Significance of Trump’s Decision to Withdraw US’ Troops from Syria
The 19 December 2018 ‘tweet’ announcement of US’ President Donald Trump to withdraw US’ troops from Syria took almost everyone by surprise. And, subsequently Donald Trump also signed that troop withdrawal from Syria order.
However, so far there is still a lingering element of uncertainty whether or not this announced order is really going to be implemented in letter and spirit, because on many occasions Donald Trump has displayed his unpredictability in statecraft. However, reading his oft-reported ‘decision-making tussle’ during last some months with the rather dominating ‘policy-advising’ US’ institutions – Pentagon, CIA, etc., the possible inference can also not be ruled out that this time there are comparatively higher chances of Donald Trump forcing the implementation of his decision.
That debate notwithstanding, it is certain that implementation of this decision is bound to have major effects in the geopolitics of not only Middle East but also in the extra-regional context. It is therefore of prime significance to properly grasp the various aspects of the Syria imbroglio – the internal dynamics of Syria’s politics, initial and subsequent stages of the crisis, and the indicators of the likely emerging scenario.
Internal Dynamics of Syria’s Politics
My own ‘ground knowledge’ of Syria is quite old – I had spent certain days in Damascus working with my counterparts of the Syrian officialdom probably in 1990 0r 1991. During those days Syria was ruled by Hafiz-al-Asad, the father of the current Syrian President Bashar-al-Asad. Seeing Syrian officialdom and Syrian public places I had no doubt that the life in Syria was rather repressive under a repressive government, almost of the same model of life which I had observed in Romania in 1985 then ruled by the communist President Nicolae Ceaușescu as part of the then Soviet Union. That background knowledge helped me in understanding the situation in Syria when the problem started in 2011.
According to McGill School of Computer Science, population of Syria is 18,448,752; and Syria’s population is 90% Muslim including 74% Sunni Muslims, 16% other Muslim groups (the Alawi, Shi’a, and Druze), and 10% Christian. There also is a small (4,500) Syrian Jewish community (1). However, what is important to note is that according to World Population Review, there are approximately 2 million Alawi/Alwite in Syria today (i.e. about 10% of population), and representatives of this group dominate Syrian politics and the Syrian military; Syria’s current President, Bashar al-Assad, is also an Alawi Shia (2).
Alawis/Alawites are generally considered to be a branch of Shia school of thought, but I have also read that many Shia religious scholars do not consider Alawis/Alawites as Shia. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica “Considered by many Muslims to be heretics, the present-day ʿAlawites obtained a legal decision about their status as Muslims from the Lebanese leader of the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah (Twelver) sect of Shīʿite Islām”(3).
The Alawi/Alawite ruling elite of Syria, despite being a minority, has developed very strong ruling stranglehold on the country. Their rule in Syria commenced in 1970 when Hafiz-al-Asad, an Aalwi, seized power through a coup overthrowing the civilian Baath Party government.
Hafiz-al-Asad joined the Baath Party as a student activist in 1946. In 1952 he joined Hims Military Academy and passed out after three years as an airforce pilot. Later when Baath Party took over power in 1963, he became Commander of Airforce. After the 1966 coup he became the Defence Minister. And, after the 1970 coup he seized control as the Prime Minister, and was elected as President of Syria in 1971 – the position which he retained till his death in the year 2000, when his son (the current president) Bashar-al-Asad took over the rule (4).
Dr. Parvaz’ article titled, “The Assads: An iron-fisted dynasty – One powerful, tight-knit family has controlled Syria for four decades”, was published by AlJazeera on 18 December 2012. In that article she has highlighted “By all accounts, Assad tightened the state’s dictatorial grip on the population, focusing on strengthening the country’s military and intelligence forces”. She also mentioned that while Hafiz-al-Asad rule did have loyalists in some sections for modernising and industrialising Syria, his rule cannot be discussed without the mention of the extreme brutalities to silence the protests – like Hama Massacre (by some accounts resulting in 40,000 deaths), as also the massacre on Jisr Alshaghoor, the massacres of Sarmadah, the massacre of the village Kinsafrah, the massacre of Palmyra prison (around 1,000 detainees were killed in their cells), the massacre at the Sunday market, and the massacre of Al-Raqah, that killed tens of citizens who were held captive in a secondary school and burnt to death (5). The massive public upheaval against the government in Syria in 2011 was therefore not unpredictable.
