Imagining Syria Without the United States

This week’s drama about whether or not US will be withdrawing from Syria, sparked a wave of speculation concerning the future of the region in the hands of Iran, Russia, and Turkey… and Saudi Arabia, which does not want the job, as it is also embroiled in a conflict in Yemen and is working to stay off Iranian influence in other countries, while pursuing aggressive domestic reforms in a race against time on the economic front.

The end result of the back-and-forth between President Trump and his national security advisers was that he reluctantly agreed to stay for the “short” time time it would take to defeat ISIS, but would not get involved in any other operations. He also instructed the Pentagon to prepare the troops for withdrawal. President Trump made it clear that he was expecting Saudi Arabia and other allies to pay for the support of additional operations and contribute more financially to Syria (to the tune of $400M). While he left the beleaguered US allies struggling and desperately trying to put on their best faces (Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately contacted the White House to discuss the situation, while Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview to Time magazine, advised the United States to stay for medium-to-long term, but said that they would have to work hard and deal with the situation as well as they could), Iran, Turkey, and Russia cemented their positions on Syria.

One thing all the commentators could agree on is that the United States, by withdrawing, would be leaving Syria in the hands of Iran. The more optimistic voices believe that Russia could be a potential bulwark against Iran, due to differing interests and investment in the stabilization. Others, however, claim that Iran and Russia are aligned in their quest for continuous domination of the Middle East. Furthermore, Iran has already built a land corridor to Syria, so there is little Russia can do to prevent an influx of terrorists.  And in the past, Russia showed reluctance in keeping Iranians in check and away from Israeli borders or from building armories and missiles factories.

The other serious concern is that with the announcement hanging in the air, ISIS will bide out its time, then resurface once the US withdraws. In the past, Russia attacked more US-backed rebels than ISIS troops, and with Turkey now actively involved, and allegedly harboring many former ISIS members, the resulting scenario now appears to be increasingly gloomy. Israel may end up in a multifront war, as there are signs of aggression from Hizbullah, and Hamas, too, appears to be angling for a fight. Random Salafi jihadists, sponsored by various private donors in the Gulf States, have already tried to assassinate the PA prime minister less than a month ago; they may be sent out to sow additional chaos at any point in the future.

No one knows for certain what will ultimately happen in the future; however, the question is, whether there is anything the allies can do to prepare for the eventuality of the US withdrawal now, in case it ever happens? First, it’s worthwhile examining what it is exactly President Trump has in mind when demanding the Anti-Terror Quartet (KSA, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) to invest more in stabilizing Syria. The United States broke down the financial demand into some very specific requests, which included separate cells for various prisoners, investment into reconstruction of the Northeastern Syria,  and strengthening some of the quieter areas.

If, however, the area ends up in the hands of Iranians, all of that money will have been wasted, because whatever minor stabilization would have been achieved by that point, will surely be destroyed by Iranians and Turks immediately. Already, Turkey is back to the messaging about moving further into Syria after its destructive operation in Afrin. Turkey’s actions may be of concern to the ATQ, because Kurds presented a strong offense against ISIS, whereas Turkey coopts ISIS, and may be using it in the future to further destabilize the situation, particularly against ATQ-backed rebels.

And the last thing the ATQ wants or needs is to have their own troops drawn into yet another war. Facing a demand to commit more money on wasteful projects (while facing financial pressure), while seeing that ISIS has not yet been fully shut down, and despite losing most of its territory, may yet resurface to partake in guerrilla warfare, they are backed into a corner. Saudi Army is undergoing training exercises with the US military, but it may be too little too late.

Between missiles coming in from Yemen, and the increasing chaos in Syria, they may be viewing Russia as an opportunity to commit to a bad truce rather than face even the prospects of relatively benign hostilities.  With Assad currently being used to bring together the remnants of Syrian territory, Putin is being seen as a clever rational power broker, who has managed to outmaneuver everyone – and does not present an immediate existential danger to the ATQ.

