Win for Turkey, loss for Kurds, election rhetoric for Trump – experts on US pullout from Syria

The announced US withdrawal from Syria is likely related to the 2020 US elections, as well as the complex power struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in Washington, Middle East experts tell RT.

US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday morning that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has been defeated and the US troops in Syria can go home. The Pentagon confirmed that the pullout has already begun. The Washington establishment has greeted the announcement with anger and dismay, arguing it benefits Russia and Iran. Middle East observers, however, think there is more to it than meets the eye.

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Former Pentagon official Michael Maloof believes the withdrawal is a result of a deal Trump made with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which leaves Washington’s Kurdish proxy militia in northeastern Syria “holding the bag.”

“Trump still does not want to overthrow [Syrian President Bashar Assad],” Maloof told RT, pointing out that the current administration’s regime change agenda has been driven mostly by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. With the US withdrawal, Maloof said, “Assad is here to stay.”

However, he cautioned that Trump’s tweet and the Pentagon announcement say nothing about private military contractors leaving Syria, or scaling down the US presence in the neighboring Iraq.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thinks the withdrawal is partly for US internal consumption, but is also aimed at removing a liability in the region.

“This is the president returning to his campaign rhetoric” as the 2020 campaign looms, Landis told RT. “He’s going back to his original story, which is ‘The Middle East wars were stupid, and what are we doing there? Why did we spend $5 trillion in the Middle East’?”

“This is a big win for Erdogan,” Landis said, pointing out that Turkey stands to gain the most from the US withdrawal. Though the decision is likely to anger and annoy Pompeo and Bolton, the US can’t hope to implement its anti-Iran policy without Turkish cooperation – not after Saudi Arabia’s standing in Washington has been damaged by Erdogan’s handling of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Landis explained.

With the US position in Syria “extraordinarily weak” and Turkey massing troops at the border, Trump made the same call to avoid US losses as Obama did in 2015, when Russia intervened on behalf of Damascus.

“We’re not going to go to war with Turkey for Syria. Syria just is not that important to the US,” Landis told RT.

The number of actual US troops inside Syria is fairly small – around 2,000 or so Special Forces operatives – as Washington has mostly counted on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a proxy army in its fight against ISIS.

The Obama administration launched an air campaign against the self-proclaimed caliphate in September 2014, as it gobbled up territory in Syria and Iraq and appeared virtually unstoppable. IS continued to expand, however, and only started to suffer significant setbacks in Syria after the Russian expeditionary force was deployed in October of 2015. Unlike the US forces, whose presence in Syria has no basis in either US or international law, the Russian intervention came at the official request of Damascus.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria comes just over a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Russian airbase in Khmeimim and declared “mission accomplished.”

Among the biggest achievements of the US-backed SDF were the liberation of Manbij in August 2016 and the capture of Raqqa, the IS “capital,” in October 2017. Much like Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa was pretty much “obliterated” by US bombing, however. Even today, Raqqa is still digging out from the rubble, with no running water and unexploded mines everywhere.

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While the demise of the terrorists was praised by all, the control of liberated territory by US-backed Kurdish-majority militia has been deemed problematic by the Syrian government and Turkey, as well as the local Arab population.

Ankara is concerned about a domestic Kurdish insurgency, and has repeatedly sent troops into Syria to clash with the US-backed SDF. Damascus, on the other hand, has protested the US establishment of a de facto parallel state in areas under SDF control, rather than having them restored to Syrian government rule.

With the US withdrawal, the SDF faces a choice: make a deal with Damascus or be overrun by the Turks.

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