US Exit from Syria Empowers Putin and Iran, Leaves Sunni Bloc, Israel, Jordan, Iraq in the Lurch
The US troop exit from Syria announced by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, Dec. 19, blasted through the Middle East with seismic intensity. DEBKA Weekly offers a partial rundown of the fallout:
1. Russia: President Vladimir Putin becomes the unchallenged strongman of Syria for years to come. His army will no longer be restricted to a couple of bases but reign supreme in most parts of the country. Still, the Russian leader will be saddled with problems: He will have to contain Iran’s influence in Damascus and cope with a reemerging ISIS, while short of funds for the vast project of reconstruction facing Syria after a devastating seven-year war.
2. Iran: Also elevated in the power stakes is Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades. He can pose as a strong local potentate with an impressive resume. He was responsible for Iran’s decisive contribution to Bashar Assad’s victory against the Syrian insurgency; he remodeled Hizballah’s militia to become the strongest army in Lebanon; he designed the battle for wresting Kirkuk and its oilfields from Iraq’s Kurds; engineered Hamas’ nine-month anti-Israeli campaign from the Gaza Strip; and ensured Israel’s failure to uproot the Iranian military presence from Syria – all of these feats capped by the US exit from Syria, for which the Iranian general will no doubt take credit.
Soleimani will claim that Washington, by taking leave of Syria, will undermine its positions in the Middle East and even weaken the impact of its sanctions against Iran.
3. Israel is a major casualty. Its military and intelligence posture hinged on the presumption of American boots on the ground in eastern and northern Syria as a barrier against pro-Iranian Iraqi militias crossing in to fight Israel in Syria and Lebanon. The US presence was a reassuring counterweight to the Russian presence. Its departure will leave Israel standing alone against Iranian and Russian forces and their shared interests and actions.
On Wednesday night, when Israel’s leaders were still reeling from the news of the imminent US departure, some American officials offered assurance that the US Air Force would still be around for rendering assistance if necessary. This assurance was taken with a grain of salt. No one in the Middle East feels able any longer to fully trust an American promise of assistance. Of late, moreover, the once warm and friendly interaction between Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu has been marred by occasional misunderstandings and snags in communication.
Israel’s government, army and intelligence suddenly face the immense task, running into billions of dollars, of overhauling its military. The Syrian front will have to be rebuilt and reinforced after two years in which Israel counted on US-Russian understandings to keep the Syrian border region quiescent.
4. Jordan and King Abdullah are suddenly exposed even more than Israel to icy draughts from more than one direction -from Damascus, where Assad is gaining strength, from the Lebanese Hizballah, boosted by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias and sitting on their border, and directly from Tehran.
Revolutionary Iran always regarded the overthrow of a Sunni Hashemite king in Amman as a glittering – although unattainable – feat, that would have planted pro-Iranian forces on the eastern border of Israel and the northern border of Saudi Arabia, Tehran may now rate that prize to be potentially within its reach.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that when the news of the imminent US departure from Syria landed in Amman, the king contacted President Trump and asked him to delay the move from the Al Tanf base, which guards the Syrian-Jordanian border. He asked for time to get set to face the freshly unimpeded Iranian threat. Trump promised to discuss this request with his advisers, but Abdullah’s anxiety was not allayed.
5. Iraq: Wednesday night, administration officials were quick to state that the US was not proposing to withdraw the 5,000 American troops from Iraq as well as Syria. But that is only half the story. DEBKA Weekly’s sources point to the disclosures in former issues of Trump administration steps to work with Tehran in setting up an agreed post-election government in Baghdad. There is no doubt that the removal of the American presence from Syria and the opening of the Syrian-Iraqi border to free Iranian and pro-Iranian passage will strengthen Iran’s hold on Baghdad and weaken Saudi influence. Like the Jordanian monarch, the Saudi royal house is badly rattled by the escalating peril on its borders.
6. The most damaging fallout from Trump’s step is his administration’s plummeting credibility in the Middle East. Its rulers are already rating the value of his promises no higher than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
7. Saudi Arabia: It is hard to see how the Sunni-led moderate alliance the Trump administration worked hard to fashion by bringing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE under the US aegis will survive. It is even harder to see how Israel will take its place in that line-up as envisioned not long ago in Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem when cold winds are blowing into the region from the White House.