US President Donald Trump’s climb-down on troop withdrawal from Syria is a natural consequence of the failure of regional powers to view it as a peaceful move, but as a defeated withdrawal. Washington’s ally Iraq displayed unease and retreated in the face of pressure from Tehran. Meanwhile, Turkey was quick to make concessions to Russia and Iran, as the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia pivoted towards Damascus and Iran. While all this was happening, Tehran increased its military shipments to the battlefield.
Diplomatically speaking, countries in the region considered it a new phase in the conflict now dominated by Iran and Turkey, with the onset of steps to establish an Iranian-Turkish-Iraqi-Qatari alliance. The countries of the region and the Arab League sought to restore relations with the Syrian regime, but there was no goodwill gesture from Damascus towards its millions of displaced and refugees.
This all happened following the Trump tweet announcing his intention to withdraw forces from Syria, claiming that the war on ISIS was over and that it was pointless to have a continued presence on Syrian soil. However, the tweet backfired and the result was catastrophic, leading to Trump ordering a slowdown to the withdrawal, which will most likely be a re-positioning of forces.
The battles may be in Syria, but the real war is against Iran. Tehran has made Damascus the cornerstone of policies used to control Lebanon and Iraq, while threatening Jordan and IsraelAbdulrahman al-Rashed
The real war is against Iran
The battles may be in Syria, but the real war is against Iran. Tehran has made Damascus the cornerstone of policies used to control Lebanon and Iraq, while threatening Jordan and Israel; imposing a new, dangerous balance of power in the region.
Unexpectedly, Trump’s secretaries then adopted strong rhetoric, to compensate for their previously perceived defeatist stance. National security advisor John Bolton warned the Turks that the US would not withdraw its troops from Syria, unless its Kurdish allies in Syria are protected from any planned Turkish offensive. He also said that the Turks shouldn’t undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the US. While Ankara may have considered this dialogue arrogant, it didn’t dare challenge it.
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If the Turks were to pledge not to attack the Kurds, Washington would then have to work out what to do about the Iranian-backed militias brought to Syria to exert pressure on Israel.
This makes me doubtful over Washington's desire to exit Syria without adopting a different policy toward Turkey and Iran.
In short, peace will not yet come to Syria.
The Syrian regime cannot get rid of Iran, however much it promises. In order to regain regional recognition, the regime will promise that the Iranians will leave Syria in a year or two, and will even formally request this from Iran, but this promise will remain worthless. The Iranian regime’s forces will only exit when they feel it has become too costly for them to stay in Syria and the region. This can only mean that there will be escalating confrontations with Iran, no US military escape from Syria, and no re-opening of Arab embassies there.
Iran's military presence in Syria is a pivotal threat to the region. If Tehran ever exits Syria, its influence on the Baghdad government would diminish and political balance in Lebanon would return. And if Khamenei's influence in Syria ends, his influence would also weaken within Tehran. Despite all the promises, Damascus will not be able to distance itself from Iran; neither today nor in 10 years from now, except through military confrontation and exerting pressure on it in more than one area.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.