The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria abandons a five-year project that kept a full third of Syria free from Assad’s control. That region has Syria’s richest oil and agricultural resources, as well as millions of innocent people — mostly Sunni Arabs — who held out against Assad and his partners for almost nine years. But now, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have made a deal with the Assad regime after being left high and dry by the United States.
Since Trump ordered the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria late Saturday, the U.S. military has been leaving Syrian towns where it has been present for years. Regime-allied Russian forces took control of the city of Manbij yesterday. Regime elements and their Russian partners are already moving into the cities of Kobane and Raqqa.
But that’s just the beginning. Turkey seems interested only in a safe zone along its border. The rest of Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Hasakah provinces will now inevitably fall into regime hands, sooner rather than later. That spells disaster for the millions of previously liberated Syrians who live there and could mean imprisonment, torture and death for thousands of local activists, journalists and anyone else who dared to oppose Assad’s slaughter.
“In withdrawing from Syria, the administration is handing on a silver platter a third of Syria to the Assad regime and Iran,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. “All the Syrian journalists, humanitarians and civilians that seek democracy in Syria will be subjugated to the machinery of death that is Assad’s prisons.”
The regime has brutally punished any perceived opponents in places it already took over, including Homs and Aleppo. In the northeast, many local activists worked with the SDF, who are now working with the regime. All of their lives are now at grave risk.
“There quickly will be many people in government detention, and the Syrian government will insist on setting up its own judicial system that has received international criticism for years for violating a host of judicial norms and basic human rights,” said Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. The Assad regime will co-opt any local leaders it can and eventually punish the rest, he said.
A little farther south, where U.S. forces haven’t yet withdrawn, they are coming into conflict with advancing regime and affiliated forces, striking them from the air to protect their own position. In Deir al-Zour province, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units and Iranian-backed militias are just waiting for U.S. troops to leave so they can take over that province, as well. U.S. officials said Monday a small U.S. military contingent would remain in a base called Tanf, for now, but that could change in a tweet.
Iran will then control not only most of the country’s oil and agricultural resources but also will cement its ability to move people and weapons over a huge swath of land from Tehran to Beirut. Trump is handing Iran more power and wealth than it ever got as part of the Obama-era nuclear deal.
Iran’s logistical task in supporting Hezbollah will become greatly simplified, said former State Department Syria official Frederic C. Hof, now at the Atlantic Council. Meanwhile, extremism in these areas will only increase as people continue to resist Assad and Iran’s control.
“State terror by the Assad regime to civilians is what gave rise to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the first place,” said Hof. “Assad and his allies will inevitably give ISIS space to resurrect itself.”
As if all of that weren’t bad enough, Trump’s hasty and unplanned troop withdrawal has also worsened the fate of millions of Syrians living in Idlib province, where the Assad regime and Russian war machines have actually stepped up their wanton killing of civilians with barrel bombs, chemical weapons and other instruments of war crimes. While the world looks away, Idlib is being destroyed.
Trump obviously doesn’t care about the fate of Syrian civilians. On Twitter, he publicly welcomed the idea of Assad retaking control of the parts of Syria that have remained free from his cruelty for almost nine years. Perhaps handing Syria over to Assad, Russia and Iran was Trump’s plan all along.
On a conference call Monday, a senior administration official said U.S. goals in Syria remain unchanged: defeating the Islamic State, rolling back Iran’s presence and pressuring Assad into a political solution. “The withdrawal of U.S. military forces is a change in the means that we use to try to achieve those ends,” the official said. “It’s not a change in the ends themselves.”
But those goals have now become virtually impossible to achieve thanks to Trump’s callousness, shortsightedness and stupidity. And for years to come, the world will be dealing with the consequences — including more terrorism, more refugees, more Iranian expansion, more war crimes, more Russian influence and a grim future for millions of innocent Syrians.