Biden’s next move: withdrawal from Syria?
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has made its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria nervous. The White House was quick to reassure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that they would not initiate a similar withdrawal from Syria, but can we trust US President Joe Biden, Middle East Eye demand.
After all, the Trump administration gave similar assurances before abruptly withdrawing more than half of its forces in 2019 and giving the green light for a Turkish invasion. More recently, Washington was put on hold when several SDF fighters were killed in Turkish attacks in August. Biden’s withdrawal from Kabul, in which he has prioritized saving “American lives” over his allies, will only increase fears among the SDF that they too will soon be abandoned.
So what is the likelihood that Biden will retire? The signs are not good for the homeless. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, and also with the recent Aukus alliance, Biden has made it clear that competition from the great powers, especially the containment of China, is his main foreign concern. It means ending involvement in the “war on terror” legacies of the “war on terror” like Afghanistan and, perhaps, Syria.
Related to this, Biden’s withdrawal suggests that he has accelerated the fight against “offshore” Islamic terrorism. Yet rather than tackle this with troops, he prefers to strike from a distance – already the practice in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. By extending this approach to Syria, Biden could conclude that he does not need boots on the ground to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group (banned in Russia).
Biden was never very interested in Syria, and although he accepted the anti-ISIS campaign, he objected to wider involvement in the conflict when he was Barack Obama’s vice president. There are already indications that he could take a softer line with Bashar al-Assad, by recently exempting an Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon gas deal from US Caesar sanctions. Keeping US troops in eastern Syria to deprive Assad of oil may no longer be the powerful motivator he once was.
Still, there are reasons for the SDF to be optimistic. At first, Biden was defiant towards Afghanistan, but he will be careful not to attract more negative press by abandoning another ally so soon. This alone suggests that even if Biden wanted to leave Syria, he could wait until post-Kabul criticism has subsided.
Second, the operation in Syria is much less expensive than the operation in Afghanistan. While in 2018 the United States still had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, dropping to 4,000 before the withdrawal, it has only 900 supporting the SDF. Additionally, Syria is less of a live theater now that the IS caliphate has been largely destroyed, so US losses remain low and Biden faces less domestic pressure to pull out.
Then there is the international dimension. Key regional allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – want the United States to stay in eastern Syria to guard against Iran’s arrival. That said, another ally, Turkey, is keen on the US leaving so it can crush the SDF unhindered, believing its strongest faction, the PYD, to be Kurdish nationalist terrorists. Biden may not be able to please all of his allies, but there is certainly no regional consensus that prompts him to leave.
At the moment, therefore, while Biden might prefer to exit, there is little internal or external impetus for a sudden withdrawal. However, that could change. In particular, the dynamic between Turkey and Russia in Syria is important, and the events in Afghanistan could still have repercussions there.
Turkey’s activities are also helping Russia push the SDF to change sides. Ankara might in fact be open to some sort of Assad-SDF-Russia deal. Moscow and Ankara will both feel that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want. Even though the White House has no plans to immediately leave eastern Syria and faces little pressure to do so, Russia and Turkey will try to exploit the fallout from Afghanistan to reach their goals. goals, which could ultimately speed up an American departure anyway.