As for the foreign relations of Syria under Hafiz-al-Asad, a comprehensive brief has been published by Fanac, which is an independent online media organisation based in Netherlands and claims its commitment for publishing and disseminating balanced and informed analysis about the Middle East and North Africa. Some extracts of that brief which help in understanding even the current Syrian government’s ‘geopolitical mindset’ are:
a. “Under al-Assad, Damascus consistently sought hegemony over its immediate neighbours, and, even when unable to prevail, it proved sufficiently powerful to block the plans of others”. “After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Syria enjoyed a remarkably close relationship with Tehran, underpinned by common hostility towards Iraq and Israel and common suspicion of the West”.
b. “Often – and routinely in the 1980s – Syria used violence as a foreign policy tool and, although it paid a price in Western political and economic sanctions, this undoubtedly boosted the international perception of Syria as a state that could not be ignored”.
c. “Syria has always portrayed itself as a champion of the Palestinians, but it has worked ceaselessly to gain hegemony over the Palestinian guerrilla movement that arose in the mid-1960s,”—–.
d. “Lebanon, considered by Syrian regimes to be a part of the national territory that had been severed by the French, was another key focus of President al-Assad’s regional interventions.———The complex conflict in Lebanon increasingly evolved into a conflict between Syria and Israel, acting through their local proxies. Israeli influence reached a climax in 1982 with a full-scale invasion and the installation of a Maronite regime in Beirut. Slowly and doggedly, Syria and its local allies, notably including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah (Party of God) militia, managed to turn the tide.
In September 1990 a new political settlement was imposed, giving greater representation to the Muslims, and in October that year the last Christian military resistance was crushed. Syrian hegemony over Lebanon was enshrined in a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination signed by Hafiz al-Assad and his then Lebanese counterpart Elias Hrawi on 22 May 1991. In May 2000 the Israelis, smarting from their losses in a sustained guerrilla campaign, finally pulled their occupying troops out of Lebanon”. (6)
The Initial and Subsequent Stages of the Crisis
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (last updated Dec 6, 2018) in March 2011 Syria’s government, led by Pres. Bashar al-Assad, faced an unprecedented challenge to its authority when pro-democracy protests erupted throughout the country. Protesters demanded an end to the authoritarian practices of the Assad regime, in place since Assad’s father Ḥafiz al-Assad became president in 1971. The Syrian government used violence to suppress demonstrations, making extensive use of police, military, and paramilitary forces.
Opposition militias began to form in 2011, and by 2012 the conflict had expanded into a full-fledged civil war; and, as the protests increased in strength and size, the regime responded with heavier force. In some cases this meant encircling cities or neighbourhoods that had become hubs of protest, such as Bāniyās or Homs, with tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters and cutting off utilities and communications. In response, some groups of protesters began to take up arms against the security forces (7).
That situation was exploited by the US and according the Newsweek (an American digital-format magazine) dated 11 January 2018, The U.S. and regional allies—including Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—helped to sponsor the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who they accused of war crimes” (8).
US and its European allies (UK and France) used Turkey’s and Jordan’s border areas with Syria to train, arm and supply the different groups opposed to the rule of Bashar-al-Asad government, to support their anti-regime uprising. One of those groups was the Free Syrian Army which comprised of those officers and ranks of Syrian Army who defected the government.
It is worth clarifying that the “Free Syrian Army abbreviated FSA is a loose faction in the Syrian Civil War founded on 29 July 2011 by officers of the Syrian Armed Forces who said their goal was to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad. A formal organisation at its founding, its structure gradually dissipated by late 2012, and the FSA identity has since been used by various opposition groups. In late 2011, it was considered the main Syrian military defectors group. It had success against vastly better armed government forces”(9).
In the meanwhile the ISIS which, according to a report by The Washington Post dated 23 November 2015, got created in Iraq due to the deliberate ‘sectarian divide and rule’ policies of US after US’ invasion of that country in 2003, also entered the melee of the fighting groups in Syria. When, in 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad attacked the youth revolution against him militarily and turned it into a violent insurgency, Islamic State (ISIS) fighters went off to Syria to fight the regime. The militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, authorized a Syrian branch in 2012, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). It was manned in part by veteran holy warriors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including Syrians who had fought alongside al-Zarqawi. But over time, the Islamic State itself engaged in major operations in Syria (10).
