Withdrawal of US troops from Syria - its implications

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury | Published: December 28, 2018 21:04:51

Jim Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, has resigned over President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Trump also announced to reduce troops level in Afghanistan to half of the current level. Mattis disagreed and in a letter addressed to the president wrote, "Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours…I believe I have the right to step down from my position." Mattis proposed to leave the office on March 1, 2019 to arrange an orderly transfer of responsibility to the new Defence Secretary. Infuriated Trump instructed Mattis to leave the office on January 1. Deputy Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has been appointed Acting Defence Secretary.

Those who witnessed the aftermath of Iraq invasion would not like to see another catastrophe to be unfolded by retaining American troops in a foreign country. George W. Bush was misled by a gang of unscrupulous advisors including a retired General to invade Iraq on a totally unfounded allegation of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain. Following the fall of Baghdad, over hundred thousand American troops were deployed in Iraq. As insurgency gained strength and became widespread, George Bush, at the advice of military leaderships, increased the ground troops to over 200,000. After intense battles lasting over ten years, the situation improved, and insurgency took a pause. By that time, over 4,500 American troops were killed, 32,000 severely wounded and cost US treasury about one trillion dollars.

On Iraqi side, no reliable statistics is available about casualties. It is estimated that about a million Iraqis were killed and infrastructures worth billions of dollars were destroyed. About six million people were internally displaced. The war against occupation gave rise to communal conflict in a society which for decades had embraced Sunni and Shia in the same neighborhood and lived in peace and tranquility. Intermarriage between the people of two communities was rampant. The invasion destroyed the ethnic fraternity and turned the Shias against the Sunnis. The abomination still exists.

The ever growing troop casualties and failure of the civil and military leaderships to end the war bewildered the American people. George Bush's approval rating dwindled down to 20 per cent. In this backdrop, Barak Obama entered the presidential race, pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring the troops home. His pledge resonated with the people as against John McCain, the Republican nominee, who declared to continue the wars, if necessary, for hundred years.

Obama after entering the White House tried, on a priority basis, to bring the war in Iraq to an end. He as a Senator, had voted against the war resolution authorising President Bush to intervene militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mounting death toll on both sides had reinforced Obama's resolve to withdraw from Iraq at the earliest. In his exasperation to walk out from Iraq battlefield, Obama administration negotiated with Baghdad government, which presumably under Tehran's pressure, wanted nothing short of total withdrawal of American troops. Obama yielded, and troops were withdrawn in 2012. No contingency plan was put in place, no striking force was retained in neighbouring countries in case the situation took a dramatic turn requiring military intervention.

In less than twelve months since troops were withdrawn, ISIS (Islamic State) emerged as a most brutal force in the region. The deserters from Iraqi army and the Sunni soldiers, terminated from Iraqi military, comprised the striking force of ISIS. The Iraqi and Syrian army failed to put up meaningful resistance and large chunk of territory fell to ISIS. The combined military offensives of the United States, France, Germany and Britain took nearly four years to neutralise the ISIS and recover the occupied territories.

But ISIS has not been decimated. Thousands of ISIS fighters are still around, and Syrian Kurdi fighters are having infrequent confrontations with them. Given American troops' back-up support, the Syrian Kurds continued to push back the ISIS fighters. It remains uncertain how the situation will unfold once US troops are withdrawn from Syria. About 2,200 ISIS fighters and 700 foreign fighters are in the custody of Syrian Kurds. In the absence of US and coalition partners' support, these deadly fighters may eventually escape.

Ankara has always been uncomfortable with the training and arming the Kurds by the US military given the fact that Turkey has 18 million disenchanted Kurds living in the areas adjoining its border with Iraq and Syria. Kurds in Turkey have been loud in demanding autonomy for themselves. Turkey has tolerated US support to Kurds so long ISIS remained a powerful threat. Since ISIS has been pushed back and Trump made unfounded claim that the radical outfit has been defeated, Turkish President Erdogan questioned the rationale of continued support to Kurds which was branded by Washington as a "terrorist organisation".

The US has 2,000 soldiers in Kurdish controlled region in northern Syria. They provide training, air-coverage and logistics support from behind. The withdrawal of troops will have psychological impact on Kurdish troops and population.

Some 5,200 American troops remain in Iraq. They have transitioned from advising Iraqi troops in active combat operations to much more delicate task of counterterrorism guided by intelligence gathering - an area of acute deficiency of Iraq's defence capabilities. Though there has not been any mention in official communication about troops withdrawal from Iraq, it is presumed that Trump meant troops pull out from Iraq as well. Should that happen, the region starting from Iraq to Lebanon will come under the political influence of Russia and Iran.

As the situation marked an improvement in Afghanistan, American allies including Germany, Italy and Canada withdrew their troops in 2014. The US also reduced its troops level but decided against total withdrawal. While the Afghan army became the striking force against the Taliban, the US army took the role of providing training, planning of combat operations and facilitating rescue missions.

It's a fact that after seventeen years of engagement, the United States cannot yet draw a plan of troops withdrawal. Trump was advised by his military high commands that a significant troops reduction would run the risk of losing whatever has been gained since the Taliban was dislodged in 2002. In the absence of US military presence, Afghanistan would very quickly slide into cataclysmic situation. There has been a surge of violence in and around Kabul in recent months. Trump seems to have been convinced of the impending danger of troops withdrawal. Nevertheless, he would prefer to draw down the troops level from 14,000 to 7,000.

Mattis expressed deep concern that the withdrawal of troops from Syria will deliver a win to Russia, Iran and Syrian leader Assad while risking a resurgence of the ISIS. Mattis also argued against the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan. He feared that troops withdrawal would enervate the moral of Afghan army, and the Taliban would regroup and push the country to instability.

Mattis emphasised international collaboration. He remonstrated, "We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances."

How long foreign troops should remain in Afghanistan? Neither the Afghan government nor military experts can make a credible recommendation. The most powerful military in the world could not neutralise the militants nor could make a truce with them. People would like to have peace. But the same cannot be said about other stake holders. Trump has reasons to be impatient but leaving Afghanistan to Afghans alone would be a recipe for a catastrophe the region can hardly afford.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.





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