Contrary to doomsday predictions about the fate of Syria after US President Donald Trump’s “total withdrawal” of American troops, what may happen is an overall easing of tensions in a more relaxed post-conflict Syrian order where even Israel may have much to feel comfortable about.
With the Pentagon issuing the formal order on Syrian withdrawal, a big uncertainty has ended: Trump’s decision is getting implemented. Attention now turns downstream to the US troop withdrawal.
After a phone conversation last Sunday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the second within a week, to discuss the withdrawal plan, Trump said it would be a “slow, highly coordinated pullout.”
A Turkish readout also confirmed this: “The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria.”
On Monday, Erdogan disclosed that a US military delegation would visit Turkey this week to discuss details. On the same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in Ankara that he would be travelling to Russia to “evaluate the process” of US forces’ withdrawal.
No power vacuum
In effect, Turkey will have back-to-back discussions with the US and Russia, since the two great powers are hardly on talking terms.
Meanwhile, Turkish forces have concentrated on the border with Syria and Cavusoglu said they “plan to enter areas east of the Euphrates River as soon as possible.” He added that Turkey was “working to make sure there is no vacuum after the United States pulls out of Syria, which terrorist groups will be eager to fill.”
Indeed, things are not so straightforward – they never were in northern Syria. The Turkish forces will be overstretched if they occupy the entire swath of land to the east of the Euphrates that the US will be vacating, which amounts to roughly one-third of Syria.
The Kurds and Arab tribes will not welcome Turkish occupation, while the residual ISIS groups may want to take advantage of any power vacuum left by the departing Americans.
The Syrian government is also steadfast in its commitment to regain control of all its territory, especially the regions east of the Euphrates which contain Syria’s oilfields and water resources. Controlling the oilfields is vital for Damascus as they provide a major source of income.
Before the war, Syria used to produce 387,000 barrels per day out of which 140,000bpd were exported, and the bulk of it came from the eastern region.
Suffice to say, there is an explosive mix of politics, security and oil in the region east of the Euphrates that needs to be handled very deftly. Clearly, it is beyond Turkey to handle the situation on its own.
But Russia can be expected to play a key role there as negotiator-cum-arbiter and guarantor. Several possibilities exist. Russia will have to restrain Turkey from moving troops deep into Syrian territory, while at the same time conceding Ankara’s legitimate security concerns to create a buffer along the border.
That is to say, Russia will have to leverage its influence with the Kurdish fighters to move out of the border region, while also facilitating reconciliation between the Kurds and the Syrian government in a way that provides for the return of the regions east of the Euphrates to the control of Damascus.
Negotiating with a weak hand
The Kurds will be negotiating with a weak hand, but the good thing is they have a familiar interlocutor in the Russians and they have all along had a degree of co-habitation with the Syrian government forces in northern Syria through the past seven-year period of the conflict.
The problem arises if Turkey tries to bring in the fighters of the Syrian opposition groups it has been mentoring with a view to settling them in the northeastern region. Damascus will not countenance any attempt by Turkey that is perceived as territorial aggrandizement or as a re-induction of the defeated opposition groups into “active service,” while the Kurds will resist any Turkish attempt to colonize their traditional homelands.
In comparison, the situation may stabilize without difficulty further down south on the Syrian-Iraqi border in Al-Tanf, where the US has a military base and a 50-square-kilometer security zone. It is a foregone conclusion that Syrian government forces will regain control of the Al-Tanf area.
This will mean the reopening of the highway connecting Syria with Iran via Iraq.
Paradoxically, while it may seem that Turkey is the “winner” if the US vacates Syria, in reality, Turkey’s dependence on Russian help and goodwill is only increasing. This will be more so as the political process gets underway in Geneva and Syria’s new constitution – followed by elections – gets drafted.
In reality, Damascus will be the main “winner” after the US withdrawal. The stabilization of the Syrian situation has become a lot easier with the curtain coming down on the covert US-Russian proxy war in Syria. What sort of post-conflict Syrian order or New Syria can we expect?
President Trump has tweeted that Saudi Arabia has promised to fund Syrian reconstruction. That implies that the US no longer embargoes aid for Syria. Equally, this fits in with the emergent trend of Syria’s “readmission” to the Arab world.
Of course, the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart hugging each other on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September made sensational news. Since then, Arab delegations have been travelling to Damascus to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic missions. The United Arab Emirates is taking the lead to reopen its embassy in Damascus.
Back into the fold
A big step forward was taken this week with the official visit to Cairo by Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk at the invitation of his Egyptian counterpart Abbas Kamel. Mamlouk is a member of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and he and Kamel reportedly discussed “political, security and counterterrorism issues.”
Mamlouk’s talks in Cairo come only one week after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus, which has been the first state visit by any Arab leader to Syria since the war erupted in 2011.
Algeria is planning to invite Assad to attend the Arab League summit in March, seven years after Syria’s suspension from the 22-member body.
The salience in all of this is that the United States’ regional allies in the Muslim Middle East are restoring ties with Syria with tacit acquiescence or active encouragement from Washington. Quite obviously, Washington estimates that it is desirable to nudge the Syrian regime to revert to its traditional diversified regional policies, which will no longer be preponderantly dependent on Iran’s support.
To be sure, Israel must be keenly watching. The establishment of formal contact between the intelligence agencies of Syria and Egypt must be of exceptional interest to Israel, which would see the potential of using it as a conduit to Damascus.
If these trends hold, it is entirely conceivable that by the time Israel is done with the parliamentary election in April and a new government is formed, it may have a Syrian neighbour that is distinctly more congenial. And if that happens, the vexed issue of Iran’s “presence” in Syria may no longer hold existential overtones for Israel.