ROSS BURNS. US Withdrawal from Syria

There is everything wrong with the way in which Donald Trump reached his decision to pull US forces out of Syria, apparently without touching base with his own advisers and commanders. Australia is also now exposed to such impromptu creativity in foreign policy as in PM Morrison’s attempt in October to float a new initiative on moving the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem, again without prior warning even to Foreign Minister Payne.  

Occasionally there is room for bold creativity in foreign policy. Few would now regret Nixon’s overtures to China in the early 1970s or De Klerk’s reaching out to Mandela in 1990. Morrison’s Jerusalem move, however, tapped no thought processes resembling a Kissinger or De Klerk—more an uninformed lurch than a studied gambit. A corrective was then issued through a re-think process which intentionally side-lined any source of Mid-East expertise such as DFAT. As Peter Rodgers has pointed out in these pages, the rethink is not only unworkable but manages to offend all sides in the Middle East game in equal measure.

While Morrison dabbled in inadvertent self-harm, Trump’s move on Syria might represent the necessarily painful way out of an exercise which never made much sense. Since 2011 the myth of the ‘Arab spring’ saw Western media rarely focussing on those attaching themselves to the well-intentioned marchers. Within two weeks, militants were being armed and funded by Wahabi elements in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. For the next five years the conflict was customarily depicted as a spontaneous bid for democracy while behind the scenes, the US and other Western states sought ever more desperate ways of finding secular alternatives to the rise of the Islamists.

When Russia and Iran managed to turn around the fortunes of the Assad regime from 2015, the removal of Bashar al-Assad no longer represented a realisable war aim. The removal of IS became a credible option with the campaign focussing on the fall of IS’s ‘capital’ at Raqqa the first objective. Once Raqqa fell, however, it has been difficult to identity the objectives of the American residual force of 2000 personnel in Syria. The stated aims of the US presence show an American administration at cross purposes. Among the aims proposed:

  • mopping up residual IS elements—Trump version
  • prevent Russia and Iran emerging with a hegemonic role in Syria—Bolton
  • train local forces to take over security—Mattis
  • advancing a claim for a US seat at any negotiations on post-conflict Syria—Tillerson

US airpower and intelligence has clearly been effective but it has depended on the on-ground support of Kurdish forces of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ viewed by Turkey as an integral element of the PKK. The Kurds and Turkey, however, harbour competing claims to influence across northern Syria. The fact that Trump’s announcement last week came after a phone call from Turkish president Erdogan (who has publicly foreshadowed a Turkish operation in Syria to eliminate pro-PKK elements), underline the extent to which Trump has been ‘played’ by the Turkish president in the same way he has been open to manipulation by a Russian president and a Saudi crown prince.

While Trump has long expressed doubts about the Syrian operations, the only possible explanation why the US has stayed on is that it would look bad to leave other still-active coalition partners in the lurch—particularly the Kurdish forces who did most of the hard fighting and would rightly see their abandonment as betrayal. A face-saving continued role for US airpower might be the only option the US might offer but it would clearly be impossible to use it against a NATO ally.

None of the US objectives, however, had a realisable end-point. Eliminating IS was a commendable aim that all could agree on and largely achieve but that victory cannot be locked in without restoring the authority of a government nescessarily reinforced by Iranian and Russian support. The US has found it increasingly difficult to weave a path between competing Turkish and Kurdish bids to determine the outcome in northern Syria. Meanwhile on the ground, years of conflict, Turkish diversion of water resources and underlying tensions between Kurds and majority Arab Bedouin groups across trans-Euphratene Syria have brought the near collapse of the region’s economy and tensions between Kurds and Arabs across most of the region are barely suppressed.

A force of 2000 US personnel was unlikely to make much impact in the emptiest third of Syrian territory where IS can hide out in the steppe or in small centres along the Euphrates. An abrupt end to a mission which was increasingly the victim of local factors beyond its capacity to influence, however, can still leave a vacuum, and may touch off a new wave of tensions. The ease with which IS can again emerge from cover and spread mayhem is illustrated by two recent events. On the Euphrates just before it flows into Iraq, IS took over the village of Hajin in August. It took four months for Kurdish forces of the SDF to dislodge them from the town. The Kurds suffered scores of casualties in the process, with support provided by American air cover.

A month before it took Hajin, IS managed to penetrate the Druze villages lying to the east of Suweida, capital of the Syrian Hauran, immediately north of the Jordanian border. Suweida, largely a Druze city with little affection for the Islamists, had generally been spared involvement in the Syrian conflict. In July-August, when the priority became the Syrian offensive against IS on the Golan the Syrian government redeployed some of the forces it had relied on to maintain its authority in Suweida province to bolster the offensive further west. IS suddenly appeared in six of the small villages on the eastern slope of the Hauran mountain unleashing its usual campaign of mass slaughter. A relatively swift response by the Syrian army forced IS to retreat towards the wilderness, taking as hostages 20 women and 11 children. The hostages were held for three months with negotiations for an exchange of prisoners not concluded until November.

Ironically, American forces have for at least two years maintained a presence near the territory from which the IS sleeper cell emerged. One explanation for this remote and isolated American unit guarding a pocket around a Syrian truck stop on the highway to Baghdad, is that it had a role in policing this largely waterless and people-less territory. Realistically it could only protect itself and played no useful purpose in identifying IS hideouts, signalling that the Americans have long been kidding themselves that they had any thought-through role or influence in Syria. It is just another illustration of Ramesh Thakur’s argument in Pearls and Irritations  that ‘virtuous intent’ should always be matched by ‘tough self-questioning’.

Trump’s frustration with his generals might have cause but he has chosen to close it down in a way that may intensify the chaos. Turkey is now awarded the upper hand both in the northeast and in Idlib province where the uneasy ceasefire remains stalled. Only Russia and Iran can play a corrective role if Erdogan has been given a green light from Washington to try the Turkish solution to the lack of a government authority across northern and eastern Syria. The only hope now for the Kurds in retaining their influence at least in the northern fringe of the region is to pursue further the contacts they have maintained with the Assad government on a possible restoration of government control. The lesson remains, as demonstrated since 2011, that only effective government authority across Syria can end self-regenerating chaos. It will have to be left to Syria’s long-term partners, Iran and Russia to convince Turkey to play along, underlying that the only outcomes available in Syria go to those who play the long game and can work the ins-and-outs on the ground.

Ross Burns served in DFAT 1966-2003 including as ambassador in a number of countries in the Middle East, Europe and in South Africa.

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