EXCLUSIVE: Peter Ford on Trump's Announcement of U.S Withdrawl from Syria

 

Former UK Ambassador to Syria ( 2003 - 2006), Peter Ford has given a statement on Trump's announcement that U.S troops will withdraw from Syria: 

Three main questions arise from Trump's reported decision to pull US troops out of Syria: what prompted it, will it happen, and what will be the consequences, for Syria and for the fight against ISIS?

What prompted it?

Candidate Trump said he wanted to defeat ISIS then pull out of Syria. This is one reason he won the election, as many in his core base were, and remain, sceptical of never-ending American wars overseas. President Trump reiterated this position as recently as last March, before he was talked around by neocons like John Bolton. The need to keep Israel sweet by conditioning US withdrawal on Iran's departure from Syria was also no doubt part of the reason for the volte-face back then, Trump needing to have Israel's back while he faced problems at home. 

So why the switch now? We may never know. It is not as though Trump has less need of Israel's backing, although with Netanyahu on the ropes because of his own shenanigans the balance of power in that diad may have shifted. The unkind surmise that Trump wants to bask in a proclaimed victory over ISIS to deflect attention away from Russiagate, although if that were the case it appears unlikely to deflect attention for long. Who knows - maybe it just got up Trump's nose that his advisers seemed to glory in having twisted him round their little fingers. A recent appointee as US envoy for Syria, Ambassador (rtd) James Jeffrey, an acolyte of Bolton, gave a remarkably cocky address just three days ago to the Atlantic Council laying out a blueprint for a US policy on Syria whereby the US would use 'pressure points', one of them its military presence, to bend Assad to US will by weakening Syria in myriad ways, a recipe for more endless war if ever there was one. At all events, we can be sure that Trump's base, which had been haemorrhaging, will take cheer from his decision. Trump's banker in times of trouble has always been his base, so perhaps it's no surprise that he has reverted in one respect at least to being the anti-Washington swamp Trump they thought they were electing.

One element in the equation which might have given Trump pause has recently changed. Saudi Arabia is no longer as hostile to Syria as it was, having lost influence among the remaining jihadi groups there, with hated Qatar now top dog through its sponsoring of Al Nusra/HTS. The UAE is poised to reopen its embassy in Damascus and there is talk of Syria being readmitted to the Arab League. 

Will Trump carry it through?

Given Trump's record of switches on this and other subjects it would be a brave analyst who bet the house on Trump not being talked around yet again. There will be immense institutional resistance, bureaucratic foot-dragging and other ploys, particularly by the Iran hawks, to halt the withdrawal or mitigate it. In terms of mitigation, there could be some play over the number of US troops in Syria. The Pentagon has admittted to there being about 2,000, but leaks suggest the true number is much higher. The US footprint in Syria is huge: there are two airbases and ten military encampments in Northern Syria and several more positions in the Al Tanf enclave on the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border. Some may argue that Trump could withdraw 2000 regular troops but leave behind the special forces, a category of military whose ghostly presence doesn't count according to our own government, who still haven't acknowledged the presence (it seems) of several dozen commandos in Syria. My guess however is that unless something dramatic intervenes, such as another chemical weapons crisis, Trump will this time show a little perseverance and get all the troops out within 100 days.

Some of his generals will be grateful: US forces worldwide are not surprisingly getting overstretched, and the de facto occupation of Syria is beginning to cause local headaches: Turkey is threatening in the North, Russia has been applying pressure to Al Tanf, ISIS has been staging attacks in Raqqa, and the SDF (the US-backed predominantly Kurdish militia) is coming apart at the seams as Kurds and Arabs bicker.

What are the consequences?

The real primary function of US ground forces was to act as a tripwire to stop Asad walking into the Kurdish territories, not to fight ISIS. Every time Asad's forces came near the SDF the US troops called up the USAF. The USAF has also been the key component of the fight against ISIS and this is not likely to change. In terms therefore of the campaign against ISIS not much changes. The rump of ISIS, several thousand fighters, having lost recently their last remaining town, Hajin, have now melted back into the desert, or simply gone underground. The presence of 2000 US troops (let us take the Pentagon at its word) is neither here nor there in this context. 

One consequence however is that the Kurds, soon to be left facing the Turks alone, may seek reconciliation with and protection from Asad. The latter will no doubt demand military cooperation against the Turkish proxies in the North who masquerade under the Free Syrian Army brand as a quid pro quo. Turkey may derive short term benefit by expelling the Kurds from Manbij but long term may regret being partly instrumental in pushing the US out.

It will take some time for all this to play out. In the meanwhile attention will be focussed no doubt on the palavers over a new Syrian constitution, whether in the Astana or Geneva formats, now that the composition of a drafting committee seems agreed by all except the weak Syrian official opposition. The removal of US forces could improve the atmosphere for the next rounds of talks, though I remain sceptical that these negotiations are anything more than a filibuster while the real action plays out among the state players. 

Trump's critics, including those in London (how long is it since we had a government more hawkish than a Republican US President?), will have the vapours about 'losing ground to Russia','making Iran's day', and 'abdicating influence,' but their criticism is ill-founded. Contrary to their apparent belief, the US does not have a God-given right to send its forces anywhere on the planet it deems fit. Withdrawal will see the US in one respect at least follow the international rules-based system we are so fond of enjoining on others, and will therefore be a victory of sorts for upholders of international law. The US presence, while it lasts, far from putting pressure on Iran to withdraw, guarantees that Iran will not leave Asad unprotected, while withdrawal may  make it easier for Russia eventually to ease the Iranians out (though not before Idlib is pacified). 

In short, Trump's decision is a welcome development. Now all that is needed is for the US and the UK to abandon all their other counter-productive 'pressure points': sanctions which harm ordinary Syrians, blocking international aid for rebuilding, which can only increase unemployment and create the conditions for ISIS to fester, and attempts to prevent allies' restoration of links with Damascus.

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