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Trump's Syria Exit May Fuel Greater Tension Between Israel, Iran

The Wire
By Professor  

With many players left with skin in the game, the Syrian conflict still represents multiple dangers for the security of the world.

President Donald Trump’s hasty decision last week to withdraw the 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria set off a controversy between those who believe he made the right move – because Syria is not of a vital interest to the US – and others who say that this is a massive U-turn of US policy in the Middle East.

General confusion, followed by a palpable panic, could be observed at the US Senate and House of Representatives. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters that he was shocked that President Trump could “wake up and make this kind of decision, with this little communication, with this little preparation”.

As for Republican hawks, such as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and the neoconservative Max Boot, they were quick to denounce the decision, along with the former CIA Director John Brennan. It is worth remembering that before the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising, Washington was never very concerned by Syria’s domestic politics. It was after the Arab Spring riots in Damascus that Barack Obama decided to engage in Syrian internal politics and replace the Alawite regime with a new government.

All this is true, but Syria is no more a strong state as it used to be at the time of Hafez al-Assad. Today,  after many years of civil war, Syria is left with a severely damaged economy and infrastructure. And unlike Iran or Lebanon, it is not a major strategic asset for any of the players in the conflict.

This said, the Syrian conflict still represents multiple dangers for the security of the world.

First is the fact that Syria remains a divided country, with many nations including Iran, Turkey and Russia with skin in the game. Secondly, the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria are still trying to reconstitute themselves by regaining territory and power. To top it, the Syrian war is also a forgotten conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds.

As such, if the Syrian government and Russians do not succeed in filling the vacuum created by the exit of US troops, the Turkish army would most likely be aiming for long-term insurgency in northern Syria. Let us not forget that after the military alliance between the Kurds and the US military in Kobani, the French and the British governments encouraged the Americans to stay in the Kurdish canton because they wanted to maintain some “leverage”.

On the other hand, the Kurds were dragged into an alliance they did not seek out with the US. In addition, America promised that it would stop its military support to the Kurds, but this promise was broken both under the Obama and Trump administrations.

As a result, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became convinced that the US planned on establishing an independent Kurdish in the region. It goes without saying that the Assad government would also prefer to see the northeast territories occupied by Kurds to be reintegrated into Syria. Therefore, it is out of the question that the Syrian government would accept sending its forces to protect a PKK autonomous zone against the Turkish militias or Turkish army.

The Iranian angle

Last but not least, after the capture of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin by the Turkish army in March 2018, Iran and Russia were happy to improve their cooperation with Turkey in order to teach the Kurds a lesson. Though Iran, Russia, and Turkey still harbour a certain distrust of one another, it is certain that they currently have a number of shared interests and common strategic perceptions which lead them to work closely together in relation with the Syrian problem.

The tendency towards increased cooperation with the Syrian regime has always been strong in Iran’s foreign policy strategy. In this respect, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply embedded in the Syrian security forces and Iranian advisors continue to be active in Syria. Nearly 2,000 Iranian military have died in Syria since Tehran began sending troops and resources into the country to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad from an armed uprising. Assuredly, with such a heavy investment in blood and money, Iran will never abandon its presence in Syria. Though Assad has never officially admitted that there have been Iranian troops inside Syria, it has been an open secret that over the last eight years, the Iranian investment in Syria has escalated to billions of dollars in military and economic adventures.

Unsurprisingly, with Iran’s presence in Syria, Netanyahu’s Israel is pressing all international players and powerbrokers to force Iran to leave Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has time and again warned the Assad government that Israel would strike against any attempt by Iran to “establish itself militarily” in Syria.

Now that American military forces are out of the Syrian picture, once again war in Syria will turn into an “existential conflict” between Israel and Iran. Because, even if Iran does not want to escalate the conflict with Israel over Syria, its continuous presence on the Syrian soil will influence immensely the strategic regional balance of power.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.