After al-Baghdadi: Strategic vacuum threatens the US and allies in the Middle East

After al-Baghdadi: Strategic vacuum threatens the US and allies in the Middle East
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Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead following a U.S. Special Operation Forces raid. This is a huge blow to violent Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East, one that reconfirms the importance of an American presence in the region.

However, by authorizing the pullout of some 1,000 U.S. military troops from Northern Syria, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE risks triggering a geopolitical domino effect that is highly likely to hurt American and allied interests in the long run — even with the Syrian oil fields in U.S. hands, for now. The withdrawal leaves our long-standing, reliable Kurdish YPG partners alone to defend themselves against the Turkish military, their Islamist allied militias, remnants of ISIS, the Assad military and their Iranian allies, and the Russian expeditionary forces.

Perhaps more importantly, the American withdrawal will be creating a power vacuum in the region to be filled by America’s rivals, from Sunni and Shia extremist groups to Iran and Russia. Deploying a small U.S. force to guard Syrian oil fields in Deir Ezzour may be a step in the right direction, but not sufficient in view of the growing Turkish and Russian presence, and the Iranian plans to project power from Teheran to the Mediterranean.

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Looking at the withdrawal through a Realpolitik lens, one sees a number of drawbacks for the hasty disengagement policy in Syria. First, the decision to retreat comes at a tangible reputational cost. America’s Kurdish allies who had been instrumental in fighting Islamic State and Al Qaeda alongside the U.S. may be lost for good. Without them, the U.S. lacks any local support and leaves the region open to terrorist threats from ISIS to AQAP, and from Hezbollah to Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Meanwhile, the abandoned YPG forces have already been pushed back by the U.S. NATO ally Turkey and forced to relinquish large swathes of their territory. It is no wonder that the Syrian Kurds construed the retreat of their American ally as a betrayal, even though no formal promises were given to guarantee the continuation of the American military support.

Dependable allies are hard to come by; history is replete with broken U.S. foreign policy promises, from South Vietnamese to Iraqi Kurds.

Few are going to trust the word of the U.S. leadership after this abandonment. The withdrawal sends an unambiguous message to the allies worldwide: the United States is not a reliable partner.

Such perception, of course, enormously benefits Russia. The Kremlin has done an impressive job maximizing the utility of their military presence in Syria at the lowest cost for the past four years. Now, with the U.S. packing, Russia can finally capitalize on its modest geopolitical investment.

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Teaming up with Turkey, Russia has reshaped the outlook of the 8-year-old Syrian conflict within 10 days after the U.S. withdrawal. It took seven hours of Putin-Erdogan marathon talks in Sochi to strike an agreement that “facilitates the removal” of YPG forces from the border areas, effectively putting Russia in charge of brokering any conflicts between the parties involved in the conflict. Putin’s recent successful visit to the Gulf, hawking weapons and nuclear reactors demonstrated that.

Trump’s decision to withdraw plays directly into the hands of Moscow. Its return to the Middle East, however, should be analyzed as a part of Putin’s broader foreign policy agenda. In attempts to assert that Russia is more than just a “regional power,” the Kremlin has been working to revive its Soviet-era strategic links in areas beyond its periphery, aiming to push the U.S. out of the Middle East and Africa.

Russia has recently entered the great power game in Africa as well, as was evidenced by Putin’s summit with 40 African leaders last week in Sochi. Though arriving late to the party, Russia — with a trade turnover with Sub-Saharan Africa averaging just $3 billion in 2017, compared to Chinese $148 billion and the U.S.’s $39 billion — has still managed to quickly boost its profile as a strategic diplomatic and military partner.

Realist thinking is best employed to understand the Middle East’s geopolitical chess. By pulling out even a relatively small military contingent from a strategic bottleneck constraining Iranian power projection, the U.S. shrinks its share of the ‘influence’ pie in the Middle East. In this zero-sum game, reducing American presence naturally means increasing the weight of other players. The U.S. withdrawal created a power vacuum only for other actors — Turkey, Russia, Iran, Sunni jihadists, and eventually China, to fill it.

Such a strategic retreat is likely to trigger further regional conflicts. Iran is likely to take its time playing the long game, using Shia militias and groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, to intimidate neighbors with drones and cruise missile attacks, as happened in Saudi Arabia, as well as intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which the much lauded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action failed to limit. Tehran is weaponizing the Shia populations of the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf to threaten pro-U.S. regimes.

With the U.S. scaling down its presence, Iran will boost its naval power in the Gulf of Aden and near Bab-el-Mandeb, the entrance to the strategic Red Sea and the southern gateway to the Suez Canal. This will represent a threat to the Horn of Africa, and to shipping from the Gulf, especially of oil and gas. Meanwhile, Russia will attempt to shoulder the U.S. from the Gulf as an arms and nuclear reactors supplier.

These are just some of the potential economic, political, and security implications the Trump Administration is facing because of Trump’s decision to withdraw. There is a better way, which comes from understanding the region, its players, its geography, history, and politics. The U.S. can do better.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Trade and Investment Center. Akbota Karibayeva assisted in preparation of this article.