US pullout from Syria, a trap or a true lifeline?

Maria Dubovikova
Maria Dubovikova
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The US withdrawal from Syria without a pull-out from Iraq is deemed as a plot. Russia will host a trilateral meeting in January to discuss the repercussions of the American withdrawal from Syria and how to build on this without relinquishing any of the positive transformations in the war-torn country. In other words, Russia will not let others reap the benefits at the expense of the Syrians and will counter any terrorist activities as a result of this withdrawal.

The end of 2018 brought many surprises and revealed some important trances on the Syrian track. Some regional powers have realized that this pull-out is a very positive sign for a brighter future for Syria. The UAE embassy has reopened in Damascus and the Bahraini embassy will be reopened shortly. Saudi Arabia has nothing against Syria returning to the Arab League. Tunisia has resumed flights with Syria. The Syrian army has entered Manbij after the Kurdish militias (YPG) pulled out prior the Turkish operation in the region, thus disrupting Ankara’s plans.

It is clear that several Arab countries decided to change strategy regarding Syria, to have a presence in Syria and not to leave it to be under the dominance of Iran. They consider that Syria’s return to the Arab orbit will limit Iranian power in the region and as it was stated by the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, “communication with Damascus will not leave the region open to Iranian interference.”

Talks by all the Arab states regarding the transition of power in Syria will come to nought, especially taking into account that with any election to be held in Syria, the winner is highly predictable

Maria Dubovikova

Talks by all the Arab states regarding the transition of power in Syria will come to nought, especially taking into account that with any election to be held in Syria, the winner is highly predictable. Syria should yet nurture political figures strong enough to replace the current leadership. For now the Arab countries can go for a deal with Assad proposing him to be welcomed by the Arab states and to direct him away from the Iran. The predicament of Iran and its interference is taken into account by Russia, as Moscow works out an opportunity to replace Iran-backed forces with the Sudanese army, which will limit Israeli opportunities in sowing problems on the Israeli-Syrian border and bombarding Iran-related facilities in Syria.


Poison in the honey?

However, the withdrawal is a trap as Russians say: “There is some poison in the honey.” The move is appearing more as a kind of a trap for Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran rather than a withdrawal for considerations of rationality and the economy. Though Damascus is happy with this announcement, there is very little to be happy with as this vacuum resulting from withdrawal also has the potential to lead Syria into becoming another Iraq.

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The US withdrawal significantly strengthens the Turkish position. Taking into account the recent warming relations between Ankara and Washington, Turkey becomes one of the strongest players in the region. These developments are making Turkey a black box for the regional players. Turkey will be less predictable in its foreign policy movements. It might become more aggressive in terms of pursuing its geopolitical goals, including eradication of the Kurdish threat.

It is clear at the end of 2018 that Turkey had the option of intervening militarily in the east of the Euphrates under the guise of a preventive measures. This is what Washington wants, but there is a danger of confrontation with the Russians, Iranians and the Syrian army. Ankara and Washington rule out such a clash and see that Moscow will accept a compromise.

An adventurous bid

However, Turkey understands that the adventurous bid to be more involved in Syria would threaten Ankara's security and would place Turkey in a direct collision with Russia, the Syrian army and Iran even if they choose not to engage in direct confrontation with the Turkish army, the latter would be exposed to an expensive war of attrition. However, with US support, Turkey feels more confident about what it can afford to win and lose.

In the first half of the year, Turkey is likely to continue its intense contacts with Moscow and Tehran to coordinate its own moves because Ankara needs to test US sincerity when Washington talks about cooperation in Syria and many other files.

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Also noteworthy is that the US withdrawal gives a chance for ISIS to regroup its forces and regain its capabilities to be a more active for years to come, endangering stability in the region. It could be the US plan to return once ISIS rises again, proving to the world that it is helpless without mighty hand of Washington. However, this is just a supposition.

Syria is now walking on a tight rope. The majority of recent developments are giving hope, rather than spreading skepticism. All regional powers are trying to find a political settlement for the war in Syria, away from Iranian involvement in an Arab country. The coming weeks will tell whether the American withdrawal will help reach this goal.

Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub), expert of Valdai Club and RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council). Twitter: @politblogme

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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