For that reason, Trump is sorely miscalculating if he believes that the ATQ will take up the role of the US in Syria, or even continue making increasingly ostentatious financial contributions at his demand. At some point, it will be less costly for them to cut a deal with Putin, and continue on with their domestic affairs, than to risk increasing fragmentation without any backing from the US, only demands and critiicism. That will be a long-term strategic mistake: Putin is merciless, will have no qualms about turning on his past allies if he sees them as weak and easy to sacrifice to satisfy his own ambitions or other goals…and the United States, while pushing these countries into Russia’s embrace from afar, will penalize them for any real growth of that alliance once it becomes obvious just how much Russia has benefited from such an arrangement.

Furthermore, Iran and Russia ultimately both have very weak infrastructures and economies. Iran has been railed by a continuous wave of protests, which, if they continue, threaten to turn into a wave of violent riots even the fearsome national security apparatus of Tehran will struggle to contain. In that instance, Iran, even if there is no simultaneous sanctions reimposition by the US and Europe, or other external attempts to roll back its influence, will have find itself struggling to balance internal unrest with the management of all its numerous fronts, which will require greater investment in the future, as groups of extremists will challenge the invaders. Ironically, although in a relatively dependent position at the moment, Turkey may come out on top in such an eventuality. Unlike Russia and Iran, Turkey is not suffering from Western sanctions; on the contrary, it’s enjoying protection and preferential treatment as a Western ally. Its army is strong (unlike Iran’s); its economy, though it has diminished over the years, is still in decent shape. It has its domestic troubles with the Kurds, but Erdogan is moving in the direction of potential totalitarianism, and with no push back by the international community is in a strong position against the PKK, with superior weapons and an army on his side. He has also been able to coopt the various Sunni terrorist groups as his proxies against adversarial forces (including his new buddies, Tehran and Moscow) for the future.

And Erdogan has the financial backing of Qatar by his side; if Iran becomes too busy dealing with internal matters  to continue its regional dealings with Doha, Qatar’s alliance with Turkey will grow even closer.  Qatar will not hesitate to fund Turkey’s operations to undermine the ATQ, because it sees it as an ally against Saudi Arabia, but one that respects its national sovereignty and is not making demands on its foreign policy. And Doha already has historic connections to Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, stationed in Turkey, so that the Axis emerging has potential reach to tens of thousands of violent and well-armed Islamists all over the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

It will be a long time before Turkey can be destabilized by anything, and if the Saudis and the Emiratis try to push for regime change in Qatar in too obvious a way, Ankara will put a stop to it. For now, Turkey needs Russia to triangulate with Iran and Assad. If Russia doesn’t find new markets for its natural resources, however, an if Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to stop its gas trade with Russia, it will not be able to sustain the same level of involvement. With a great deal of international pressure and sanctions, Russia’s importance may come to diminish, even as Turkey’s influence grows. The Trump administration’s clumsy attempts to rebalance the region in favor of Turkey against Russia, have not yet worked out in a particularly effective way, but this development may yet happen in a more natural way.

Although both Iran and Russia appear greater immediate threats to the Middle Eastern security and stability, both embroiled in destabilizing activities of all sorts, it is Turkey that is potentially the greatest longer-term danger for these countries; as it vies for Sunni influence. Iran’s influence in the Gulf Countries may very well be limited to inciting their Shi’a minorities; however, Turkey looks to lead as a Sunni country, and therefore, its appeal will be to the majorities of these populations. It can promise modernization and stability without the uneven and challenging social and economic reforms imposed by Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia; it can promise to support traditional conservative social norms, and make an appeal focused on religion, rather on the ethnic identities.  It can promise an empire predicated on stability and mutual prosperity – while looking to subsume tribal societies with natural resources and to enrich Erdogan and his cronies.  But what Turkey is offering, Iran and Russia cannot. Tehran and Moscow both realize that; for that reason, they have compelled Assad to compromise with Erdogan on certain key issues. They are hoping that Turkey will satisfy itself with limited influence and with being given some of the Kurdish strongholds, potentially more of them in the future.

