By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
President Trump campaigned vigorously on defeating the Islamic State in Syria. The U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have driven ISIS from Raqqa, the de facto capital of its caliphate. That puts the United States in an uncomfortable geopolitical situation.
What comes after the defeat of ISIS? Will the U.S. maintain a military presence in the eastern part of Syria?
Last spring, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent his army into the eastern part of the country, which was once held by the Islamic State and supported by al-Assad’s benefactors in Russia and Iran.
Three-Year ISIS Siege of Deir al-Zour Is Over
The latest intelligence shows that the Syrian army and its Hezbollah and Shiite militia allies have broken a three-year ISIS siege of Deir al-Zour. But instead of eradicating ISIS in Deir al-Zour, Assad and his foreign backers held back, fearing that the U.S.-backed SDF would take over the city.
Assad plans to use the city as a base to reconquer Syria’s rich oil fields. That would provide Iran with a key corridor to move equipment and materiel into Syria and to Iran’s proxy forces of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Now that the Syrian civil war is no longer an existential threat, Syria’s top priority is to secure the western part of the country. Damascus wants to prevent that territory from being taken over by the U.S.-backed SDF.
The Military and Geopolitical Balance Favors Damascus
The defeat of the Islamic State will present the United States with its greatest geopolitical dilemma. Will the U.S. risk threatening the Syrian government and provoke a confrontation with Russia and Iran, which are strong backers of Damascus?
Following the defeat of ISIS, the U.S. will be forced to deal with al Qaeda. But Russia, Iran and Turkey are preparing to mount a serious offensive against this jihadist group. Will the U.S. participate and strengthen the al-Assad government?
Eastern Syria is narrow. Any U.S. military operations there could increase the risk of hostile incidents against any or all of the three countries.
The Obama administration’s strategy toward Syria allowed Russia to enter the Middle East for the first time in decades. Obama’s failure to act decisively while the Syrian crisis was manageable and his singular focus on the Iran nuclear deal freed billions of much-needed revenue and gave financial sanctions relief to Tehran. Those assets have been used to prop up Assad, solidify Iran’s presence in Syria and Lebanon, and reinvigorate both countries.
The United States Faces a Knotty Problem in Syria
A solution to the U.S. dilemma has ramifications throughout the Middle East and is crucial for the future stability of Syria. If the U.S. remains in Syria, a confrontation with NATO ally Turkey is possible.
Turkey has long resented U.S. support for the Kurds, just as Ankara has always opposed a Kurdish state on its southern border. A continuation of Washington’s Kurdish policy has the potential to push Turkey closer to Russia and Iran.
1983 Bombing Deaths of 240 Marines in Beirut Forced US Out of Lebanon
If the U.S. decides to remain in Syria, it could potentially face the same lethal situation it faced in October 1983 during Lebanon’s civil war. More than 240 U.S. Marines were killed in a Hezbollah truck bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. The attack eventually led to the United States pulling out of the country.
Staying in Syria will force Washington to deal with the reconstruction in Eastern Syria and all of that country’s considerable tribal and ethnic problems.
However, if the United States decides to accept the defeat of ISIS, claim victory and withdraw from Syria, that decision would constitute a resounding victory for both Russia and Iran. In addition, U.S. influence and prestige in the region will be the weakest it has ever been.
A total withdrawal from Syria would be a cataclysmic loss of credibility for the U.S. in the Middle East and throughout the world. It would also further cement Russia and Iran as the dominant powers in the region. The withdrawal would reverberate throughout the globe as a sign of America’s weakness and signal to the world its decline.
Any precipitous U.S. withdrawal means abandoning our allies to their fate and forcing the Kurds closer to Moscow as protection from the threat of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, many Arab tribes in the Euphrates Valley would be left to their own devices and would have no choice but submit to the Assad regime.