The War for Post-U.S. Syria Has Begun
As the Trump administration withdraws its troops from northern Syria, the country is becoming a regional free-for-all.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria this week triggered two conversations in capitals across the region. The more immediate was about whether the U.S. government could be trusted as a partner, given its apparent abandonment of the Kurds. (Admittedly, Washington’s credibility deficit predates President Donald Trump’s surprise gambit.)
The other conversation was less specific, but also more consequential. It concerns how Syria’s remaining international players will arrive at a new political equilibrium. The U.S. withdrawal creates further strategic and moral chaos in Syria’s eight-year-long conflict, but it remains unclear who will gain full advantage. Already, some existing partnerships are breaking up, while others are deepening.
What’s already clear is that deeper divisions are likely to emerge among Russia, Iran, and Turkey, three actors that previously had mostly been united in their opposition to U.S. interests in the region. Though in recent months leaders from Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara—as the so-called Astana Group—have been working toward conflict resolution in Syria through the framework of the Russia-led Syrian constitutional committee, disagreements among them have prevented serious progress. As Turkey stages its incursion into territory previously held by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, Russia’s reaction has been rooted in a mix of implicit apprehension and explicit platitudes about integrity and restraint. The Kremlin’s frustrations will grow as Turkey expands its attacks in a way that further risks the constitutional committee’s progress and jeopardizes Bashar al-Assad’s consolidation of power.
Meanwhile, in the powerful Arab capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the news of the U.S. withdrawal has been met with consternation. Less than a year ago, the UAE reestablished its diplomatic ties in Syria with the reopening of its embassy in Damascus. Since then, the UAE has become a key part of the conflict resolution process in Syria, mainly through back channels with the Syrian government established with Russian encouragement.
During this process, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs and the second-most-powerful foreign-policy actor in the country after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has rejected Turkey’s plans to establish a buffer zone in Syria of the sort it is now pursuing. During a televised interview earlier this year, Gargash was clear: “The United Arab Emirates has great sympathy with the Kurds and is in favor of the Kurds’ protection within the framework of a unified Syria.” He went on to emphasize: “My country is worried about the statements from Turkey regarding the Syrian Kurdish forces, and we believe the Turkish threat is a real hazard. … Any intervention of nonlocals in Arab lands, we consider to be negative.”
In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the U.S. withdrawal will further deepen the tensions with Turkey that have flared in recent months over the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar blockade, and the disappearance and death last year of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis have expended capital—diplomatic and economic—to ease tensions between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Arab tribes in northern Syria, and they will not be happy about Turkish aggression that threatens that work.
The events of recent months mark an abrupt worsening of Saudi-Turkey relations since their strong alliance in the years after the 2003 Iraq War, when they both sought to prevent that country from falling into the hands of Iran. Back then, sectarian divisions in the region produced a deepening coalition among Riyadh, Ankara, and other Sunni regimes. It may yet do so again, especially if nonstate sectarian groups gain strength in Syria in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.
It was not so long ago, after all, that the Islamic State was wreaking havoc across the region, fashioning itself, as the scholar Vali Nasr notes, “as heir to the great Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, who ruled over a vast empire from Damascus and Baghdad.” The U.S. withdrawal from Syria will kindle fears in Iran (and among its clients) of a galvanized Sunni insurgency through a renascent Islamic State that will swell support for Shiite insurgent groups in response. (Not entirely unlike how the United States turned to the Kurds for help in fighting the Islamic State and later in successfully detaining and monitoring up to 90,000 suspected militants.) Four years ago, Iran-backed Shiite militias fought Islamic State soldiers in Iraq’s heartland; a similar confrontation may well happen again, this time in Syria. Observers in recent days have reported on the Islamic State’s revival in the Syrian city of Raqqa. If sectarianism flares up widely again in the region, the tentative signs of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia may well be abandoned, with Riyadh and other Sunni powers, chief among them Turkey, reluctantly hedging the Islamic State as a defender of Sunni interests, if a problematic one.
For now, this week has borne witness to a rare occurrence in the geopolitics of the Middle East—cross-national agreement among almost every regional country except Turkey. They all agree that Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria threatens not only the future of the Kurds but also the basic stability of the entire country. And so, the clearest result of the U.S. decision to withdraw has been a guarantee that the eight-year conflict will rumble on with no end in sight.