Now that the Pentagon has confirmed that the US will in fact withdraw its troops from Syria, here are the implications of the pull-out for other parties to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Israel stands to lose the most from a comprehensive US withdrawal from Syria. As it became ever clearer that the Assad government was going to remain in power in Damascus, Israeli officials up to and including Premier Benjamin Netanyahu lent ever more support towards the provocative cause of forming a Kurdish ethno-statelet in the parts of north-eastern Syria occupied by US forces. Israel’s strategic rationale for such a move was clear enough. While Israel ideally wanted the anti-Zionist Assad replaced by a weaker or more pro-western leader, once such an ambition became untenable, Tel Aviv began aiming for a plan to box Assad in between the illegally occupied Golan Heights in south-western Syria and a would-be Kurdish ethno-statelet in north-eastern Syrian territory.
As Israel’s relations with Turkey continued to deteriorate ever more over the last year, Israeli officials and pro-Netanyahu agitators became ever more explicit in their calls for a Kurdish ethno-statelet on legally recognised Syrian soil. As not a single state in the region supported such a move, the only hope that Tel Aviv ever had in respect of creating a “second Israel”, would have been for Israeli leaders to convince the US that creating a “second Israel” on Syrian soil was somehow a cause worth risking a split in the NATO alliance for. As Turkey’s army is the second largest in NATO after that of the United States, it goes without saying that if the US set up such a “second Israel” relations with Turkey would have been broken beyond repair.
Ultimately, Israel failed to convince the US in this respect and therefore the dream of boxing in Syria with “two Israels” is likely a cause that will forever be relegated to the relics of confounded Zionist aspirations in the region. As Israel was the first government to publicly acknowledge the truth behind reports of a US withdrawal, it is fair to surmise that Tel Aviv was heavily briefed on the matter and decided to cut its losses with the realisation that Russia will continue to uphold the US supported agreement to shield the illegally occupied Golan Heights from a would-be Iranian or Syrian attempt at liberating the internationally recognised Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967.
Finally, as it more or less goes without saying that unlike the US, Israel does not have the military stamina to stage an invasion of eastern Syria and then to militarily engage Turkey (something that even the US ultimately did not dare do), Israel’s hopes for a Kurdish ethno-statelet in Syria are over, just as last year Israel’s hope of seeing a Kurdish ethno-statelet form in Iraq came to an abrupt end after the US failed to support Kurdish radicals in northern Iraq against Baghdad, while both Iran and Turkey supported the Iraqi government.
If Israel stands the most to lose by a US withdrawal from Syria, Turkey certainly stands the most to gain. With the US out of the picture and therefore not protecting or arming the YPG/PKK terror group in Syria, Turkey’s planed anti-YPG/PKK operation in north-eastern Syria can proceed without any meaningful resistance and more importantly without Turkey needing to walk on eggshells in order to avoid accidentally firing on US troops embedded with the YPG/PKK.
Beyond this, Turkey’s prestige in the eyes of its regional supporters has been greatly enhanced by reports of a US withdrawal. The optics of the situation are that Turkey and the US had a vast disagreement regarding the position of the YPG/PKK in northern Syria and that when pushed by a strong leadership in Ankara, the United States blinked first and decided not to risk a further degradation in relations with Turkey by continuing to shield the YPG/PKK terror group from justice. What’s more is that these optics correspond with the reality on the ground as well as the reality in behind the scenes diplomatic communications, thus making Turkey’s victory both a hard and soft power victory over anyone who would have dared to oppose Turkey’s anti-YPG/PKK actions.
Turkey’s leverage in respect of finalising a political peace settlement in Syria is now also greatly enhanced by America’s withdrawal. After the YPG/PKK is inevitably neutralised (either by direct military force or by siege), Arab supporters of Turkey will likely take control of the areas that the US is planning on vacating. This means that not only has the US effectively allowed Turkey to substitute America’s military role in the conflict, but Washington has also tacitly allowed Turkey to supplant the US when it comes to having an even bigger voice within the framework of a regional peace process. This of course brings one on to Turkey’s Astana partnership with Russia and Iran.
