Implications of the new order in Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the conflict in Syria as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien stand by in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner - RC1CA1D434F0

The situation in northeast Syria is still in flux, but it appears that the militarily strong powers have at least temporarily worked out a modus vivendi with regard to the size and location of the Turkish-controlled buffer zone: an arrangement blessed by the Trump administration. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), for their part, have cast their lot in with the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian backers, ending or at least diminishing the autonomy they enjoyed for several years. U.S. forces will largely or entirely be redeployed, although the U.S. presence in neighboring Iraq will continue.

The new situation upends the region and has potentially profound consequences for the United States and its allies. However, and without dwelling on this point, President Trump’s actions suggest a different conception and prioritization of traditional U.S. interests in the Middle East. The U.S. departure helps Iran and the Islamic State, hurts Israel and Saudi Arabia, and otherwise goes against historic U.S. concerns. The president, however, appears to prioritize removing U.S. troops from active war zones over these long-standing interests.

Assuming traditional U.S. interests, potential implications include:

  • An ongoing conflict within Syria. The Syrian regime was steadily consolidating power before the Turkish invasion, although large parts of the country remained (and still remain) outside its full control. However, the creation of a buffer zone suggests Turkey will stay in Syrian territory for years to come and is likely to resettle Syrian refugees there. This presence will remain an enduring concern of the Syrian government and a focus of its foreign policy.
  • A marginal Islamic State comeback. The potential release of prisoners (the scope and scale are unclear as of this writing) and, more importantly, the relaxation of SDF pressure, give the Islamic State more capacity and freedom of movement. The Islamic State may find more local allies and will exploit any easing of pressure. However, the Islamic State remains weak, with Iraqi pressure continuing to be strong. Russia, Syria, and Turkey all have their own reasons for attacking the Islamic State, though it probably will be less of a priority for them than it was for the SDF.
  • Less faith in the United States. The abrupt U.S. departure and abandonment of the SDF — and the failure to coordinate the withdrawal with the United Kingdom, France, or regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia — displayed a contempt for traditional partners and will diminish their confidence in U.S. security guarantees. They are less likely to consult with Washington before acting and less likely to partner with America because of the greater risk of abandonment. Unfortunately, the administration’s contempt for allies is displayed in other theaters, and the implications will be profound and lasting.

They are less likely to consult with Washington before acting and less likely to partner with America because of the greater risk of abandonment.

  • Russia as a power broker. Although Russia is not liked by many U.S. regional allies, it is respected for its decisive action and for delivering for its Syrian ally. Russia has helped broker Turkish-Syrian relations in northeast Syria and is otherwise setting itself up as the go-to outside power. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states recognize the Russian role (and the diminished U.S. role) and will increase engagement with Moscow. 
  • A break with Turkey? The apparent U.S. green light to Turkey — and then the ensuing sanctions and rhetorical chastisement — may represent the worst of both worlds, enabling Turkey to act in ways detrimental to U.S. interests yet simultaneously angering Ankara. Making this more complex, both President Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personalize politics and diplomacy, and the hostility between the two leaders will reduce cooperation between the two states.

All of these are negative outcomes. Many are not primarily caused by the Trump administration’s latest decisions, but they all are exacerbated by them. Should a different administration take office, it will have to navigate far more difficult terrain in the Middle East as a result.

This piece was originally commissioned and funded by the U.S. government. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of the government.