US withdrawal from Syria could revive Islamic State, bring more West Asian players in an already complex war

Total US military withdrawal from Syria and a similar partial pull back from Afghanistan are intrinsically linked, but US president Donald Trump’s decision bears too many complexities to address both regions jointly in a single essay. Hence this analysis is only limited to Syria and West Asia although some linkages are discussed in the course of the analysis.

Against the run of advice from his advisers and allies, Trump has unilaterally decided to use his own strategic sense and discretion to order the withdrawal of 2,000 US servicemen from the Syrian theatre within 30 days. The decision to cut the strength of 14,000 advisers, trainers and other servicemen in Afghanistan by 50 percent followed thereafter. Much is being written about the manner in which the apparently maverick decisions have been taken, but surely this was not something unexpected because election promises weigh obsessively on the US president’s mind and the re-election process is but a year away.

The one thing to be taken note of is the fact that the decision appears to have been largely influenced by Trump’s discussion with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 14 December, 2018, in which Erdogan attempted to prevail upon the US president to leave the war to NATO, with Turkey as its representative.

 US withdrawal from Syria could revive Islamic State, bring more West Asian players in an already complex war

File image of US troops in Syria. Reuters

The Syrian civil war has the presence of a complex set of forces namely the Syrian government and its international allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, a loose alliance of Sunni rebel groups (mainly the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State.

The SDF Kurdish fighters and the Free Syrian Army are backed by the US; the SDF has proved to be the most capable of US allies in the struggle against Islamic State. However, SDF’s apparent victory over Islamic State has not been taken kindly by Turkey which perceives its domination as portents of its eventual alignment with Turkish Kurds to form a Kurdish homeland in a post-conflict situation. Thus it's important to realise that this civil war is not the usual one with government forces aligned against just one set of rebels. No one can be certain who is an ally and who the adversary. How Trump’s decision will affect West Asia and international security at large is for us to examine.

The sub-questions which come to mind are; firstly whether terrorism in West Asia and that gravitating towards Europe and possibly to the US mainland no more exists with the apparent defeat of the Islamic State; secondly, does the presence of 2,000 US troops and advisers really mean much to the situation; thirdly, will the withdrawal of one element of the many parties to the war contribute to any stabilisation; and fourthly, who will dominate the residual mess left behind by the US withdrawal.

Trump’s reason for withdrawal, besides his promise to the American people to do so, is his self-proclaimed victory for the US. Victory and defeat — in as complex a hybrid war as the one raging in Syria — is a misnomer and at best a ploy towards justification.

With the military defeat of the Islamic State by the various forces in Iraq, followed by the neutralisation of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State lost a large strength of its fighters and its ability to wage a hybrid war remains suspect. However, in a networked and virtual state, Islamic State still retains capability. The US presence, albeit minuscule in terms of fighting capability, ensures a professional performance by the Free Syrian Army and its coordination with the Kurdish SDF. Both have the common aim of preventing Islamic State's resurgence as also giving way to a Syrian government victory.

Two months ago, US Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, had stated that the US would stay the war to support a diplomatic initiative even as the Syrian Army was preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian rebels. Simultaneously, the Islamic State under attack by the Kurdish SDF is battling in its last bastion of Hajin where 5,000 fighters are reportedly holed up.

The US pullout may not mean the end of diplomatic and material support, but the absence of backing for planning and training will mean two things. First, the Syrian rebel forces would be most likely decimated by the joint effort of the Syrian government, Iran and Russia with a huge humanitarian impact. Second, Turkey may enter the war to counter the Kurdish SDF and to prevent it from joining forces with Turkish Kurds fighting for a homeland in east and south Turkey; the US presence had thus far held back such direct Turkish involvement. That could prevent a full-scale defeat of the Islamic State at the hands of the SDF and potentially create conditions for its possible resurgence.

In the above complex environment, it may seem apparent that the Syrian government-Russia-Iran combine emerges at advantage. No doubt an advantage would be gained, especially with US absence. However, there can be no clear-cut victory because the complex alignments may lead to further exacerbation of the situation.

What are the possibilities here?

First, a new wave of displaced people is likely to occur as the Syrian government forces assault Idlib. There can be no prediction in which direction this flow of displaced people will take place and Europe would have to brace itself once again with unpredictable consequences. Second, there is no guarantee that Bashar al-Assad’s forces will not employ chemical weapons to evict the rebel fighters adding further to the turbulence both militarily and diplomatically. Third, the entry of the Turkish Army could catch the SDF off-balance, giving a reprieve to the Islamic State even as the Kurds engage the Turks in a fight which can have no prediction of any early termination in favour of either.

Even with uncertainty looming large, Iran could be a temporary beneficiary with the Shia crescent seemingly embedded more strongly in the Levant. However, two more players whose security is adversely affected are unlikely to stay silent or inactive even as their interests are trampled all over by Iran, Russia and the Syrian government. These are Israel and Saudi Arabia who would be watching the developments most carefully and would be extremely critical of Trump’s decision. Mutuality of interests and probable proxy US backing could tempt them to attempt filling the void created by the US pullout. This would be aimed at preventing the complete Iran-Hezbollah domination of the Levant.

It appears that Trump gave little consequence to the advantage gained by Russia, from his decision. The balancing of US-Saudi-Israel equation against the Russia-Iran-Syria one would now get irretrievably disturbed in favour of the latter. This makes little sense of Trump’s avowed intent of disallowing Iran the space or advantage in its favour and lays bare what could happen if there is a return to any turbulence in Iraq. The presence of 5,000 US troops in Iraq is still keeping that nation stable. Will Trump abdicate that responsibility too, to ensure his re-election?

One needs to recall the premature US pullout from Iraq by then president Brack Obama in 2011 without any segment of stabilisation. In fact, the reason why Iraq erupted with the Islamic State's presence uncontested was due to this premature action. The effect a US pullout from Syria, under similar circumstances, will have on the larger security of West Asia is even more unpredictable.

With an imminent cutback in the US military presence in Afghanistan and the potential collapse of the Afghan government along with the Afghan National Army, both West and South Asia are heading for instability that will cause inevitable misery for the people of the region. 2019, indeed, is going to be strategically a very significant year for the world.

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Updated Date: Dec 24, 2018 22:34:21 IST