Iran never had any presence in the parts of Syria that the US is apparently vacating and therefore, Iran is not effected by Washington’s pull-out in a direct sense. However, in an indirect sense, as Russia is quietly promoting the idea that Iranian military advisers should begin commencing a hero’s withdrawal from Syria sooner rather than later, with Iran’s hated US rival mostly out of the picture, Russia can now make a stronger argument for Iran to further pivot its role in the conflict from one of an advisory military presence to its Syrian ally, to one that is mostly political – within the framework of the Astana partnership.
As Iran knows Russia’s position, this would be a good time for Iran to publicly proclaim to its Arab supporters that it outlasted the US in Syria and did so from a position of aiding what in many respect is the military victor in the long running conflict. After doing this, whatever remaining differences Iran and Turkey had regarding Syria might largely be considered to history, as Turkey and Iran become ever more important trading and security partners. Already, Turkey and Iran have stood shoulder-to-shoulder opposing US sanctions on Tehran and therefore, if past disagreements regarding Syria are fully consigned to history, an already growing partner can grow even faster.
The fact that Iran’s President Rouhani was in Turkey at the time that reports of a US withdrawal from Syria first came out, is itself a symptom of the fact that Iran and Turkey are closer partners than they have been for many years. While the US has apparently decided to call it quits, Turkey and Iran are doing the opposite – they are intensifying their neighbourly cooperation with now meaningful obstacles in their way.
As Russia quietly but unambiguously lent its support to Turkey’s planned anti-YPG/PKK operation in northern Syria, Moscow’s position has certainly not been weakened by an American pull-out. At the same time, Russia’s position hasn’t grown any stronger than it already is in spite of the hysteria predictably coming from Russophobic circles in parts of the United States.
The reality is that Russia had long ago accomplished its main objectives in Syria and seeing as Russia and the US maintained a gentleman’s agreement regarding not treading on one another’s positions in Syria, the only direct way that Russia benefits from the US withdrawal is that the presence of a hostile nation in Syria (the US) has been replaced by that of a Russian partner, the Republic of Turkey. This will be seen by Russia as more of a relief than an achievement as Russia has remained focused on working towards a political solution that had already seen Moscow and Washington cooperate in an agreement that saw Russia guaranteeing Israel’s so-called “security concerns”. Therefore, one should not exaggerate Russia’s perceived benefits from America’s move. Russia’s main gain is that it can now talk to its Turkish partners about the north-eastern parts of Syria rather than have to deal with a volatile Washington.
For Damascus, America’s pull-out is certainly a mixed bag. On the one hand, President Bashar al-Assad’s supporters can claim that “they drove America out of Syria” even though in reality it was pressure from NATO member Turkey that looks to have driven America out. Much of what happens next depends on how much Russia and to an extent Iran can convince Damascus and Ankara to normalise their non-existent relations throughout the drawn out peace process.
While there is some impetus on both sides for private reconciliation, Assad’s most vocal partisans will likely merely see their daily schedule of hating Turkey in the morning, Israel in the afternoon and America in the evening switch to a schedule of hating Turkey in the morning and evening while continuing to hate Israel in the afternoon. While private diplomatic moves should not be judged by the public statements of self-declared partisans, there is truth to the fact that until the constitutional reform process is well under way, there will likely not be any direct contact between Ankara and Damascus, much though Russia in particular might wish otherwise.
Finally, if members of the YPG/PKK do decide to integrate themselves into the Syrian Arab Army (as they literally have nowhere left to go), Damascus should make sure that such an event is not used for propaganda purposes as this could only cause unneeded friction with Turkey. Likewise, such an integration of YPG/PKK fighters into Syria’s army would be subtly embarrassing for Damascus. This is the case as such a move would see the Syrian government embrace a group that once threatened the territorial integrity of Syria, simply because without American support, the YPG/PKK will be too weak to do anything other than stage terrorist provocations. Because of this, if there is to be reconciliation between the YPG/PKK and Damascus it must be done under the terms of Syria’s existing amnesty laws, while Russia will likely have to provide Turkey guarantees that such a move would not further endanger Turkish security.