Possible US withdrawal hands Syria over to Moscow

US and Russian presidents at Helsinki summit Monday, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)

Possible US withdrawal hands Syria over to Moscow

US and Russian presidents at Helsinki summit Monday, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)

US and Russian presidents at Helsinki summit Monday, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)


Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team

Seven months passed after the production of a press file published by Enab Baladi and talked about the massive return of the United States to the Syrian scene after statements by US President, Donald Trump, in which he said that “our country’s relations with Russia are going through the worst political crisis.”  However, the scene has turned upside down and the threats turned into a rapprochement and a “close relationship” after the summit that brought Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin together, and reflected a new phase in the relations between the two parties, with the Syrian stage being the place where the outcomes of this will be acted out.  


The summit came at a period of time interspersed with major developments from the American side, whose strategy differed radically from previous years. The strategy it adopted regarding the Syrian file since the early years of the revolution has shifted to a gradual withdrawal from several areas in Syria, including Daraa province and areas controlled by “Syrian Democratic Forces”(SDF) in Manbij and the Eastern area.

The summit between Trump and Putin is still the top  concern of the world and a landmark event between two international poles. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years following several disputes, including Russia annexation of the Crimea of ​​Ukraine in 2014, and the subsequent charges against Moscow regarding its intervention in the 2016 US presidential elections.

The focus is now on the outcome of the summit at the international level on the one hand, and the Arab region on the other hand. The Syrian file tops the list of regional developments in the region, which reached a “decisive” stage after years of armed conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition.


Manbij, Euphrates shield and east Euphrates

A “sudden” US withdrawal from three cases

Since the beginning of the year, America’s policy in Syria has not been clear, and its strategy has been described as vague and ambiguous, especially with respect to areas controlled by the local forces supported by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and the “Free Army” factions.

America’s policy in Syria may have become clear in June, after the map reached by America with Turkey in the city of Manbij, which led to the complete withdrawal of the “People’s Protection Units ” (Kurdish) from the city. It was agreed that joint patrols should be conducted until the formation of a local council to manage service and civilian life, which was considered a sudden withdrawal of the most prominent forces that it supports in Syria.

The roadmap reflected the American volatile attitude. It became clear that Washington’s policy could not be trusted. This was confirmed by the position it had taken as regards the city of Afrin after it considered that the Turkish army’s battle could not be stopped to protect “national security.”

It did not stop at Manbij, Daraa province was the symbol of “the greatest disappointment” by America after it stopped supporting the “Free Army” factions, in conjunction with the military operation launched by al- Assad forces with Russian support.

The US withdrawal was shortened to a letter to the military factions in Daraa, which stated “We in the US government understand the difficult circumstances you are facing now, and we continue to advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to take any military action that violates the tension-easing zone in southwestern Syria.”

America explained its position, “We understand that you must make your decision according to your interests and the interests of your people and your faction the way you see it, and you should not base your decision on the assumption or expectation of our military intervention.” It added “This decision should be made on the basis of your assessment of your interests and the interests of your people. This assessment and decision are your responsibility. ”

The reasons for the US withdrawal from the South case have not been revealed, and while political analysts linked it to Russia’s acceptance to remove the Iranian presence from Syria, others attributed it to the conflict of interests between the Russians and Americans in other regions, but that did not change the idea of America’s withdrawal, especially since it is a guarantor of the “ease of tension” agreement that Daraa joined in July last year.

As for the main US-backed area in Syria, the eastern region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it was also not immune to America’s volatile politics. Washington sent a letter earlier this July to the international coalition against the Islamic state, which stated that “Members of the coalition must take part in carrying the burden militarily and financially north-east of Syria,” that is, they should provide about 300 million US dollars, and deploy special forces units to fill the vacuum created by the gradual withdrawal of US forces.

Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Western sources and said that Trump is on his way to take a decision by the beginning of next November, where he will declare the US gradual withdrawal from north-east Syria within a period that may last eight months.

The newspaper said that the Pentagon has begun studies to define the military withdrawal, including reducing the US presence and increasing the presence of allies, with the symbolic presence of air forces to encourage other nations to stay on the ground.

