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A US military withdrawal from Syria could overturn the chessboard, but not for the better

January 31, 2024 at 7:57 pm

Military vehicles that the US military sent as a reinforcement in Deir ez-Zor province in Syria, on August 13, 2023 [Omer Al Diri/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Many have hailed this decade as one of American withdrawal from the world stage, whether for strategic reasons or due to simple ineptness by civilisational decline. As the world witnessed the United States’ military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, though, it became ever more evident that such a pull-out by the US is hardly without incident.

That is not necessarily due to the rush of civilians fleeing for safety or the period of uncertainty that follows the withdrawal – those are mere symptoms of the cause – but primarily due to the threat of a deteriorating security situation and the overturning of the political chessboard amid a rampant feeling of American betrayal.

The spectre of a withdrawal may now be looming over Syria and Iraq, with the Foreign Policy magazine reporting last week that Defence and State Department sources revealed Washington’s wariness in sustaining the deployment of its troops in Syria, and with Reuters revealing that the US is set to begin talks with Iraq on ending the presence of the American-led coalition in the country.

Coming off the back of the emergence of Daesh in the region back in 2014, the US military presence in both countries has seen resistance both in the region – in the form of Iran-backed militias and government demands to leave Iraqi and Syrian territories – and domestically in the US itself, with figures across the political spectrum calling for the withdrawal of troops from those countries.

Daesh, they say, has been territorially defeated, and the local forces under US backing can apparently handle the situation from here onwards, with America providing a supporting and advisory role.

Although the Foreign Policy report clarified that “no definitive decision has been made to leave” and a senior US official told CNN that the White House “is not considering a withdrawal of forces from Syria”, there is cause to consider that the establishment in Washington – whether under President Joe Biden’s administration or another next year – are now willing to accept a military pull-out.

That was not previously the case. When the push for withdrawal was probably its strongest with former President Donald Trump at the helm back in 2019, those efforts were intentionally and subtly countered by the establishment. In an interview, the following year, with James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria at the time, he confessed that “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there” in Syria.

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Contrary to the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there, Jeffrey admitted that the actual number of troops in north-east Syria was “a lot more”, numbering at around over 900, as is still the case. The reason for lying to and misleading a sitting American president – which many criticised as treacherous and subversive by the ‘deep state’ – was that Trump’s orders would have disrupted Washington’s Middle East policy at the time.

Now, for reasons yet unspecified, that policy seems to be shifting, which is evident from the American establishment’s apparently favourable position towards the same withdrawal that was unthinkable five years ago.

The potential withdrawal would likely not take place before the US election season at the end of this year and the beginning of 2025: It is not a pressing foreign policy need for Biden to focus on, and may, instead, be a threat to his re-election or that of any Democrat successor. If he wins, withdrawal would remain a possibility, and if Trump wins, there is little doubt he would continue with withdrawal plans that he had already previously envisioned.

There is also the question of how the withdrawal will be conducted and to what capacity, with it being entirely possible that the pull-out would not be complete but would leave a few hundred troops in north-eastern Syria to guard the oil fields with their Kurdish allies.

Consequences of withdrawal

Upon the Americans’ departure from Syria and Iraq, there are four primary outcomes that would predictably emerge. The first is the immediate emboldening of Iran-backed militias in the region. From Hezbollah to the Zeinabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the plethora of Iran-backed groups across the Middle East will have one less major obstacle to deal with in their planned dominance of the region.

The second consequence will be the strengthening of the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad and his own forces and allied militias, allowing them to set their sights on the remaining territories the regime lost throughout the ongoing 13-year-long civil war. Damascus will want to regain the entirety of the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa in the north, Hasakah in the north-east, and Deir-ez-Zor in the east, all with the help of Iran and its proxy militant groups.

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Thirdly would be the weakening of the already-frail Syrian opposition throughout the whole country. The remnants of the divided Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the southern border area surrounding the US military’s Al-Tanf base would likely be the most vulnerable, cut off from other FSA and opposition elements, and with little predictable support from American forces or other States.

The Syrian ‘Islamist’ opposition militias up in Idlib – the most powerful of which remains Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) – would also face the prospect of a renewed offensive carried out by the Assad regime and its allies, as would areas held by Turkish-backed opposition forces operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) umbrella in northern areas surrounding Afrin, Azaz, Jarablus and Tal Abyad.

There is also the matter of Kurdish forces under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the north-east, with predictions abounding of their potential alliance with the Assad regime in the event of the withdrawal of the Americans, who have been the SDF’s primary backers and allies until now.

Although the regime and the Syrian Kurdish groups have major disagreements and will continue to harbour them in the future, an alliance between them would potentially unify them in countering the Syrian opposition factions, posing a further threat to the fading Syrian revolution. In such an event, it is unclear whether Turkiye would back the opposition and to what extent it would do so.

Unless Ankara has given up on its attempts to reconcile with Damascus and supporting Syria’s ‘liberated territories’, it would likely think twice before entering into yet another conflict along its border and aggravating relations with Assad’s allies in Iran and Russia.

Speaking of Russia, the fourth consequence of a US withdrawal from Syria would be the ascendancy of Moscow and its forces in the country. Although the Kremlin has long had its presence felt in Syria since its military intervention in 2015 in support of the Assad regime, Russian influence always faced the obstacle of the American – and, to a large extent, Turkish – presence there.

Encounters between US and Russian aircraft in the skies and convoys on the ground were not uncommon over the years, and there was a subtle balance of power between the foreign forces in Syria throughout the ongoing conflict. A withdrawal of American forces would leave little to counter not just Iran and its proxies, but also Russia’s military presence and influence.

Ultimately, if Washington’s rumoured plans to pull out from Syria prove to be true, that development would be one that will entirely overturn the chessboard in the war-ravaged country and the wider region. While Syria continues to lack a political resolution, the US withdrawal would result in a geopolitical shift with far-reaching reverberations – one that may neither be peaceful nor beneficial.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.