A further confusion to this melee of fighting groups in Syria was introduced when Kurdish militia, trained and equipped by US, was launched in Syria by US to fight the ISIS. That was a very strange move by US, because that Kurdish militia YPG is the offshoot of the Kurdish militant organisation PKK, which is conducting insurgency in Turkey since long and is also recognised by US as a terrorist group. This aspect was also highlighted by the New York Times dated 25 January 2018, “While Y.P.G. leaders play down their P.K.K. ties, areas they control are festooned with photos of the imprisoned P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan, viewed by Turks the same way Americans viewed Osama bin Laden. One thing is clear: The United States, which has relied heavily on Kurdish fighters to push the Islamic State out of northeastern Syria, has consistently understated the complexities of its alliance with the Kurds, a policy some analysts call willful ignorance” (11).
Though the US-backed Kurdish militia gained ground in north-eastern Syria, yet Al-Quaeda and ISIS dominated and took about half of Iraq and Syria by 2014. Then US formed its coalition to bomb the opposing forces. Russia intervened the following year, targeting various insurgent and militant groups in Syria as the Pentagon established the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as its main partner on the ground. US and Israel became increasingly concerned about Iran’s growing influence in Syria – in about a year and half Israel struck alleged Iranian and pro-Iran positions in Syria more than 200 times, including a massive air operation (12).
The spread of US’ and Russia’s military bases in Syria are shown in the Google maps of July 2017 and January 2018, as follows:
a. In 2017 – about 9 US’ bases in north-eastern Syria, and 2 US’ bases east of Damascus (one in Tanaf, and the other in Zukuf).
b. In 2018 – about 11 US’ bases in north-eastern Syria, and one US base in Tanaf. And 6 new Russian bases, spread opposite US’ bases, in the area north of Damascus, closer to Lebanon (January 2018).
However, the tide of the multi-forces fighting in Syria started turning against US since about a year. That aspect can be fully grasped from following extracts of the above-mentioned report dated 11 January 2018 of Newsweek:
“Former Syrian rebels who once received support from the United States have split into new camps, with some accepting salaries from Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah and others supporting Turkey as it attacks the Pentagon’s new local partner”. “As the Syrian armed forces—backed by Russia and Iran-sponsored Shiite Muslim militias—swept through former Islamist-led insurgent strongholds earlier this year, the government gave residents a choice: reconcile or relocate. In the southern province of Daraa, which was retaken in a lightning summer offensive, ex-rebels who chose to stay are not only joining the military, but also Hezbollah and other Iranian partners”. “Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Turkey continue to work together as part of trilateral peace process that the U.S. has refused to fully embrace. Moscow and Ankara reached a deal last month promising a ceasefire in the final Islamist-held province of Idlib in northern Syria in exchange for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and jihadi groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” (13).
However, probably the most serious blow to US came when Turkey’s tension with US’ arming the Kurd rebels came to a head.
To understand the Kurdish problem a look at the map published in BBC Report (14) dated 31 October 2017 is worth. That map shows the Kurdish region spreading in contiguous countries. That report explains that Kurds indigenously inhabit south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia. This report also provides a brief history of Kurds’ varying struggles for independence, and subsequently for autonomy (15). For that purpose they also formed different parties/groups/militias at different times and in different regions – YPD, PYD, PKK, SDF, etc. Out of those, PKK has been engaged in armed insurgency in Turkey for years, and has been declared as a terrorist organisation even by US. The YPD in Syria is the Syrian extension of PKK; and the YPD-led SDF in Syria is also the same. However, as mentioned earlier, despite Turkey’s objections US continued to train, arm and equip YPG and SDF along the Syrian-Turkish border, continually creating a serious security threat to Turkey.
Ultimately when Trump continued to ignore Turkey’s objections, Turkish President Erdogan ordered, and Turkish military attacked and captured Afrin, the western enclave of the US-supported Syrian Kurdish Forces along Turkey-Syria border. Subsequently, President Erdogan threatened to attack US-supported Kurdish Forces in Manjib, warning that the US troops located there will suffer in the cross fire between Turkish forces and the Kurdish Forces.
At this juncture it is also worth keeping in mind that in the meanwhile President Trump’s patience, with the Pentagon’s/CIA’s insistence of continuing with US’ aggressive policy in Syria, had been badly shaken due to two reasons, i.e. (a) The increasing diplomatic and military tilt of Turkey towards Russia, as indicated by: Moscow and Ankara reaching a deal for a ceasefire in the final Islamist-held province of Idlib in northern Syria; reported ‘diplomatic coming together’ of Erdogan and Putin; Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-ballistic missile defence system despite US’ objection; and (b)The fast depleting military capabilities of US and its allies in Syria against the strengthening joint military capabilities of Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Turkey and allies.
