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US troop withdrawal from Syria counterproductive

On Sunday, the Pentagon confirmed that the order to withdraw US troops from Syria had been signed. Last week’s announcement of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces, which have been deployed to help the global coalition fight Daesh, came as a shock to US officials, as well as to allies and partners worldwide. 

Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest. Apparently angry at his letter of resignation, Trump asked him to leave at the end of December and appointed his deputy as acting defense secretary. Brett McGurk, who served as the special presidential envoy to the coalition, also resigned. Trump later said he had never heard of McGurk, despite the fact that he had been in that post for years. 

As was to be expected, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime were delighted by the news of the US withdrawal and the apparent chaos it had caused. Turkey was also pleased, but was hoping for a gradual withdrawal to enable it to take full advantage of the new situation. That was reportedly the subject of a phone call between Trump and his Turkish counterpart on Sunday.

US forces and their allies control 25-30 percent of Syria, including some strategic locations. The withdrawal will have a serious impact on the fate of those territories. Iran and Turkey will likely seek to extend their control to those areas currently protected by US forces. 

Without American help, local rebel groups are no match militarily for the forces of Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, and the multitudes of sectarian militias fighting alongside them, including Hezbollah. The rebels will be slaughtered or driven away en masse.

Since 2016, the US military has helped run, with Maghawir Al-Thawra rebels, the Tanf desert base, strategically located near Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq. The base is also close to the Damascus-Baghdad highway. US forces have kept a wide perimeter around it, striking any force that attempts to move down the highway or toward the base. 

As soon as they leave, the Syrian regime, Iran and their allies will likely try to take these important assets. Tehran is keen to secure that part of the highway to facilitate the movement of its forces and materiel to Syria. Iran’s land bridge to Syria and Lebanon could become fully operational in a short time.

Next is the areas US forces control with Syrian-Kurdish rebels. With American help, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) drove Syrian regime forces out of large parts of the northeast in 2012, and has controlled those areas since. In 2014, with US support, the YPG resisted Daesh’s attempts to overrun those areas. 
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