national prestige. The swiftness and strength of this condemnation had its desired effect, judging by President Trump’s decision to reverse his decision and redeploy troops to other parts of Syria instead.
In addition to being a personal political setback for President Trump and probable source of embarrassment, his about-turn on his original decision to withdraw American troops from a volatile region where alliances are fickle and the risk of battlefield miscalculations igniting a wider conflict between global and regional adversaries is high is likely to have stoked anxiety amongst neutral onlookers and peace-loving citizens worldwide who might have harboured hopes (albeit faint) that a US troop withdrawal from Syria would serve to defuse global tensions at a time when relations between established and emerging geopolitical rivals seem especially acrimonious.
President Trump’s administration’s vacillation on this issue, however, suggests that its current policy regarding the stationing of troops in Syria is fluid and that it could change should policymakers estimate that the long-term benefits of removing troops from this theatre of operations (in terms of the president’s personal esteem, national prestige, blood and national treasure) outweigh the perceived costs of doing so (in terms of heightening of allies’ fears and rupturing of regional alliances and the fostering of rivals’ willingness to engage in increasingly audacious actions). If so, it is reasonable to assume that the current administration might be open to entertaining, if not taking up, proposals that call for the withdrawal of American troops and save American lives and treasure without shaking its commitment to its allies or harming American prestige and honour.
Flowing from this belief, the following article describes a bold but sensible land for peace type proposal that allows President Trump to withdraw US troops from Syria and garner the personal acclaim which he hoped his original decision would whilst enhancing his country’s diplomatic and military reputation. In terms of this proposal, America would attempt to convince Israel to relinquish its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights and turn it into a safe haven under the control of the international community with the plan to eventually return it to Syrian control on condition that certain security guarantees are provided for Israel. Since only the Americans and their allies can muster the significant diplomatic, military and economic capital it would take to ensure that all sides honour the terms of such a bold deal while only President Trump is likely to have the chutzpah to even broach this proposal and seek parties’ agreement, if not acquiescence thereto, brokering such a deal would be the ultimate testament of America’s power and provide President Trump the personal acclaim he craves. Granted, his mission to convince various stakeholders to support this proposal might be a lot easier than it at first appears given the numerous benefits it bestows on each of the various parties.
For the embattled people of Syria, displaced and war-weary after almost a decade of civil war, the establishment of a safe haven in the Golan Heights and the stationing of an international peacekeeping force there would obviate the need to embark upon the perilous journeys to safer countries whose populations’ hospitality is starting to wear dangerously thin. A domestic safe haven would also afford humanitarian organisations and members of the wider international community freedom to operate and set up centres from which to provide much-needed humanitarian aid to alleviate non-combatant civilians’ plight. A refuge within Syria outside of government or opposition control also provides a measure of reassurance that retribution by loyalist government forces will not be meted out now that the threat posed by ISIS has subsided, although not been vanquished, and one-time allies in the fight against ISIS look to settle scores. Providing this assurance would facilitate national reconciliation efforts between Syrians.
For Syria’s Kurds specifically, who are likely still nursing feelings of American abandonment and betrayal, establishing a safe haven further south is likely to suppress Turkey’s suspected desire to repatriate large numbers of Syrian Arab refugees seeking refuge there into the buffer zones its recent military incursions have sought to create on its southern borders. Preventing these population transfers would avoid upsetting the delicate ethnic composition in these Kurd-majority areas and thus pre-empt the bitter ethnic divisions which Turkey’s suspected plans risk fomenting in future. This, in turn, is likely to assuage Kurdish fears that the Turks intend to dilute their demographic majority in this region thereby lessening the Kurds’ perceived need to seek assistance from Russia, Iran and the Syrian Army to resist Turkish attacks. Reducing their reliance on these parties would strengthen their bid to retain some sort of de facto autonomy once the civil war ends.
For President Assad who is on record as saying that he will continue fighting till every inch of his country is under effective central government control, the chance to win the respect and adulation of all his countryman and be remembered as the leader who regained what many believe will be the most difficult piece of Syrian territory to recapture is likely to be an alluring prospect. Most optimistically, it may prove sufficiently enticing to make him amenable to suggestions to step down voluntarily, a key aim of the West and its local allies. It goes without mention that this would empower war-weary elements in his regime and allies alike who may not be so keen to execute his plans to regain absolute control over every inch of his already shattered country by destroying it even further. Greater willingness to negotiate on his part may render his opponents more willing to lay down their arms and elect to engage in peaceful dialogue to achieve their aims.