In all probability another problematic factor for US was that the US’ troops in Syria were just about 2,000 in numbers, which were thinly out-stretched at about a dozen bases/locations – hence their defence clearly looked untenable in view of the above-mentioned increasing superiority of the opposing forces. Besides that, any clash of the Turkish forces with the US-supported Kurdish militia, embroiling the US’ troops in that location, was certain to seriously jolt the very foundations of NATO, because Turkey is not only a NATO member, its geographic location has a high geostrategic importance for NATO.
Hence, on 19 December 2018 President Trump tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency”. (16).
And after that, President Trump conveyed his decision to President Erdogan in a telephonic conversation reported by The Washington Post dated 21 December 2018. According to that report the telephonic conversation was shorthanded in more or less the same words by several senior administration officials. In that shorthanded note of the conversation the point made by President Erdogan and the reply given by President Trump is mentioned like this, “The Islamic State, according to Trump himself, had been defeated, Erdogan said. Turkey’s military was strong and could take on any remaining militant pockets. Why did some 2,000 U.S. troops still need to be there?
“You know what? It’s yours,” Trump said of Syria. “I’m leaving.” (17).
The Indicators of The Likely Emerging Scenario
According to a report by Aljazeera dated 19 December 2018, “Since March 2011, fighting in Syria has killed an estimated 465,000 people, injured more than one million, and forced about 12 million people – or half the country’s pre-war population – from their homes” (18). That immense human catastrophe suffered by the people of Syria is bound to induce that element of ‘war weariness’ in them, under the influence of which they will crave for peace and calm in the country, irrespective of which country/countries arrange that.
According to report by South Front Analysis Intelligence dated 25 December 2018, “On December 24, more than 1,000 refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon in the framework of the operation organized by the Syrian government, the Russian Center for Reconciliation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Chief of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate Abbas Ibrahim told media December 21 that about 110,000 Syrians had returned to their homeland since July. The Damascus government, with help from Russia, continue to recover infrastructure to create favorable conditions for returnees.
As for December 23, 2018, 30,908 houses, 713 educational facilities and 121 medical centers has been restored and 926km of roads have been repaired. A total of 209,513 persons have been granted amnesty in the framework of the ongoing reconciliation process”(19).Though this report has so far not been corroborated by other sources, yet it does reflect the upper hand of Russia in arranging peace in Syria.
So far there is no clarity about the schedule of US’ troop withdrawal from Syria. Certain reports indicate that it may take 60 to 90 days. However, a not yet confirmed report of South Front Analysis Intelligence dated 29 December 2018, quoting Turkish Anadolu Agency report of December 29 citing local sources, mentioned that about 50 US’ troops manning a US’ military warehouse near the town of Malikiye in the northeastern al-Hasakah countryside, from where military supplies were provided to YPG and PKK, have been withdrawn to Iraq (20).
On the other hand, the report from Reuters dated 29 December 2018 highlights that “U.S. commanders planning for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria are recommending that Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State be allowed to keep U.S.-supplied weapons, four U.S. officials said, a move that would likely anger NATO ally Turkey” (21). There are certain other reports also which indicate that US’ officials want to retain some sort of US’ direct or indirect presence/tentacles in Syria.
On the whole, it is clear that US’ design for a Regime Change in Syria has already been finally defeated due mostly to Russian intervention. Besides that it appears comparatively more likely that: (a) despite US’ and Israel’s efforts/intrigues, some sort of a cease fire arrangement will gradually emerge in Syria, which may ultimately be the harbinger of peace in the country – though these eventualities are likely to take some more time; (b) at least in the near-future timeframe Russia, Iran and to an extent Turkey will geopolitically have the upper hand in Syria; and, (c) Iran’s ‘land bridge’ access to Lebanon is likely to improve.
About the author:
*Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan is a retired officer of Pakistan Army, a war veteran, a post-retirement PhD relating to Afghanistan from University of Peshawar, lectured in social sciences in the universities of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi for about 11 years, and a published free-lance research-analyst. His articles, etc. can be read on www.intrinsicoverview.com which is updated about once a month.
(8). https://www.newsweek.com/syria-fighter-rebel-assad-iran-turkey-isarel-trump-war-middle-east-1197566 (Hereinafter cited as Newsweek Report of 11 January 2018.)
(12). Newsweek Report of 11 January 2018. op.cit.
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