US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the remaining American troops from Syria came as a surprise, but the writing was on the wall already in April, when the he announced his intention to do so. This move effectively implies leaving the Syrian territory to Russia and Iran, who strive to control Syria, if not the entire Middle East.
In 1965, British journalist Patrick Seale published a book called The Struggle for Syria, in which he described the international conflicts between the USSR and the US and between Egypt and Iraq over Syria since the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. More than 50 years later, the struggle over Syria is ongoing in full force, but it now seems to have been decided. Unlike the past, when the US struggled to maintain its influence in the Middle East, it has now decided to abandon the region.
The civil war in Syria, since 2011, has witnessed unprecedented involvement of internal and external players – more than any other conflict in the region. Upon the beginning of the civil war, the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia helped the Free Syrian Army – the most significant opposition group – when the goal of the pro-Western coalition was to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime. This coalition was joined by Turkey, which not only attempted at toppling the regime, but also ensured that neither the Kurds nor Islamic State would establish territorial outposts in Syria.
Despite the ideological differences, the establishment of a Kurdish and/or Islamic state on the Turkish border was perceived as a serious threat, while Iran and Hezbollah rushed to assist Assad, followed by Russia who only joined in 2015. The involvement of so many players in the campaign confirmed Seale’s perception that whoever controls Syria also controls the Middle East. This perception results from Syria’s geostrategic role as a link between the Gulf region and the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, in the absence of other Arab allies, Syria has become an important anchor of Russia’s and Iran’s policies in the region.
The withdrawal of the US is not substantial militarily. A 2,000-soldier force, however efficient it may be, cannot significantly alter the balance of power. In fact, the fight over Syria was decided already in 2015, when it became clear that Russia showed relentless resolve to attain its objectives in Syria, in contrast to the hesitancy that the Obama administration demonstrated.
The talks in Astana and Sochi in recent years in an attempt to find a political settlement between the countries involved and the factions in Syria did not include the US. Therefore, Washington has long lost a central role in shaping the new political order in Syria. Yet, the withdrawal of American forces from Syria still holds a symbolic and moral significance that will adversely affect not only the US position in the region in general, but also its allies.
It symbolizes the failure of the US in Syria and the Middle East in general, and emphasizes the absence of a clear strategy and its lack of commitment to recognized allies. Paradoxically, Trump’s policy continues the policy of his predecessor president Barack Obama: first, by gradually withdrawing from the Middle East, and second by betraying his allies.
What does the recent American move mean for Israel? The implications for Israel are not significant, since even prior to this withdrawal, the US no longer played a major role in the Syrian playground. Unlike the Cold War, Israel’s situation today is better because it maintains a dialogue with Russia.
In addition, the fact that Russia and Iran do not necessarily share common interests in Syria may allow Israel to receive Russia’s help in preventing Iran from being even more influential in a Russian-controlled territory. If during the civil war Russia and Iran had a shared objective to secure the Assad regime, then after reaching this goal it is quite possible that competition over the rebuilding of Syria in the aftermath of the civil war may increase the rivalry between the two countries.
In any event, after seven years of bloody civil war that led to the destruction of the country, the death of half a million people and the creation of millions of refugees, Syria poses no threat to Israel. Moreover, based on past experience, the Syrian regime has kept the situation at the Syrian-Israeli border quiet and stable.
The bad news is that the victory of the “axis of resistance” in Syria has given a tailwind to those who are active on the northern front against the West and Israel. The fight over Syria is over for now, but the final word has not yet been said.
Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.