It would be an understatement to say that President Trump’s withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Syria came as a surprise, both to American politicians and to people in the region. While some support the decision as helpful in stabilizing Syria and paving the way for the withdrawal of other foreign troops, others have raised concerns about Iran and its regional ambitions.
There is also the question of Russia, whose interests are less about spreading its influence, unlike the Iranians, and more about showing its power and its ability to confront the West.
President Putin welcomed Trump’s decision, and said he broadly agreed with the US president’s claim that Daesh had been defeated in Syria. The conclusion from what both presidents have said is that since the US is leaving the field in Syria because the militants have been vanquished, then Iran should do so too. Iranian military commanders and politicians have always claimed that they are in Syria to fight terrorism at the request and invitation of the Syrian leader Bashar Assad. Since terrorism has been defeated, there is no longer any reason for them to be there. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the US withdrawal.
For the same reason, Israel should also welcome the US pullout. Israel has always trusted the Russians not to allow Iran to act against its interests. Equally, Russia turns a blind eye when Israel attacks Hezbollah or Iranian assets inside Syria. That will continue, with or without a US presence.
Bashar Assad would also be better off having only the Russians to deal with, and not Iran too. Moscow’s interests are of a purely military and security nature, while the Iranians are more concerned about creating sectarian and religious division, which is the last thing Syria needs at this crucial time of political transition.
Iran, Russia and Turkey are currently involved in the committee to draft Syria’s new constitution under the supervision of the UN. Syria will slowly have to find a way to return to the international community and to normalize its relations with other countries. For this transformation to work, Syria’s Arab neighbors will have to participate in the reconstruction of Syria, despite the strong bonds Assad has with the Iranians. In these circumstances it would make sense for Assad to limit the presence of his “friends” in Tehran.
The visit to Damascus by Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir may be seen in the context of these efforts to normalize Syria’s relations with Arab nations and to welcome it back to the Arab League.
So those who fear that the departure of US troops will deliver Syria into Iranian hands should relax. In fact, Trump has only enhanced Russia’s presence on the international stage.