A confused US plan in Syria hurts our friends — again

A confused US plan in Syria hurts our friends — again
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE has announced a withdrawal of American troops from Syria, particularly in areas where they have been assisting the Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Presumably, he made this decision after talking with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sent Turkish forces into the SDF-dominated areas in Syria to “cleanse” the border region of Kurdish fighters.  

Specifically, Turkey wants to clear the region of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which comprises the main group within the SDF. President Trump’s announcement has angered the Kurds, a number of U.S. politicians and military strategists, and even some fellow Republicans. It appears that, once again, the United States has hung the Kurds out to dry. And the withdrawal of U.S. troops will benefit U.S. adversaries in the region.

Turkey has announced an agenda to create a so-called “safe zone” for Syrian refugees. Turkey has hosted nearly 4 million refugees since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Turkey’s economy and politics are severely stressed, and Erdogan is eager to exact a solution by pushing the safe zone idea, which would cover approximately 20 miles inside Syria. Hence, Turkey has a dual purpose for combating the SDF: oust them to repatriate the Syrian refugees from Turkey, and take care of a longstanding national security problem for Turkey — armed and trained Kurdish fighters at its border. Turkey considers the YPG as affiliates of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, a designated terrorist organization that has wreaked havoc in southeastern Turkey for decades.

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Turkey is pursuing its national interests relative to its border with Syria, the Kurdish problem, and the Syrian refugees still inside its own borders. The Syrian government, which President Bashar al-Assad leads, has survival and sustainability as primary national interests. In that context, the Assad government has committed a genocide of more than 500,000 of its own people since 2011, including with the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Iran is Assad’s longtime ally in the Middle East and its national interests include supporting the Assad regime in the face of violent opposition in the civil war.  

Iran needs Assad to stay in power so that it can continue using Syria as a base of support and transit point for its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Plus, Syria (under Assad) has been the only Arab country to act as Iran’s ally, throughout the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and to present day. Both Syria and Iran have strong cultural ties as well. Many Iranian Shia pilgrims visit shrines in Syria, and the Syrian tourism industry has sectors that cater exclusively to Iranians. 

Although many contend that the Assad regime’s Alawite identity — a distant offshoot of Shi’ism — contributes to further common interests and links with Shi’ite Iran, the main reason for this bilateral relationship has been geopolitically strategic interests pertaining to each side’s respective agendas for the region. However, essentially, the Assad regime cannot afford to lose its power, as it will likely lead to an Alawite genocide at the hands of Sunni militants. Similarly, the Iranian regime does not want to see Assad’s government collapse for its own agendas relative to the region.

Russia’s involvement in Syria also is driven by national geopolitical interests, mainly involving its naval base in Tartus, its only access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia wants leverage over the United States in the region, and its entrance into the Syrian war supporting Assad has provided significant leverage for Putin. 

Russia, Iran and the Assad regime will benefit greatly from American withdrawal from Syria; they all have wanted the United States out of Syria all along. It gives them more room to maneuver and, at the same time, Turkey can take care of its security concerns in the border region. All of these countries have clarity in their respective national and regional interests and agendas.

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Unfortunately, the only confused party in this complex puzzle appears to be the United States.  With Trump’s announcement of a troop withdrawal from Syria, there has been nothing but confusion in Washington about the way ahead in the region. The fog of war is cloaking U.S. policymaking and strategies pertaining to Syria. And, by the way, the SDF/YPG has suffered tremendous losses in their U.S.-supported combat against ISIS in Syria. Therefore, guess who else is likely to benefit from putting the SDF/YPG in the crosshairs?  

Many analysts already are predicting an ISIS resurgence in Syria, and possibly even in Iraq, while the Trump administration tries to figure out how to see through the dense fog.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. The opinions expressed here are solely her own. Follow her on Twitter @HayatAlvi.