In the end, for Erdogan, Afrin was just a start, and no matter how much Assad will be willing to cede to him, none of it will be enough. It’s not just about clearing out the Kurds, but also expanding physical and ideological reach. Even realizing all of that, however, the triumvirate stands, because the three countries are interdependent for the time being. Erdogan does not yet have the authority Iranians and Russians enjoy to try to take over completely, and Iran’s and Russia’s backing of Assad will be far too strong for the time being. Erdogan will bide his time, but US withdrawal would certainly speed up the process – the US is just one more factor stopping Erdogan’s progress against the Kurds, and the French President Macron’s threats to engage in blocking Erdogan’s progress may at the end of the day be just empty words.

Because Turkey is an increasingly sophisticated threat, also investing significantly into expanding its ideological reach, this development may be seen as one more reason for the ATQ to pursue a relationship with Russia. At the end of the day, however, such overtures will come to naught. The best move for Russia right now is to get as close to Erdogan as possible, and ensure that its interests are purely business, and down the road, it will be willing to deal with Erdogan whether or not Assad remains in power. The ATQ, on the other hand, should spend the remaining time the US is there (unless, of course, President Trump sees the error of his ways and decides to stay in order to avoid this imbroglio), to pressure the US on Turkey and focus on weakening Erdogan in any way possible. Iran is a current headache, but Erdogan is growing in power, and has managed to shrewdly avoid most of the international delegitimization that has befallen the other rising hegemons. The ATQ should also be working closely with Kurds and strengthening and uniting that alliance, particularly given their importane of standing up to both Iran and Turkey. They should also continue to invest with their SUnni allies in Syria, but learn a lesson from the very recent past, and instead of backing groups of various extremists, invest into providing a truly moderating influence, deradicalizing the population, and training an effective force of united allies that can provide an effective counterfront to Assad-backed proxies and the army, as well as other state and non-state enemies.

Making specific demands on Russia, then, to minimize malicious involvement and focus on business investment, may make that agenda more realizable and the growing relationship with Russia slightly more palatable in the eyes of the West. The United States and the ATQ may reach a point, that due to thoughtless statements and reactionary agendas, they may find themselves accusing each other of mutual betrayal. To avoid that potential fiasco, they should be spending more time outlining potential parameters and red lines in these engagements, particularly in the event the United States does withdraw from Syria. If the expectations are set and discussed prior to any drastic steps from either side, political misunderstandings can be avoided, and each side can be reasoned with, address grievances, and be persuaded to step away from the edge of desperate and potentially disastrous decisionmaking.

As for Israel, its concerns are less existential at the moment (Iran will likely  not try to overrun Israel in the near future), and more about limiting the damage. Hezbullah has highly destructive capabilities;  however, it, too, does not have a death wish. The parameters of future potential wars are likely limited for the time being; but the Iran proxies can still weaken Israel with multiple attacks on several fronts, with the amount of damage from sophisticated missiles, and by attracting additional negative publicity. There is no real concern that the United States will not come to its aid in the event these attacks fare badly; but for a nation that has put so much effort into achieving growth, strengthening and improving its diplomatic relationships, and overcoming security problems and bad image in the news, additional wars will be highly damaging on many levels. President Trump’s decision was most likely more impulsive than thought out. His advisers, perhaps, will eventually press upon him that until such time as the US develops a viable strategy for rolling back the influence of state actors in Syria, it has an important role to play as a deterrent against aggression. However, one of these days, the advisers may catch President Trump  at the wrong moment and fail to prevail. Israel and other regional allies should be prepared for that possibility, and the communication with the US for the future following its withdrawal should be clear, predetermined, and strategically sound.

by Irina Tsukerman