Imagine a Syria with no Americans
Have you heard the most recent bit of presidential wisdom from Donald Trump? “We are knocking the hell out of ISIS,” boasted the triumphant president on March 29. “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it.”
When asked about Trump’s remarks, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “unaware” about any plans for a troop withdrawal.
But whether it will actually happen or not, Trump is making us think about a scenario hitherto far out of the realm of possibility: What if there were no Americans in Syria? What if the supposedly sole superpower in the world simply did not try to shape events in the most violently disputed piece of land in the world?
I considered the president’s remarks in light of the recent testimony of CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel at the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Votel admitted to the U.S.’s failure in its Syria strategy. When Senator Lindsey Graham replied by saying: “Is it not your mission in Syria to deal with the Iranian, al-Assad and Russian problem?” Votel replied succinctly: “That’s correct senator.”
Graham asked him again whether it is not wrong “to say that with Russia’s and Iran’s help al-Assad has won the civil war?” Votel replied by saying he “does not think that is too strong a statement.” That’s where we are now.
Now let me go back to my question: What if there were no Americans in Syria at the moment?
Currently the U.S., through the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), controls a third of Syrian territory, with around 60 percent of the country’s oil and water reserves and most of its electricity production facilities.
Most of the rest is controlled by the al-Assad government, which gets help from the Iranians and the Russians. There are almost no rebels left. The Turkish presence? It’s limited, with little impact on the endgame.
So what if there were no Americans in Syria in the near future? Let me tell you what that would mean for Turkey. First, Russia and Iran, instead of the U.S., would become our southern neighbors. Would Turkey enjoy that? Contrary to what many would say, I don’t think so. The Turks have a more or less century-old experience with the Americans. That experience has had its ups and downs, but it has mostly been friendly. Our history with Russia and Iran is at least four or five centuries old, and as usual with close neighbors it involves frequent wars.
What else? Al-Assad could enter into talks with the YPG/PKK to build a “new Syria.” Why would Turkey want that? The PKK is a terrorist organization and the YPG was established in Syria by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan during his exile in that country.
The PKK gaining control of land on the Turkish border was the sole reason for the recent “Operation Olive Branch,” the biggest Turkish military action since the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation. That should illustrate the extent of Turkey’s existential angst over the situation in Syria.
U.S. operations in Iraq started in 1991 and then ramped up to a full-scale invasion in 2003. That was 15 years ago, yet there is still no sign of stability on the ground. The Syrian civil war erupted eight years ago. There is no endgame in sight, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will likely only lengthen the bloodshed and continue to destabilize our region. An unstable Syria is bad for Turkish business.
We should all thank President Trump for reminding us of the ominous possibility of U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Even if it is equivalent to seeing death and settling for malaria, it is a step in the right direction.
Russia and Iran have a strategy in Syria, which is what is lacking on our side. The West needs a strategy with a clear endgame in this bloody civil war.