By Vijeth Kanahalli
17 years on; $1 trillion spent; 2500 Americans lives lost and the Taliban still holds 50% of Afghanistan. This was roughly the contour that the Americans were sketching if they stayed longer in Syria. Truth be told— America was never as serious as the Russians in the Syrian civil war. The Russians and Iranians had turned the civil strife in favor of Syrian President Assad. The Americans have a presence of 2000 soldiers on the ground and have conducted about 17,000 air strikes. The Russians on the other hand were the legitimate choice of President Bashar Al Assad to fight the ISIS. They’ve sent about 63,012 servicemen and conducted about 39,000 air strikes to battle all rebels who’ve wanted to oust the legitimate de-jure government of Mr. Assad.
America on the other hand has had a positive impact on the war too. It has been a part of the large coalition to push out ISIS from 99% of Iraq and Syria. It was instrumental in training the Syrian- Kurdish Fighters who valiantly pushed the ISIS terrorists out of North Eastern Syria.
The above achievement now makes Mr. Trump gloat that they’ve beaten and killed ISIS. I would diverge from President Trump on this point because ISIS is now reported to have spread to over 34 countries as an insurgency group and have changed their modus operandi to methods like lone wolf attacks. While they’ve lost their dream of establishing a Caliphate, they still survive world over. In Syria and Iraq alone, there are still over 30,000 ISIS fighters according to U.S. military estimate.
So what is the path forward? Was it a right decision by President Trump? Domestically, this means that Trump has kept his election promise to withdraw troops which were sent abroad by President Barack Hussein Obama.
From the perspective of its major allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia, this comes as a huge shocker to them. Israel had banked on the U.S. military’s presence in Syria to stop any expansion plans of Iran in the completion of its corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. Many analysts now view this as a situation where in Iran could expand its influence in the region and isolate Israel. Also, coupled with this is the strained relationship that Israel shares with the Russians after the incident of downing of a Russian Spy Plane in Syria. It remains to see what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new balancing act with Russia could be.
This is a time for Saudi Arabia to consider the long proposed U.S. plan of ‘Arab NATO’. Saudi could bring together its estranged neighbor Qatar and its other regional partners like UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait to contain and counter ISIS and Iran in Syria.
From the view point of Turkey, the American pullout has given President Erdogan the ‘Green-light’ to wreck havoc on the Kurdish Fighters whom he’s viewed as terrorists and as a destabilizing factor on Turkish sovereignty. This comes as a huge blow to the fighters who’re now left stranded by Washington, post Trump’s decision to exit and bring his troops back home. This means that there could be one less player in the peace settlement process for Syria.
Many critics and even Pentagon officials have pointed that President Trump handed the war to Russia which can now consolidate its power base without any threats from Washington. This is true up to the extent that the United States has now lost a region of strategic interest. Syria was one of the very few places to remain relevant in the Middle East. The war was not handed to the Russians. The Russians have always remained the favorites to finish the war and in carving out the sphere of influence in the region. Just that it took time for the America to accept this reality.
Russian President Putin has gone on to state that the very presence of the Americans in Syria was illegal because it was neither approved by the UNSC nor asked for by Syria. This shows that Russia is confident of handling the any future conflicts without American support or assistance. However the pullout can give confidence to the ISIS and Al- Qaeda to return again. The Syrians and Russians must be well prepared to face any such repercussions.
All in all—the situation looks confusing and shaky and one question needs serious thinking. What next from Iran? The Iranians may use this opportunity to use proxy fighters to attack Israel from multiple fronts from Baghdad to Beirut. This means that Israel will use all means at its disposal to convince Mr. Trump to stay in some capacity and support the ongoing war. The Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia will also rally with Israel’s pleas before the United States due to its rivalry with Iran. Much of the American attacks so far in Syria were in the form of air raids and it is to wait and watch if they will continue to do this after the troops are pulled out.
On to some positive note, this now gives a chance to do some serious peace building in the region. Iran, Turkey and Russia recently met in Geneva at a UN sponsored talks on establishing a committee to create a new Syrian Constitution. While the talks may have been stalled and will continue in 2019, all parties are positive with the direction in which the talks are headed. This process can achieve a stable and peaceful atmosphere in the war ravaged country.
The above evidence points that Russia is now well established in dealing with the Syrian situation. It has emerged as the dominant power bloc which can influence any key decisions. Turkey, Iran and Russia have emerged victories and will have to be looked out for any future peace building measures in Syria. The United States did the right thing by gracefully exiting from a region from which it entered half heartedly.
To conclude, President Trump has been at loggerheads with the security establishment in the United States which has been very hawkish on the keeping the war going. However, Trump has maintained that the financial cost in keeping the war going is not beneficial for the Americans and has always signaled his dissent towards the war. All eyes are now on whether he could soon be signaling a withdrawal from Afghanistan too. Well, only Tweets will tell!
Vijeth Kanahalli is a Corporate Solicitor and a student of M.A. International Affairs (Diplomacy, Law and Business) at Jindal School of International Affairs at O P Jindal Global University.