Broadly the situation in Syria is reminiscent of the Cold War but more complex due to several smaller proxy conflicts between regional state and non-state actors. The U.S.’ inability to bring peace to the ravaged country and Russia’s balancing in favor of its ally regime has led to an apparent Russian dominance.
The recent missile strikes carried out jointly by the U.S., the UK, and France against the Syrian regime in response to a suspected chemical attack in Douma, indicate that the U.S. remains struggling with its fractured policy in Syria. Surprisingly, the status-quo persists in the Syrian proxy theatre, even after the U.S.-led missile strikes. Although Russia had warned the U.S. that a military action could spark a war, it acted smart by not getting involved in a direct conflict, knowing that only limited precision strikes were carried out by the U.S and that no damage to Russian forces or its facilities was inflicted during the missile strikes.
On March 29, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would soon remove its forces from Syria. Soon after that, the White House announced a reversal of this decision and said the U.S. troops would stay in Syria. Following U.S. strikes on Syria, Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, announced that the U.S. would not pull its troops from Syria until its goals were achieved. Even before the Douma chemical attack incident, U.S. President Donald Trump was convinced by his national security team to keep U.S. troops in Syria.
Head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel said the U.S. must not withdraw from Syria because U.S. military’s role is needed in “stabilizing Syria, consolidating gains” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction”. Whether to stay or not, Trump’s policy on Syria seems confused and lacks coherence in contrast to Russia’s sturdy posture. Carrying out missile strikes against the Syrian regime even without final results of the OPCW investigation stipulates shaken and confused U.S. policy. The U.S. seemingly acted out of haste and nervousness just to signal its misconstructed predominance over the situation in Syria – which a superpower does to revitalize its control.
Trump has aligned himself with Neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton who have always pitched for military solutions and also insist that extremist groups would leap to fill the vacuum, in case the U.S. withdraws its troops from Syria. Two prominent fears are keeping the U.S. from calling back its troops from Syria: First is the re-emergence of IS (Daesh), and second is that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to filling up of vacuum by other actors, essentially by Russia and Iran.
Following the start of the Syrian civil war and emergence of IS, the U.S. remained hesitant in terms of direct actions against the militant group. Russia timely intervened to balance the situation in favour of its ally. The U.S. under Obama Administration remained unable to directly target IS, instead it started supporting Kurds and rebel forces against Daesh extremists. Russia, however, effectively targeted IS, pushing back the extremists and strengthening Assad regime. The U.S. has also failed in its diplomatic capacity to implement any meaningful cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Russia, however, seems ahead in this area too with parallel to Geneva peace process; the Astana and Sochi peace talks. In contrast to the UN-backed and U.S.-supported peace talks at Geneva, the Astana process, sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran remained successful in establishing de-escalation zones and ceasefires. The recent April 4 trilateral discussions on Syria purport a focussed Russian approach towards Syria. The tripartite meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran pledged to accelerate efforts to bring stability to Syria.
These developments undermine the U.S. influence in the Syrian peace process and add to Russia’s gains in the arena. This also highlights the fragmented U.S. policy on Syria, which is being exploited by Russia to secure its own interests and tilt the balance in its favor. So far, the U.S. has remained unable to achieve its primary goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad as well as establishing a sound peace process. It has failed in establishing any constructive mechanism for Syria in both diplomatic and reconstruction domains.
Russia has always been relatively successful in Syria in maintaining its active role during the civil war including its expedient intervention following the emergence of IS and protection to its ally President Assad. Its ally Turkey took the advantage already to push back the Kurdish militia and eliminate the threat. Although Turkey is in the anti-Bashar camp, it is at odds with the U.S. over the issue of Kurd militants (YPG) who are considered a major ally by the U.S. in its fight against IS.
The situation was further complicated by the recent alleged chemical attack in Syria by the Assad regime. The attack has given impetus to this thought of reconsidering the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In view of all these developments, if the U.S. withdraws from Syria, the following outcomes are most likely, and are also most feared by the U.S. military advisers:
With all the weapons that flowed into Syria especially the U.S. weapons in the hands of moderate rebels in Syria, militants would rise again and would be strengthened. Syria would resemble the post-Jihad Afghanistan, where the U.S. withdrew leaving behind scores of weapons and militants which endanger regional security and stability till date. The Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) militia was supported and armed by the U.S. as it was considered an effective U.S. ally in its fight against Daesh. Once the U.S. forces withdraw from Syria without leaving any sustainable peace and ceasefire framework, the Kurds would continue to be a threat to Turkey and with more weapons and training, the Kurdish independence movement along the Turkey-Syria border would intensify creating instability in the region specifically in Turkey.
IS might resurge in Syria posing a threat to regional and global stability. The aftermath of the Syrian war would leave a void similar to the vacuum created following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq which was subsequently filled by Al-Qaeda and IS. Russia and Iran would continue to consolidate their dominance in Syrian and regional affairs. Trump has already pointed out that it would not put money into rebuilding Syria, which implies the withdrawal would leave nothing constructive for Syria. Moreover, President Putin also warned that further military actions against Syria would destabilise the ongoing peace efforts. Russia would capitalize on this and actively involved in the rebuilding and development process in Syria, as it has already pledged to reconstruct the country’s energy sector.
As the Syrian conflict has entered in its eighth year, there is no visible end to this war. While the U.S. is struggling to exert influence through proxies, Russia continues to maintain an upper hand in the Syrian conflict and asserts itself through its diplomacy and conflict resolution processes. Whether Russia continues to be successful in countering the U.S. is yet to be seen, but the Syrian people are certainly losing amidst proxy wars in the country.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Muhammad Shoaib is a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII). He holds an MPhil in International Relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include the Middle East & West Asia, Nuclear Non-proliferation and Cyber-Security.