Nearly eight years into Syria's civil war, President Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from the region had many worried about repercussions, and pushed some to rethink their strategies and short-term plans. Although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had rushed to the region to try to assure leaders and people that this is just tactical withdrawal and will not influence US Foreign Policy against Iran’s regional threats, the concerns are still real and serious.
It seems the decision to withdraw is beyond the withdrawal of around 2000 soldiers from Syria. The reaction to this decision within the US was loud enough to be heard and feared in the region. The withdrawal, which the military said began with equipment removal last Friday, is only the latest instance of a broader American disengagement from the Middle and certainly not sudden or unexpected. The signs of the US disinterest in being involved the region’s turmoil is not news.
A VOID THAT WILL BE FILLED
Most US forces are concentrated in the northeast of Syria, where the last strongholds of ISIS are located, but soldiers also maintain a base near southern Syria in an area known as al-Tanf, on the Iraqi border. The base is seen as key to monitoring and thwarting Iranian efforts to move personnel and weapons overland into Syria. It is still unclear whether the US will pull its troops from the Tanf base, but if that took place, Iran will feel free to move its militias and weapons – and money – from Iraq to Syria and vise versa as it pleases. Russia doesn’t seem serious or interested in containing Iran, especially in that part of Syria, as it does not overlap with Putin’s Syria interests.
As the United States pulls out, regional powers will be left to their own devices and other foreign states will move in to fill the gap. In Syria, two main states – Russia and Iran - have been waiting for such excellent opportunity. Iran has deepened its ties with militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, undercutting their governments. The American withdrawal from Syria could set off an accelerated effort by Iran to fill the void.
As for Russia, an American absence mean more power to Putin – not only in Syria, but in the region, fulfilling his mission to “the” broker of the Middle East, thereby being in charge of all diplomatic action and coordination, a role that the US had also enjoyed for a long while.
This process is not unprecedented. When President Obama decided to withdraw American troops from Iraq, the jihadists were back within a few years and stronger, rebranded as ISIS, and prompting a new American military operation. This scenario might repeat itself in Syria, and we can see an escalated re-emergence of Islamist military groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.
On the other hand, Israel feels it can no longer rely on the U.S. in its efforts to counter Iran’s regional ambitions. Without either the U.S. - or Russia for that matter - stepping in to constrain Iran, Israel will keep striking targets in Syria, thus increasing the chances of a large-scale conflict.
As Pompeo was delivering his speech in Cairo, Israel was striking Damascus and its southern countryside with what appeared to be the most extensive wave of airstrikes by Israel against Iranian-linked targets in Syria since September. We might be seeing more of these Israeli strikes in Syria. Iran has not responded to most of them, but sometimes, they did respond, in the incident of May 2018, which had almost started a regional war between Iran and Israel.
That kind of void that the US will leave will attract forces of instability and lead to more conflict.
IT’S A MATTER OF LEVERAGE
The American physical and military presence in the Middle East does not always mean a willingness to start wars and be involved in ongoing conflicts. However, it is about leverage. Many regimes in the region would think twice if they hear a strong and consistent rhetoric from the US, and the influence the US has in the region is usually based on this consistency and the strong rhetoric. Drawing lines in the sand had been an effective strategy to push regimes to make compromises and thwarted deadly conflicts.
For example, Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s had given up his country’s nuclear program under American pressure. With less American appetite to solve the region’s problems or be involved in its conflicts, autocrats and dictators like Qaddafi and Assad will feel free to kill more of their people and fight all democratic initiatives at home.
Last week, Pompeo vowed that Washington and its allies would work diplomatically to expel all Iranian troops from Syria. America “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and bolster efforts “to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people,” he said during his speech in Egypt.
The problem with this statement is two-fold.
First, diplomacy has barely worked with regimes like the one in Tehran. In fact, this regime use diplomatic efforts to buy time and use it to exert more control via military means. We have seen this happening in Syria over the past eight years, where all diplomatic and political solution failed. Meanwhile, Iran did not waste time on these as it used military force to win the ground. Iran understands that whoever owns the ground owns the power. And when the US decides to leave the ground, Iran can only move in.
Second, Iran has moved beyond the military presence in Syria. By entrenching its roots within communities and building a Syrian proxy presence, Iran has now a very deep presence that is very hard to counter.
The US is not only leaving Syria. American appetite to be involved in the region as a whole is shrinking. However, this is not the end of American Middle East Foreign Policy. The United States is still present via a number of military bases across the region, and had been sending military and financial aid to many of the region’s governments and security institutions. These bases and aid packages can be used as leverage to maintain the pressure against Iran.
The regime in Tehran should not feel reassured. As sanctions are enforcing economic obstacles on Iran and its regional proxies, Iran needs to stay worried about other means as well. Political solutions and diplomatic means are not tools that work with a regime seeking uninterrupted and uncompromised power. But sanctions are also not enough to counter Iran and its proxies. Punishing the bad elements requires an attempt to reward the good ones, thereby creating a viable alternative to Iran in the region; one that is not sectarian in nature, but caters for all those willing to step away from Iran. It is probably time to reconsider these tools.