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article imageOp-Ed: US Syria withdrawal — What happens next?

By Paul Wallis     Dec 21, 2018 in World
Washington - The United States military withdrawal from Syria has drawn universal condemnation from everyone but Vladimir Putin. The odd, mistimed strategy may have some very strange, and hideous, consequences.
The US military will be withdrawn from Syria on the orders of President Trump. The Defense Secretary, General (ret.) Jim Mattis, resigned in response. US media has been loud in its condemnation.
The world’s most continuous war zone
Peace in the Middle East is a theory, endless war is the reality. If you look at a timeline of Middle East conflicts, there is and never has been such a thing as peace in this region since 1902. (The timeline is amazing, even now, there are conflicts and incidents which are barely reported.) Barbarism is the method, brutality is the preferred option, and the Syrian civil war could look like a footnote to what may follow. The US withdrawal will simply revert the local wars to their normal state, and that’s very bad news for the entire Middle East.
Players and moves in Syria
Russia is now the main foreign player in Syria, in line with long-held Russian strategy in the region. The US withdrawal underlines Russia’s physical dominance. While Vladimir Putin was almost the sole international voice agreeing with Trump’s move, pundits have predicted that the move will open the floodgates for repression, an Islamic State resurgence, and more conflicts.
Iran, the big regional player in Syria, hasn’t said much, and is hardly likely to say anything which supports US strategy, whether it’s about Syria or anything else. Many experts point out that Iran now has a substantial array of forces deployed from Iraq to Syria, and that these forces now have even less oversight as a result of the US withdrawal.
Turkey, meanwhile, is threatening to send troops in to Syria, another odd twist in a situation which was already strange enough. Turkey is a US ally and NATO member, and could come in conflict with virtually any other force in Syria, including Iranian, Russian, Islamic State, Kurdish, and other groups.
All analysts agree that Islamic State still has about 15 - 30,000 fighters still active, and that it could come back to life in Syria if the US leaves a gap it can exploit. This is a general threat to all parties, and underlines the total lack of solid basis for even theoretical peace in Syria or the region as a whole.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, wants to finish off the remaining Syrian rebels. This objective is pretty much to the exclusion of all other considerations. The fact that the Syrian government is now totally dependent on foreign support doesn’t seem to be an issue.
Israel stands on the sidelines, prepared to attack any threats, but now faced with a Syria where it has no friends and many heavily armed enemies. Israel is the loser in this equation, where no outcome can make its northern border secure, and anyone or anything can be an active threat. The US withdrawal is an odd, and rather bloodstained, omission in Trump’s otherwise 100% pro-Israel policies. There’s no doubt Israel would respond aggressively to any threat, but the number and types of possible threats have now increased exponentially.
The Middle East and Syria, a general state of chaos
The Middle East is the world’s oldest battlefield. Wars in this region date back to the Pharaohs, who also fought in Syria at times. This region is now ruled by force as the default option for governments, terrorists, and theologians alike.
The Middle East is also an ongoing disaster area. Most countries in the Middle East have experienced major wars, either civil wars, Islamic State, or national wars in the last generation or so:
• In Syria a large part of the country is now devastated, and will take billions of dollars to rebuild. The economy is shattered, and any return to previous prosperity will take many years.
• Iraq is still rebuilding after two wars against the US and its allies, two huge internal insurgencies, and the war with Iran in the 1980s. The Kurds are a distinct separate group, covering the north and Turkish border, a perpetual flashpoint with Turkey. Iraq is now supported by Iran in practical terms, a strange outcome given the hostility of the US to Iran and the hostility between the two nations in the past.
• The region includes the combat forces of Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, and any number of special operatives from other players in the region. There are also multiple Islamic State operatives, to be found from Morocco to Syria actively carrying out terrorist operations.
• Active hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Yemen war, and any number of quasi-reported conflicts also fester in the region like an ulcer.
Bear in mind that this orgasmic state of affairs is no more than what’s reported, or half-baked, not necessarily accurate information which occasionally leaks out. The Middle East is crucially also a big money enterprise for arms dealers, smugglers, organized crime, and the rest of the pantheon of parasites in the region.
Salaam or Shalom; there’s no such thing
There is no such thing as peace in the Middle East. The sheer complexity of factions, national strategies and armed groups prevents it. Force is used to oppose force, and there’s no chance of anyone laying down arms unilaterally. The US withdrawal will in fact exacerbate this situation, with any number of possible consequences.
A few possible scenarios:
1. Russia will find itself carrying the can for the effectively neutered Syrian government, and the war with Islamic State. This may give “prestige”, but it won’t give Russia any easy options or quick results. The most probable scenario is an expensive, time-consuming process which may or may not yield any sort of peace.
2. Iran is unlikely to give up any advantages it gains from its presence throughout the region, whether anyone likes it or not. It makes sense that Iran would want to have a good, strong position across the region, particularly given the hostile Saudis and Trump’s anti-Iran stance. That could mean anything, from an Iranian bloc including Syria and Iraq to a range of future military and diplomatic issues for the US to confront.
3. Israel’s position on any threats to its borders hardly needs explaining. The new environment, however, could drastically increase those threats, provoking an all-out Israeli response, which could lead to a regional war, and/or a far more dangerous range of enemies attacking Israel on multiple levels, not necessarily military.
4. Turkish involvement in Syria could create multiple confrontations, dragging the US and NATO back in to the war, at a significant disadvantage. Reactive diplomacy and military moves are rarely positive, and rarely successful. (Exactly why the Turks want to open up a southern front under these circumstances is unclear, but Turkish President Erdogan isn’t known for making idle threats or taking delicate actions.)
Now, the most ironic scenario, which incorporates degrees of all of the above scenarios:
America’s enemies in the Middle East are many, and despite some disparaging (and ignorant) remarks, competent on many levels. Given the high stakes in play, these forces may well turn against each other, and history suggests they will. The huge irony is that the shift in focus may end the War on Terror, unintentionally. The Middle East could have its own “World War”, against itself. Such a war would be long, as bad as the current war, but much more widespread.
If Israel is drawn in, it could be a true Armageddon for the region. The Saudis too are very likely to consider their needs for managing threats along their borders. A clash with Iran is therefore almost inevitable. Egypt has multiple possible risks, and could be attacked from within or without, depending on which parties are involved.
The War on Terror could become the War of Terror, with no holds barred, with any number of combatant groups and tens of millions of people in the firing line. It would be incredibly naïve to assume that any of the players are playing for some sort of ideological or religious position. Religion, in particular, pales in comparison to the money alone, let alone the politics. (You'd think the sheer number of highly paid "religious fanatics" would be a clue, but apparently not.) The only real game in the Middle East is and always has been about money, power and personal and national security, not rhetoric.
If the US withdrawal was a departure from its appallingly wasteful and remarkably primitive “boots on the ground” tactics, it’d be a good thing. It’d maintain a presence without turning US forces in to target practice for the entire Middle East. The trouble is that the way this environment works, the withdrawal may well be a guarantee the boots will have to come back, yet again, to a war that never ends.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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