The previous changes prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to open channels of communication with the Syrian regime as a preemptive step for the withdrawal, which would open the way for the Turks to begin a process to restore the southern border, which is fully controlled by the Kurdish forces.

During the third founding conference of the “Syrian Democratic Council”, which ended on July 16, consensus was reached on starting the dialogue with the Syrian regime, with offices  to be opened in the capital Damascus, Lattakia, Homs and Hama.


America “hands over” … the regime wins over

The previous developments opened the door to questions about the reason that led Washington to this sensitive phase of the Syrian file, which was close to the end of military operations, waiting for the political map to be imposed on them after eight years of armed conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition.


Russia guardianship

The executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre in Washington, Mohammad al-Abdallah, said that US policy is growing increasingly to relinquish influence in Syria and accept the Russian-Syrian narrative that the conflict is in its final stages and on its way to resume its pre-conflict state.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Abdallah said that President Trump undermined previous efforts by the United States to support the Geneva Declaration and the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

In the past months, America has committed itself to the idea that it will not allow Russia to make a unilateral solution and that there is no political solution without American approval.  It indicated earlier that it is working to thwart the “Sochi” talks before they are held, by convincing its allies in the United Nations not to recognize them, which prompted Moscow at the time to accuse Washington of blocking the conference through statements, which negatively affect the position of the Syrian opposition, and push groups of opposition not to take clear positions of the conference, in reference to “the High Negotiations Committee.”

The recent press conference of Trump and Putin, which took place after the Helsinki Summit on 16 July, was an indication of the two leaders’ disregard for a detailed view of the Syrian context. According to al-Abdallah, Trump was unable to recognize the inadequacy of the current policy in light of the complexity of the situation on the ground. He stressed in his speech the need to “help the Syrian people return to some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis”.

Al-Abdallah considered that President Trump’s direct and unprecedented military strikes on Syrian military installations in response to the use of chemical weapons in Douma were only selective, and that other war crimes or crimes against humanity would have no consequences and would not be followed by serious calls for justice.

US and Russian presidents at Helsinki Summit, Monday, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)

US and Russian presidents at Helsinki Summit, Monday, July 16, 2018 (Reuters)

Al-Assad is taking action

According to a report published by Syria Justice & Accountability Centre on July 20, the Syrian regime has taken several measures in conjunction with the Helsinki Summit between Trump and Putin.

These measures include the return of refugees, reconstruction and the issue of persons who are missing and who’s absence has had ‘serious repercussions’.

According to the Center, the Syrian regime is seeking to find quick solutions that shall fail to sufficiently address  complex issues in other areas as well, including those related to detainees and torture.

Enab Baladi has recently noticed the increasing number of cases in which the families of detainees in a number of areas have announced the death of their sons in the prisons of the Syrian regime, which uses the personal status departments to announce their death, after it used to hand over their sons’ personal belongings with a small paper stating that they had died because of a health condition.

The legal Center considers that instead of giving up all pressure points for Russia, US President Trump should have worked closely with allies to formulate a long-term vision to deal with the enormous challenges posed by the Syrian conflict. It pointed out that, in the absence of US leadership, it is high time that European countries fill the gap of influence to prevent Russian interests in Syria from going undeterred.


Syrian oil does not attractive enough for US greed

Although there are indications that US forces will leave the east of the Euphrates in the upcoming period, economic objectives are still a factor that could push the USA to remain in the area for the foreseeable future.

Economic analysts attributed the US presence in the east of the Euphrates to the efforts to control Syrian oil, whose most important fields are majorly controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which took them over after launching a military operation called Island Storm in September last year .

During the operation, the Syrian Democratic Forces took control over the most important oilfields, including the strategic al-Omar Oilfield, Syria’s largest oilfield, in eastern Deir ez-Zor. Its production before the Syrian revolution reached about 30,000 barrels per day.

The Forces also took control over al-Tank oilfield, the second largest oilfield, as well as the oilfields of al-Ward, al-Taym, al-Jaffrah, Conoco and T2 station, located on the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline. In al-Hasakah, there are Rmelan oilfields and the oilfields that are located in al-Shaddadah, al-Jibsa and al-Hawl, as well as some small oilfields in Raqqa.