For Syrian government allies Russia and Iran, the presence of observers from the international community in the safe haven to monitor whether parties are abiding by their security commitments offers justifiable reason to draw down their materiel and financial contributions to a costly war effort that promises to leech more resources once fighting has ceased and peacekeeping operations and nation building efforts get underway in earnest. A settlement would also enable them to enhance national prestige amongst their allies in the region, a scenario hitherto only promised by continuing to engage in a war policymakers realise they cannot support indefinitely and which will only end once opponents are crushed along with the little that remains of Syria’s infrastructure and social fabric. Perhaps more importantly, reaching a negotiated settlement on the establishment of a safe haven would serve to strengthen the positions of those factions in these regimes who favour greater diplomacy to resolve the outstanding, contentious issues which obstruct better relations with the West.
Turning to Syria’s neighbours; for Turkey, the establishment of a safe haven in the Golan Heights to which it can repatriate Syrian refugees for processing is likely to alleviate the internal pressures wrought by the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian War. Having this option available is likely to offer some relief to Turkish policymakers who anticipate that an attack on the rebel-held province of Idlib and the resultant flood of war refugees is merely a matter of time. Of greater value, a safe haven far to the south would enable it to curtail the scope and duration of its military operations in north-eastern Syria and thereby lower the risks of becoming embroiled in bitter conflict with other actors which are militarily more powerful than the Kurdish forces against which its military has reportedly performed so well thus far.
Likewise, governments from neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which together with Turkey already host the largest number of Syrian refugees, whose already limited resources are being put under further strain and whose populations are growing resentful of the presence of large numbers of Syrian refugees would welcome the respite which a safe haven would provide beset as many of these nations are by chronic political, social and economic instability. Further afield; European countries grappling with the radicalisation of minority youth, increasingly vocal right-wing forces in national politics and the rise of populism in general would probably seize upon proposals which keep Syrians within their borders while affording their governments the opportunity to parade their humanitarian credentials by ‘doing something’ to support relief efforts our of awareness of the value of these efforts in combating domestic conservative forces and buoying their political fortunes.
At first glance, the only neighbour with anything to lose from accepting this proposal is Israel, which will be required to give up its annexation of the Golan Heights. It might, however, be the country that stands to gain the most from this initiative. Politically divided at home, increasingly isolated internationally because of its ongoing illegal settlement building activities in the Occupied Territories and its treatment of Palestinians in general, not to mention its treatment of African migrants, and whose attacks in Syria are starting to be met with stiffer military and diplomatic responses, relinquishing the Golan Heights in order to establish a safe haven under the control of the international community may be the exact sort of humanitarian gesture it needs to make to claw back some of the moral capital it has ceded in the public eye as movements like BDS gradually gain greater public support globally and succeed in turning popular sympathies against Israel. This consideration is crucial at a time when political sensibilities appear to be shifting amongst political elites in its greatest ally, the US, and its unwavering support in future is far from certain. Furthermore, negotiating from its considerable position of strength vis-a-vis long-time adversary Syria grants it the ability to extract the significant concessions and long-term security guarantees (e.g. the creation of a permanent demilitarised zone in the Golan Heights, the expulsion of Iranian forces from Syria) which will be necessary to quell domestic and military fears of encirclement by its enemies and thereby secure popular support for this initiative. Normalising relations between Israel and Syria, the only direct neighbour with which it does not have a peace treaty, would forestall the next conflict between Israel and its neighbours which is sadly inevitable so long as it occupies Syrian land. Worryingly, with so many state and non-state players actively involved in the Syrian Conflict for whom no feasible demobilisation and exit plan has been devised, the risks of minor skirmishes sparking a broader conflagration in the Middle East next time are liable to be greater than ever.
And for President Trump personally, subject as he is to growing scrutiny over his alleged ties to Russia and faced with the threat of impeachment, the immense personal credit that he would derive from presiding over the end of a seemingly intractable conflict by persuading intransigent ally Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights holds the potential to restore some of the lustre to his reputation as the consummate deal-maker. Doing so could also provide justification for his administration’s close ties to Israel and moderate some of the harsher criticism that has been levelled at his administration because of the more controversial decisions it has made in the Middle East of late, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights foremost among them.
Based on the preceding arguments, one opines that negotiating for the establishment of a safe haven in the Golan Heights with a view to Israel eventually returning it to Syria offers the sort of bold diplomatic solution to the conflict which would elicit praise for leaders from all sides for their statesmanship and allow each of their countries to claim victory.
- this plan will be dismissed as naïve and unworkable
- informed opinion will express significant opposition to it
- it will require political dexterity to convince constituents to overcome distrust and fear,
it can only be championed by a supremely confident US presidential incumbent who fancies themselves to be a maverick outsider who has a knack for seeing an opportunity where other operators do not. President Trump, your moment awaits.
*Gerard Boyce is an Economist who is employed as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College). He writes in his personal capacity.