Less than a month after United States President Donald Trump declared that the US troops in Syria would be called back, four Americans, including two soldiers, were killed on Wednesday in a suicide blast carried out by ISIS, the very terrorist group he had claimed to have routed.
According to reports, Wednesday’s toll matched the largest number of American deaths from hostile fire in a single incident overseas since Trump became president.
The anticipated US exit from Syria is replete with complexities. It does not appear to be as easy as the US troops’ entry into the Syrian conflict. The announcement prompted Defence Secretary James Mattis to resign. It has put the US and Turkey on a confrontational course, with Ankara planning a major military campaign against the very Kurdish militias with whom the US military had allied to fight ISIS. It is also being seen by Trump’s critics as another Trump move to placate the Russians, while recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post gave credence to claims that Trump was working for Russia.
But it must be mentioned that the US military presence in Syria is illegal. Whereas the Iranians, the Russians and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah entered Syria with invitations from the Syrian government, the US troops had no such invitation. The US boots on the Syrian ground were illegal and in violation of international law.
True, terrorism is a global scourge and should be eliminated, but no international norm or convention allows a nation to go after a terrorist target in another country without obtaining that country’s permission. But powerful states such as the US, Russia and Israel, in pursuit of their national interest goals, have no qualms about violating the sovereignty of other nations.
In the Syrian conflict, the US involvement was initially auxiliary. It played a supporting role in the Saudi-Qatari project to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime. The project was marketed as an Arab Spring uprising aimed at ousting a dictator, though the projects’ authors themselves were averse to democracy and free thought. The schemers thought that just as they got rid of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, they could easily topple the Assad regime. But Syria was a bigger geostrategic pivot for countries such as mighty Russia, rising regional power Iran and the Middle East’s only nuclear power, Israel.
Beneath the Arab Spring façade of the Syrian conflict are Big Oil and Saudi Arabia’s fears about a rising Iran. Saudi Arabia and Israel believed if Syria was cut off, Iran would not be able to send supplies to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a formidable military force which scored a moral victory resisting Israel during a month-long invasion in 2006. Then there was a botched Saudi-Qatari bid to build energy pipelines across Syria and Turkey to Europe. Syria opposed the proposal as it went against the national interest of its ally Russia, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the European energy market. Russia did not want Middle Eastern oil to glut the market and erode its clout on European nations. This explains Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Besides, Russia also has a military
base in Syria.
There is another oil chapter: The oil discovered in the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel is unable to export this oil as international law prohibits it to sell the resources of an occupied territory. Israel wants Assad ousted and set up an Israeli-friendly regime which will cede the Golan Heights to Israel. Then there is the ISIS issue. In hindsight, it now appears that the rise of ISIS was not a coincidence but was part of the project to oust Assad. The project worked as planned initially, with some Gulf nations providing military and financial support to the rebels. To win international legitimacy, they were called moderate rebels, despite their ISIS and al Qaeda links. The US trained them in camps in Jordan. But the project began to crumble, first with the entry of Iranian revolutionary guards and Hezbollah militia into the Syrian conflict, then with the arrival of the Russian troops and then with ISIS behaving like a Frankenstein’s unruly monster or a brutish evil force. With public opinion in support of a tough military response against ISIS building up in the US and other Western nations, the Barack Obama administration was compelled to act.
Washington’s war on ISIS began in Iraq. During this campaign, the US found itself on the same side as Iran which was providing military and material support to Iraqi paramilitary groups fighting ISIS.
After defeating the ISIS in Iraq, the US in late 2015 took the war to Syria, where it teamed up with Syrian Kurdish and a ragtag group of Arab fighters, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces. But in Syria, the ISIS rout is not solely an American feat. A bigger portion of the credit is due to the Russians, the Syrian government troops, the Iranians and the Hezbollah.
As Trump agrees to withdraw the 2,000-strong US military force from Syria, the Syrian Kurdish group YPG which allied with the Americans has become a military target for Turkey. This is because the YPG now controls a large swathe of territory bordering Turkey. Ankara sees this as a security threat because the YPG is an ally of the Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
Reacting angrily to Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton’s call that Turkey guarantee the security of the YPG militia, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said his government saw no difference between ISIS and the YPG.
As the US-Turkey war of words continued, Trump warned Erdogan that if Turkey dared to attack America’s allies in Syria, he would take measures to devastate Turkey’s economy. This week, the two leaders had a telephone conversation, following which Turkey decided to set up a security zone along the border and defer the military campaign.
It now appears that the US is phasing out the withdrawal from Syria, although Trump has said he is determined that the troops leave sooner rather than later. While Trump has succeeded in cajoling Erdogan to hold fire, the Russians, the Syrians and their Iranian allies are now on the outskirts of Manbij, taking on ISIS remnants. It is only a matter of time before they subdue the YPG, through military means or a surrender deal. The good news is that an end to the Syrian conflict is on the horizon. But the bad news is the conflict’s causes such as the Saudi-Iran rivalry and oil-driven politics remain unaddressed.