The US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, has linked his country’s withdrawal from Syria to a comprehensive solution to the eight-year-old crisis. This means that America is refusing to commit to a timetable for a troop withdrawal, which is something Donald Trump has been talking about and promising in his endless tweets. The US President’s messages are, perhaps, best seen in the context of preparing for the upcoming midterm elections for Congress, say observers.
In fact, though, Mattis’s statement seems to be more consistent with the priorities of the overall US strategy in the Middle East rather than Trump’s tweets. Anyone who puts Iran at the top of his list of enemies in the region and decides to uproot its influence may not think of withdrawing his troops from Syria along its border with Iraq, leaving the door open to the Iranian dream of a highway linking Tehran to Beirut.
America’s military presence in Syria has a number of goals, the most important of which are to surround Iran and limit its influence in the region; to ensure a bigger share for Washington and its allies — the Kurdish movement — in any final deal over Syria, as expressed frankly by Mattis; and to curb Turkey’s activity in northern Syria, which always comes at the expense of the Kurds, especially its presence east of the River Euphrates.
If the requirements of the war on Daesh are included amongst Washington’s positions and statements that seek to justify a long-term or permanent presence of US forces in Syria, the facts on the ground do not support such justifications. Unless, that is, they are intended to prevent the return of Daesh fighters to areas retaken by US troops with the support of their Kurdish allies.
Many reliable sources agree that between 7,000 and 12,000 Daesh fighters are scattered along the Syria-Iraq border in the Eastern Badia region. Since the end of major operations against the self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, they have not faced any serious military pressure from America and its allies on either side of the border. The exception has been some sporadic air strikes by coalition jets, mainly Iraqi. The extremist group has even been able to reorganise itself and recently launched some damaging attacks against the Syrian army and other forces in Al-Buqamal and the area around Al-Mayadin in eastern Syria.
Daesh understood how Washington arranged its priorities in that area and thus avoided crossing any red lines by focussing its attention on the Syrian military presence. It inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian troops, much to the annoyance of the Assad regime and its allies, and disrupted the celebration of recent victories in the region; maybe this is exactly what Washington wants.
The conclusion to be drawn about the situation in that border region is that Washington has left the burden of fighting Daesh to Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, and their attendant militias and paramilitary units. Such a strategy provides Washington with a rare opportunity to drain the resources of a broad swathe of adversaries, without risking any losses of its own forces. The status quo is acceptable, the Americans believe, as long as the threat posed by the terrorist group is confined to a specific geographical area, which does not include US-dominated areas of influence and is not expected to spread to Europe and the United States.
What applies to eastern Syria is also applicable to the region bordering Jordan and Israel, albeit to a lesser extent given the different conditions and players. In the south, there seems to be no US urgency to slow the escalation and to finalise agreements for the Syrian army to deploy along its southern border, in return for the withdrawal of Iran and its pro-regime militias to a safe distance, or to perhaps dismantle the Al-Tanaf Base at a later stage.
This procrastination over southern Syria is likely to continue, unless Israel gets more decisive and puts into action its understandings with Russia. This is something that has the support of many in the political and security decision-making circles in Tel Aviv. If Israel moves to implement such understandings, Washington will have no choice but to support it. The US administration, especially under Donald Trump, is biased towards Israel’s interests and priorities in the region, to the extent that those in the driving seats are neither Trump nor Matisse, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.