However, the expert in the field of oil and mineral wealth, Abdel Qader al-Alaf, believes that Syria’s oil is nothing compared to the oil quantities in neighboring countries, especially Iraq, where there is a US presence.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Alaf said that Syrian oilfields do not tempt the US and other countries, and that Syria’s production of oil before the revolution did not attract the US and other countries’ greed to make their efforts and remain in the area for their main allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. He pointed out that the extracted oil quantities may cover their support for their allies rather than directly support them.

However, al-Alaf does not consider that this necessarily means a US withdrawal from the Syrian territory. He rather believes that it will remain in the region for the foreseeable future for several reasons, one of which is the fact that its presence in Syria is linked to its influence in Iraq, especially that it is involved in and is morally and internationally responsible for the Iraqi issue, besides its desire to cut the Tehrani land road.

Al-Alaf pointed out that Washington has not been able to stay in Iraq, while it is present in Syria under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces and under the pretext of fighting ISIS and thus staying near Iraq to extend its security there and hinder the Iranian influence that impedes the course of reform and combating corruption.

The USA also wants to cut off the road connecting Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq and Syria, which is a “gold trophy for Iran,” according to what the US Associated Press news agency, because of its strategic importance on the military and economic levels, as it is considered a dream Iran has long sought to realize to take control over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Tehran had planned to open a road through the border region of al-Tanf, in southern Syria. However, the entry of US troops and the establishment of a military base in the region in 2016 messed things up and sent warnings to Iran and the Syrian regime not to get closer to al-Tanf, prompting Tehran to search for a new outlet through the Syrian territories and turn its interest towards al-Bukamal.


The stationing of US forces in the village of al-Ghannama in the city of al-Darbasiyah on the Syrian-Turkish borders – 1 May 2017 - (Enab Baladi)

The stationing of US forces in the village of al-Ghannama in the city of al-Darbasiyah on the Syrian-Turkish borders – 1 May 2017 – (Enab Baladi)

Opinion poll: US role in Syria is nearing to an end

An opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi newspaper on its website and through its Facebook page showed that most readers and followers have suggested that the US role in Syria is most likely to end.

Enab Baladi asked its readers: “According to you, is the US role in Syria nearing an end?”

44 percent of the total 863 respondents answered “yes”, while 38 percent of them answered “no”. 18 percent of them chose not to decide, and replied, “I do not know.”



Winners and Losers

Possible US withdrawal… A “prize” and a “slap”

The possible US withdrawal draws a new image of the Syrian issue at the military and political levels. This threatens the Syrian map with the prevalence of the red color (*representing government & pro-government forces: Assad, Russia, Iran) at the expense of the green color (*representing rebels: FSA, moderate rebels – Ahrar Al Sham, Jaish al Islam etc – more radical groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and the yellow color (*representing the Kurds: YPG, PKK, Peshmerga, other), while it takes Russia to Sochi as waving the Geneva course with its not yet solved humanitarian, human rights and political files. (*Source: https://syria.liveuamap.com)

This image is predicted by the secretly-signed ambiguous deals between Russia and US during the recent meeting of Trump and Putin in Helsinki, while it leaves the non-explicit declaration of a withdrawal plan, and the remnants of the US interests as margins for the possibility of a partial US existence on the territory and at the political level.

In the event of such a withdrawal, several local, regional and international actors will be directly and indirectly affected. While it will be a prize in the form of a “state” for Russia and the regime, it will be a historic “slap” for the Kurdish project carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces.


Russia wins the land and the political course over

According to Sasha al-Alou, a researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, the US withdrawal from the Syrian territories means a near complete withdrawal from the Syrian file, and thus authorizing Moscow to complete the military arrangements on the ground in preparation for the imposition of a political solution.

These “arrangements” would give free rein to the regime to take control over the rest of the Syrian territories, after the opposition lost control over several areas during the first months of this year, starting from the eastern Ghouta, reaching eastern Qalamoun, the northern countryside of Homs and southern Damascus, up to Daraa.

