Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump declared victory against ISIL and announced the withdrawal of approximately 2000 American troops from Syria – a move that has attracted controversy at home and abroad. His fellow Republicans have labelled it a ‘huge’ mistake that may lead to further insurgency, undermine efforts to counter Iranian and Russian influence in Syria, and will give Turkey the opportunity to launch a large-scale offensive against Kurdish forces – strategic US allies.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has already called for military operations in northern Syria, against the Kurdish militias which his country has labelled terrorists. While these offensives have been delayed as a result of US withdrawal, Turkey determined to clear Kurdish holdings near their border, as seen from their enormous assault on Afrin earlier in January. Afrin is one of three self-governing regions, the others being Jazira and Euphrates, which form Rojava – the de facto autonomous zone in northern Syria home to a predominantly Kurdish population of around two million.
Kurdish militants have also refused to leave the city of Manbij per a US-Turkish agreement struck back in June. Erdogan has reiterated that the US is breaking their side of the deal and has insisted that Turkey will instead take matters into its own hands with a full-scale assault. With Turkish military action looming and the Trump administration seemingly disinterested in blockading such action, the Kurds may have no choice but to ally themselves with Assad’s government to prevent the Turkish flag from being planted in their territory.
Of course, while Trump has declared this withdrawal a ‘victory’, other nations will continue to pursue their own interests in the region, with more or less difficulty. The British government is set to continue airstrikes and ground operations against ISIL, with a government spokesman stressing the need for the global coalition to continue its mission. Tobias Ellwood, a junior UK defence minister, responded to Trump’s tweet by stating that while ISIL’s presence in Syria has diminished, it has “morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
Situated closer to the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reaffirmed his country’s commitment to curtailing Iran’s influence in Syria and has confirmed the expansion of Israeli operations in the region. Though it seems as if Israel is unaffected by a sudden change in US foreign policy, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked does not seem convinced, believing the withdrawal harms Israeli interests and instead empowers Erdogan, “an antisemite”. She also stated that Iran may face less resistance in transporting weapons to Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terrorist group based in Lebanon, and echoed the concerns of the Kurdish militias which Erdogan has vowed to exterminate.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL, has been reported alive and is believed to be hiding near the Iraq-Syria border. A UN report released in August estimates that as many as 30,000 fighters are spread across Syria and neighbouring Iraq, waiting to launch further insurgencies across both countries at any given moment. Minutes before Trump’s victory declaration, ISIL claimed responsibility for an attack in Raqqa, and have since been launching ‘fierce and intense’ counterattacks against Kurdish forces in hopes of regaining recently lost territory.
A week before the announcement, Brett McGurk, the US anti-ISIL envoy who recently resigned as a result of the withdrawal, had affirmed that the US would remain in Syria until the institution of ‘internal security forces’ that could prevent a rebel resurgence. America’s withdrawal could have a negative impact on this effort, though Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova praised the withdrawal by calling it a “real prospect for a political solution” that will allow Syria to “begin getting back to peaceful life”.
Of course, without a military presence, the US will have little leverage in future diplomatic negotiations and therefore little control over the direction of a post-war Syria. Instead, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been petitioning the UN to set up a committee tasked with drafting a new Syrian constitution – with all three nations wanting to have an influence over the war-torn state.
Iran, Russia and Turkey have long been invested in the Syrian Civil War, and the ‘power troika’ held a summit in Tehran back in September to discuss their future plans for the country. One focus was the province of Idlib, which remains the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. Due to its proximately to the Turkish border, Idlib is a concern to Erdogan who worries that civilians and terrorists could flee across the border – exacerbating extreme economic hardship.
Soon after the summit, a compromise was achieved where Turkey and Russia arranged for the formation of a buffer zone in the province to separate rebels and government forces, as well as force out ‘radically-minded Islamist fighters’. Yet, the mid-October deadline passed with armed militants refusing to leave. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist militant group widely branded as a terror organisation, has vowed to continue their ‘jihad and fighting’ in order to overthrow the Assad government. Despite the numerous ceasefire violations occurring in the ‘demilitarised’ zone, Russia has merely labelled this as a minor setback and will enforce the agreement in due course.
Concerns had also been raised regarding the potential for chemical weapons to be used during military engagements in Idlib. The UN states that both the Syrian government and rebel forces are capable of manufacturing chlorine-based chemical weapons. Assad’s government has repeatedly denied ever using chemical weapons, and Russia and Iran have labelled previous occurrences as rebel-orchestrated ‘false flag’ attacks – conducted to attract Western military retaliation against pro-government forces.
Back in April, tensions sky-rocketed after a chemical attack in Douma killed at least 70 people. A week later, the US, UK and France issued a series of missile strikes against government facilities supposedly involved in a Syrian chemical weapons programme. Yet, Syria remains adamant that it abides by the Chemical Weapons Convention and a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – issued three weeks before Western military action – concluded no chemical or biological weapons were being developed, tested or manufactured at the Barzah scientific research centre.
While the war is still ongoing, reconstruction efforts in the blitzed country have already commenced. In April, the Syrian government passed Law No. 10 which stipulates that proprietors in areas of the country designated for reconstruction have one year to provide proof of ownership otherwise their property will be forfeited to the local authority. Successfully verifying ownership qualifies a person to receive shares in the development project or receive alternative plots of land.
Over the course of the year, thousands of residents of informal settlements in southwestern Damascus have been evicted to allow for the construction of a new luxury city. Marota City is Syria’s largest investment project and seeks to encourage private investors to aid the expensive task of rebuilding a country devastated by nearly eight years of civil war. Assad’s government appears committed to reconstruction even as the West withholds funds.
Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN, told CNN that the US will not fund the reconstruction of Syria as long as Iran has influence in the country and will not “rebuild Syria” for Assad or his Russian partners, instead suggesting that Russia foot the bill. In fact, the State Department withdrew the $230 million it had previously appropriated for stability and recovery efforts in Syria as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Global Coalition partners had pledged $300 million.
Yet, $300 million remains only a fraction of the total reconstruction bill, which the UN estimates to be $250 billion. More still, Assad has provided estimates of up to $400 billion and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov has urged the need to act swiftly before defeated terrorists seek an upsurge in a country ravaged by war.
The meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki on 16 July saw an agreement struck between the US, Russia and Israel on a solution to the Syria crisis. Bashar al-Assad will retain power whilst putting an end to the animosity between his country and the neighbouring Jewish state. This year has seen Assad consolidate his power as the leader of the Syrian people and, with the support of Iran and Russia, he defied Western-backed attempts to remove him from office.
If we have learnt anything from this year in the Syrian civil war, it is that the West backed the losing side. It is therefore left with no choice but to concede to a man who is merely a few strings short of a puppet, controlled by his Russian guardian.
With the US backing down from its role in Syria, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “the ball is in Russia’s court.”
Ali Goldman is an Editor at Backbench