Imagine a Syria with no Americans

Have you heard the last bit of presidential wisdom from Donald Trump? “We are knocking the hell out of ISIS” boasted the triumphant president, “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it.” When asked about Trump’s remarks, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “unaware” about any plans for a troop withdrawal. Whether it will actually happen or not, President Trump is making us think about a scenario hitherto far out of the realm of possibility: What if there were no Americans in Syria? What if the supposedly sole superpower in the world just didn’t try to shape events in the most violently disputed piece of land in the world?

I consider the President’s remarks in light of the testimony of CENTCOM Commander General Votel at the US Senate Armed Services Committee. The General admits to the failure of the US in its Syria strategy. When senator Lindsey Graham says “Thank you for your clarity and honesty; and it is not your mission in Syria to deal with the Iranian, Assad, Russia problem?” Votel replies succinctly “That’s correct senator.” That’s kind of what we have in Syria now. This testimony and the President’s remarks about “knocking the hell out of ISIS” ends the role of the US in Syria as we know it. Now let me go back to my question: What if there are no Americans in Syria at the moment?

Currently the US, through the YPG/PKK controls a third of Syrian territory, with around 60 percent of oil and water reserves and most of the electricity production facilities of the country. Most of the rest is controlled by the Assad government, which gets help of the Iranians and Russians. There are almost no rebels left. The Turkish presence? It’s limited, with little impact on the endgame. Here, let me go back to recent Votel testimony. Lindsey Graham again asks “Is it too strong a statement to say that with Russia’s and Iran’s help, Assad has won the civil war?” General Votel replies “I do not think that is too strong of a statement.” That’s where we are now.

So what if there are no Americans in Syria in the near future? Let me tell you what that would mean to Turkey. First, Russia and Iran, instead of the US, would become our southern neighbors. Would Turkey enjoy that? Contrary to what many would say, I don’t think so. Turks have a more less century old experience with Americans. That experience has mostly been friendly, but had its ups and downs. Our history with Russia and Iran it at least four to five centuries old, and as usual with close neighbors, that history involves frequent wars.

What else? Assad could enter into talks with the YPG/PKK to build a “new Syria.” Why would Turkey want that? The PKK is a terrorist organization and the YPG was established in Syria by PKK leader Öcalan during his exile in that country. The PKK controlling land on the Turkish border was the sole reason for the biggest Turkish military action since the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation. That should show you the extent of Turkish existential angst.

The American operation in Iraq first started in 1991, and then ramped up to a full-scale invasion in 2003. That was 15 years ago, yet there is no sign of stability on the ground. The Syrian civil war started 8 years ago. There is no endgame in sight, and the withdrawal of American troops from Syria will likely only lengthen the bloodshed and continue to destabilize our region. An unstable Syria is a bad omen for Turkish business.

The Turkish economy had a remarkable growth rate of 7.4 percent in 2017. No matter what, that performance is terrific, especially after the lousy 3.2 percent growth of 2016. That was the year of the failed coup, mind you. Yet Turkish growth has also guaranteed an eminent place for Turkey in the global misery index this year. Why? High growth brings in higher inflation and persistent high unemployment. High growth made Turks more miserable and more vulnerable to external shocks.

We all have to thank President Trump for reminding us of the ominous possibility of American withdrawal. Even if it is for showing death and settling for malaria, it is a step in the right direction. Russia and Iran have a strategy in Syria, that’s what is lacking on our side. The West needs a strategy with a clear endgame to this blood civil war.

This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 31.03.2018

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Originally published at www.tepav.org.tr.

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