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For the US, the region is no longer a politico-military playground

Dec 26,2018 - Last updated at Dec 26,2018

The latest US misadventure in Syria appears to be coming to an end.  When, last week, Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of 2,200 troops from northern Syria, he admitted defeat.  The defeat of the US effort to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and the failure of the US to root out Daesh in Syria.  

Although Trump proclaimed victory, 10,000-14,000 Daesh fighters remain active in Syria and continue to attack targets in that country.

After nearly eight years of warfare and more than seven years of US interference in the Syrian conflict, Washington is due to give up.  Assad remains in office in Damascus, his chief ally Russia is the main power-broker in Syria, and Iran enjoys considerable influence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. While the intervention of Russia and Iran in the Syrian war has revealed Moscow and Tehran to be reliable allies, Trump’s sudden decision to pull out of Syria has shown Washington is not. The region is no longer a US politico-military playground.

The US became embroiled in the Syrian disaster for a variety of reasons. Damascus had adopted an independent line and forged a connection with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For many years, Damascus hosted Palestinian resistance organisations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, angering US pro-Israel organisations, Congress and politicians. In 1980, while rival wings of the pan-Arab Baath Party held sway in Damascus and Baghdad, Syria sided with Iran in the war with Iraq, at a time Baghdad was supported by US Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Finally, having joined the US in the 1991 US-led war to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Syria opposed the 2003 war waged by George W. Bush on Iraq.  

Thanks to antagonism between the West and Syria, Assad was immediately blamed by the Bush regime for the February 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and was compelled under strong international pressure to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon, where they had been deployed since 1976 at the request of the then Lebanese president. 

Although it was hoped the humiliating pullout could topple or weaken the Assad government, this did not happen. WikiLeaks published a secret cable dispatched by the US embassy in Beirut to Washington on December 13th, 2006, revealing that the government “ends 2006 in a much stronger position domestically and internationally than it did 2005”. The cable, also sent to the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv, spelled out ways and means that the US and friendly powers could try to destablise the Assad government by enlisting the support of disaffected Sunnis, Kurds and others. The cable was signed “Roebuck:” William V. Roebuck, political counsellor who, in 2015, became US ambassador to Bahrain during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The cable made it all too clear that Damascus was constantly in the sights of US regime-changers. On August 18th, 2011, Obama called for Assad to “get out of the way” of a transition to democracy. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”  At the time Obama made this statement, Assad was ready to initiate limited reforms in spite of opposition from stalwarts of the Baath Party; two well-placed Syrian sources told this correspondent. Obama’s call for regime change made this impossible and led to full-scale civil conflict, as well as regional and international proxy wars on Syrian turf. The campaign to oust Assad became a war to eradicate Syria as a country, just as Iraq was transformed into a failed state by the US invasion and occupation.

While Syrians — their homes, villages, towns and cities destroyed, their lands strewn with explosives — have been the main losers, the powers which stood against Assad lost. 

So far, the winners are Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias which have been deployed in the struggle to preserve Syria from rival warring forces which would have pulled the country apart and destabilised the Levant region. Syrian Kurds are caught between losers and winners and the latter’s victory depends on what happens in the coming weeks and months.

Determined to cleanse US-backed Syrian Kurdish paramilitaries from the wide belt of territory they hold south of the Turkish frontier, Ankara is massing forces along the border and sending troops into the area just north of the town of Manbij, which is held by US and Kurdish forces.  Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to pause his campaign for now, he must be convinced or pressured by the US and European powers to renounce military action for good, and to withdraw from territory his army and surrogate Syrian forces currently hold. 

What Erdogan does will depend mainly on the unreliable and ignorant Trump administration. If it mishandles the pullout of US troops from northern and eastern Syria, he will take advantage of the abandoned Kurds to carry out his threats. This could leave Turkey in control of a wide occupation zone along the border from the Afrin district and Idlib province in the west to the Iraqi border in the east. For a century, Ankara has had ambitions of restoring lands lost when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after World War I.

A campaign in Syria would give Erdogan the opportunity to do this.

The only way to prevent this from happening is to deploy the Syrian army along the entire length of the border. The army would replace the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) facing the Turkish armed forces and the YPG would merge with the army. Russian military and police forces would serve as guarantors of the border. The Kurdish political administration would hand over to Damascus the triangular tract of territory occupied by the YPG and give up the idea that the Kurds can have an autonomous zone inside a federal Syrian state. Turkey will never accept this, as Ankara sees the YPG as an offshoot of Turkey’s own rebellious Kurds.

For Syria to avoid a fresh bout of conflict following a Turkish invasion and occupation of the north, Syria has to return to the status quo before the war.

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