US withdrawal from Syria shakes up Middle East

US withdrawal from Syria shakes up Middle East
President Trump’s order will withdraw about 2,000 American troops from Syria. (Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)
JERUSALEM, Dec 21 (Agencies) | Publish Date: 12/21/2018 12:05:38 PM IST

The American decision to withdraw from Syria has abruptly scrambled the geopolitics of the Middle East, clearing the way for Iran to expand its influence across the region, leaving Israel virtually alone to stop it, and raising the prospect that thousands of Islamic State prisoners could be set free.

Beyond the region, President Trump’s announcement ricocheted Thursday from Moscow, where it was praised, to Washington, where it was the catalyst for the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The decision shows that even a relatively small move — the United States has only about 2,000 troops in Syria — can have far-reaching consequences in a complex war, leaving allies struggling to cope and adversaries pleased and emboldened.

“Donald’s right, and I agree with him,” said President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose influence over Syria can only grow more dominant as the United States exits.

Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad also stand to reap enormous immediate benefits from the American withdrawal.

On the other hand, allies like the Kurdish forces who fought alongside the United States in Syria feel betrayed and are threatening to free thousands of Islamic State prisoners if the United States abandons them.

Israel, which hoped the American presence in Syria would block Iran from completing its corridor to the sea, now has to reckon with a new reality.

“This leaves us alone in the arena with the Russians,” said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Israeli defense official. “We are alone in the battle against Iran in Syria.”

As the American decision ripples across the region, many countries will be forced to reassess their relationships. The result could be a series of new balancing acts: Israel trying to tilt Russia against Iran, Turkey playing Russia and the United States off one another, and Syria balancing the Kurds against Turkey, among others.

“You look at any country in this region, and they can’t trust us, and they don’t want to trust the Russians, but who else is there?” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel who now teaches at Princeton.

The American presence in Syria was particularly vexing for Iran, preventing Iranian-backed militias from crossing into Syria from Iraq. A pullout would free Tehran to treat the Iraqi border as fully porous, easing the movement of fighters and weapons — and potentially of the advanced missiles and other weapons through Syria to Hezbollah, Iran’s partner in Lebanon.

That freedom of movement could also ease the pain of American sanctions, which are damaging Iran’s economy. “The area is oil-rich,” said Lina Khatib, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London. “So removing U.S. troops could increase the chances of Iran getting its hands on oil fields in the northeast.”

No constituency stands to lose more from a United States withdrawal than its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria. As if to signal that it would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday.

Mostapha Bali, the spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, denied there was any discussion of releasing prisoners from the Islamic State. “Any news coming from such sources is not reliable and is not coming from us,” he said.

But a Western official from the United States-led coalition fighting in Syria, which includes more than a dozen countries, confirmed that such discussions had taken place.

“The best result of terrible options is probably for the Syrian regime to take custody of these people,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not permitted to speak publicly. “If they are released it’s a real disaster and major threat to Europe.”

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