El Alu pointed out that: “This will eventually affect the Geneva course, to which the opposition is holding, in favor of the Sochi course, and therefore the priorities of the solution will shift from political transition to constitutional arrangements, from the basket of elections and adjusting the political process in accordance with the Russian vision.”

In addition to the military and political gains, some of the unsolved issues are being re-assigned, giving Russia a greater role and giving it power to roles it has not played before, especially concerning the humanitarian file and the refugee crisis.

The Russian Defense Ministry recently said that Moscow had proposed to Washington a joint plan for the repatriation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Jordan to Syria during the Helsinki Summit. Russia has also started carrying out coordination tasks regarding the humanitarian support for war-affected people in several Syrian areas.


The opposition will pay … Politically 

According to the researcher Sasha al-Alou, “the US withdrawal from Syria does not mean that the opposition is losing the ground, because the areas of US presence are not opposition areas in the first place. Therefore, it is more accurate to say that the effect will manifest into expanding the control of the regime and Russia over Syrian territory, especially since these areas are rich in resources “.

Al-Alou believes that “the greatest impact on the opposition will be at the political level,” considering that Russia can seize the ground and shift the political track in accordance with its vision.

This will necessarily be reflected on the course of Geneva, onto which the opposition is holding , in favor of Sochi.


US fighters carrying out drills to fight ISIS at al-Tanf base on the Iraqi border - 22 November, 2017 (US Department of Defense)

US fighters carrying out drills to fight ISIS at al-Tanf base on the Iraqi border – 22 November, 2017 (US Department of Defense)


Turkish interest… and a “smack” for the Kurds

Any withdrawal or possible roll-back of the American role will turn tables on Kurds in Syria, for their interests are directly linked to the presence of US forces, which puts them in confrontation with the Turkish threat and the re-enactment of the scenario of Afrin in Upper Mesopotamia, where Syrian Democratic Forces are stationed.

According to al-Alou, “the US withdrawal from Syria is in Ankara’s favour, for the American positions in Syria have always hindered the Turkish role and enhanced its concerns, especially in terms of offering protection and support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Al-Alou believed that the withdrawal of the US marks the end of the PYD project, thus easing the Turkish concerns.”

With regard to Turkey’s role at the political level, al-Alou pointed out that “the US withdrawal may further strengthen Ankara’s cooperation with Moscow, thus re-establishing the Turkish role especially that the Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria was more successful than US-Turkish cooperation, and more.

The United States has established more than 15 bases and military sites in eastern Syria.

As for the Turkish interest, the United States did not make any real concessions that would ease the concerns of the Turks.

Al-Alou referred to Manbij and how the entry process was a”joint action between Turkey and America was limited and exact.” Whereas in Tel Rifaat and Afrin Moscow offered much more through full cooperation with Turkey in order to establish full control.

At the political level, too, “Ankara and Moscow share common objectives and concerns, working on a common path, namely Astana, while the United States and Turkey in Syria do not share any significant interest in Syria” said al-Alou.

Securing Israel and Curbing Iranian power

The press conference held between Trump and Putin after the Helsinki summit focused on the need to ensure Israel’s security. Putin called for “the restoration of calm in the Golan Heights and commitment to the disengagement agreement in 1974 after the final elimination of terrorists in southern Syria.”

As for Trump, “he praised the coordination between the Russian and the American military in Syria,” and stressed that “Washington seeks Israel’s security, and cooperation with Russia and Israel to resolve the situation in Syria.”

Russian president’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev headed to Tehran for a meeting with the Iranian Supreme Security Council to brief members about the outcome of the Helsinki summit, held between the Russian president and his US counterpart, Donald Trump, according to the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat

Most probably Lavrentiev has asked Tehran to implement Putin and Trump understandings, which include the withdrawal of heavy artillery to 80 kilometers of the “disengagement line” in the Golan Heights, the presence of regime forces and the activation of the “disengagement” of 1974 and that 1200 members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces” (UNDOF) will make sure these measures are implemented.

Although Iranian diplomatic circles denied these details, several indicators have recently revealed a Russian tendency toward curbing Iran’s role in Syria.

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