• Toby Irwin

The Price of Withdrawal

With the United States withdrawing out of Syria, the board now seems set to allow the further encroachment of Russian and Iranian influences. Further, it seems likely that the Kurdish region in the North is also poised to suffer greatly from Turkish interests.


The US was in Northern Syria to both launch airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions as well as train the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has played a considerable role in the reduction of IS territory in Syria, which has now been rendered obsolete. In the process, the SDF has suffered around 11,000 casualties. For comparison, the US’ involvement has cost five American lives. The reduction of IS territory might suggest that a US withdrawal is a rational choice, given that the primary objective of defeating IS seems nearing completion. After all, in a press release the US President noted that joint efforts between the US, coalition partners and the SDF had liberated 20,000 square miles and eliminated “tens of thousands” of ISIS militants. Things however are rarely so straightforward, and the consequences of a withdrawal of US forces will be subject to multiple interplaying factors.


One key point is how Russia seems ripe to benefit most from Assad’s consolidation of power. Indeed, Ilham Ahmed (president of executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council) states that the US leaving places the political situation firmly in the hands of Assad and his allies. The absence of the United States produces a void of influence that Moscow will likely jump at the opportunity to fill. Iran, another regional power and traditional ally, has also benefited from a more sound security environment. As one IISS report notes, the US withdrawal “in effect ends the Syrian civil war with Assad as its victor, Russia as its beneficiary, and the United States one of its losers”. The Russian Naval Facility at Tartus now remains firmly under friendly control, providing Russian warships continued access to the Mediterranean. The Syrian government is also a major purchaser of Russian armaments. Not only has Moscow secured an ally immediately to the south of NATO’s sole Middle Eastern power it has also alienated the US from alliance structures in the region; fundamentally shifting the balance of power.


Another point arising from withdrawal is the tension between Turkey and the Kurds in the North. The SDF is branded as a terrorist organisation by Istanbul due to its connections with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (ties that the SDF deny). On October 9th Turkish Armed Forces pressed into Northern Syria resulting in around 250 deaths and a displacement close to 300,000. A ceasefire has since been negotiated and brokered by Russia, which is ongoing.


Questions now arise concerning Turkish intent in Northern Syria and whether the US is likely to commit to the establishment of a new demilitarised buffer zone. Perhaps most interesting of all will be to see how Russia, the new de facto supposed dominant power in the region, will try to balance between peace and the appeasement of Erdogan and Assad. All of this must be done, presumably, with the ulterior intention of best serving Russian interests though not so overtly that the US feels the compulsion to return.


https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-45547595

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-ministers-global-coalition-defeat-isis/

https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/10/mide-trump-is-complicit-in-erdogans-violence

https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/24/ilham-ahmed-trump-syria-kurds-turkey-oil/


At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.


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