Christopher Phillips, professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, questioned, in an article published by “Middle East Eye”, the possibility of US President Joe Biden resorting to withdrawing from Syria after his withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Withdrawal from Syria
In his article, Phillips said that both Russia and Turkey feel that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want in Syria.
Below is the text of the article:
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has worried its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria. The White House was quick to reassure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that it would not embark on a similar withdrawal from Syria, but could US President Joe Biden be trusted?
After all, the Trump administration gave similar assurances before abruptly withdrawing more than half of its forces in 2019 and green-lighting a Turkish invasion.
Read also: The Taliban announces the official end of the war in Afghanistan after taking control of Panjshir, and the fate of Ahmed Masoud is ambiguous
Recently, Washington was silent when several SDF fighters were killed in Turkish attacks in August. Biden’s withdrawal from Kabul, in which he has prioritized saving “American lives” over his allies, will only increase fears among the SDF that they too will soon be abandoned.
So how likely is Biden to withdraw? The signs are not good for the Syrian Democratic Forces. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, as well as with the recent Okus agreement, Biden has clearly indicated that competition between great powers, particularly China, is his primary external concern. This means ending the entanglement in the “eternal war” legacy of the “war on terror” such as Afghanistan, and possibly Syria.
In this regard, Biden’s withdrawal indicates that he was quick to act to fight Islamic terrorism “abroad.” He seems to accept the idea that Taliban rule could make Afghanistan a haven for jihadists once again. However, rather than tackle this with troops, he prefers striking from a distance – which is already the practice in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.
By extending this approach to Syria, Biden may conclude that he does not need soldiers on the ground to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS).
A softer line with a lion
Biden never cared much about Syria, and while he approved of the campaign against the Islamic State, he opposed broader participation in the conflict when he was vice president under Barack Obama. There are already hints that he may take a softer stance with Bashar al-Assad, as he recently exempted a gas deal between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon from US Caesar sanctions. Keeping US forces in eastern Syria to deprive Assad of oil may not be the strong motivation he once was.
However, there are reasons why the SDF is optimistic. First, Biden has been defiant to Afghanistan, but he will be wary of attracting more negative press by abandoning another ally soon. This alone suggests that even if Biden is eager to leave Syria, he may delay until the post-Kabul criticism subsides.
Second, the operation in Syria is much less expensive than the operation in Afghanistan. While the US still had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2018, down to 4,000 before the withdrawal, it has only 900 supporting the SDF. Added to this is that Syria is no longer a living theater now that the ISIS caliphate has been largely destroyed, so US casualties remain low and Biden faces less internal pressure to withdraw.
Then there is the international dimension. Key regional allies—particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia—want the United States to remain in eastern Syria to protect against Iran’s entry. However, another ally, Turkey, is eager for the United States to leave so that it can crack down on the SDF unhindered, believing that its most powerful faction, the Democratic Union Party, is a Kurdish nationalist terrorist. Biden cannot please all of his allies, but there is certainly no regional consensus pressing him to leave.
For now, then, even if Biden prefers an exit, there is little internal or external momentum for an abrupt withdrawal. However, that could change. In particular, the dynamics between Turkey and Russia in Syria are important, and events in Afghanistan could have an echo there.
One of Russia’s long-term goals is to return eastern Syria to Assad’s hands, which would give Damascus’s beleaguered economy access to much-needed oil fields. But unlike rebel-held Idlib, which Assad and Moscow seem intent on capturing militarily, Russia’s strategy in the east appears compelling. Ideally, you want the SDF to accept a settlement with Assad and ask the Americans to leave.
Read also: “Fox News” reveals mysterious flights from the Emirates to Afghanistan .. What did you transmit!?
This is not far-fetched. The PYD had a good relationship with both Assad and Russia before the civil war in Syria and there is one faction that sees the future of the SDF under the protection of Damascus and Moscow rather than Washington. Indeed, when Trump allowed Turkey to invade in 2019, the SDF immediately looked to Moscow, which brokered a ceasefire in exchange for Russian and Assad forces gaining positions in SDF-controlled territory.
Turkey’s activities also help Russia push the SDF to trade sides. Ankara increasingly sees the PYD as its number one concern in Syria, with defeating Assad and defending the rebels high on the list of priorities. As it struggles to moderate Idlib’s extremist rebels, and Russian airstrikes thwart Ankara there, the front with the SDF to the east is one of the few areas of Turkish success.
As a result, it has escalated its attacks on SDF positions, either with drones or using its allied Syrian rebel proxies. Each time it does so, and Washington fails to respond, it adds more evidence to Moscow’s claim that only Russia can protect the SDF from Turkey. Ankara may in fact be open to some kind of eventual agreement between Assad, the SDF and Russia, as long as that ultimately means disarming or neutralizing the PYD.
Both Moscow and Ankara will feel that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want.
For Turkey, this indicates a lack of interest and staying power that may, at the very least, see Washington tolerate Ankara’s raids on SDF positions, and at best see the United States cut off and accelerate.
For Vladimir Putin, Biden gave him a doubt to plant in the minds of the leaders of the SDF. Even if the White House had no plans to leave eastern Syria immediately, and faced little pressure to do so, both Russia and Turkey would try to exploit the fallout from Afghanistan to advance their goals, which might ultimately hasten the American departure anyway.