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The US is completely irrelevant when it comes to Syria

For decades, the US presence in the Levant has been a painful lesson on how not to intervene in the Arab world

The recent deaths of US soldiers in Manbij has fuelled the ongoing debate about the future of US policy in Syria. As President Donald Trump flip-flops with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Kurds, it begs the question of whether the US is even relevant to what happens next in Syria.  

Indeed, it can be argued that not only is the US completely irrelevant when it comes to Syria’s present and future, but it has been irrelevant since pulling out of Lebanon in the 1980s.

As 2019 stands, Turkey will never trust the US, given its support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - and the Kurds are now in negotiations with Damascus after what they perceive as a complete betrayal by the US in caving in to Turkey’s demands. 

Similarly, with the Israelis negotiating directly with the Russians and Arab states talking to Damascus, there is no role for the US to play. The US presence in the Levant has been a painful lesson on how not to intervene in the Arab world.

Persistent defiance

An official summary of US involvement in Lebanon under the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s reads as eerily similar to what has happened in Syria over the last eight years. The thematic issues are remarkably similar: a lack of diplomatic progress, a plethora of terrorist groups, and congressional opposition regarding the real aims and objectives of the war in Syria. 

An in-depth study by a former US Marine who was involved in Lebanon looked at Syria’s persistent defiance of superpower pressure, in terms of refusing to withdraw troops from the Bekaa Valley or forfeit control of Beirut to the Lebanese government or Israeli-allied Lebanese groups.

Similarly, former US diplomat Philip Habib, who was also in charge of negotiations with the Syrians, was frustrated that the US had few cards left to play even before the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. 

If anything, Trump has learned from history: the US cannot do anything right in the Levant, especially with regards to the Syrians

Almost every group in Lebanon had its support or orders from Syria, and the Lebanese could not agree to letting the Syrians have their way - which, in the end, brought about the US frustration and the decision to let Syria manage events north of the Litani river, according to the book Cursed is the Peacemaker

In the end, the Americans could not reconcile the differing objectives among the Israelis, Lebanese and Syrians. The Arab League ultimately agreed to let Syria take the helm in Lebanon.

The marine barracks bombings of 1983, along with numerous assassinations and abductions, were the most extreme manifestations of US losses in Lebanon. Many questioned Reagan’s long-term policy in the Levant; like Trump now, he was accused of cutting and running.

Mishandling the war

But if anything, Trump has learned from history: the US cannot do anything right in the Levant, especially with regards to the Syrians.

Similarly, President George W Bush in 2006 was accused of mishandling the war in Lebanon and the aftermath of the Syrian pullout. The US failed to win Syrian support for the 2003 Iraq war, despite numerous trips by US officials.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell, who himself led negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad over Damascus's support to Sunni insurgents in Iraq, came out during the early years of the Syrian crisis in 2013 warning against US intervention. 

Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah chant anti-US slogans during a protest in Beirut in 2006 (AFP)

Long-term observers of Syria who spent real time with the Syrian leadership and had meaningful access to the centres of power in Damascus - such as David Lesch, Patrick Seale, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft - have all cautioned against predicting the demise of Assad, and spoke of a need to work with him, as he would be the last man standing. 

In early January 2015, Brzezinski and Scowcroft, in a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the need to fight Assad, noting that he had more support than any of the groups fighting him.

Constant U-turns

With all the focus on what may be concluded from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Cairo speech, one thing is certain: Turkey is not happy with the constant US U-turns over support for the YPG.

The Kurds were talking to Assad even before Trump’s December announcement, and key Gulf allies such as Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait are all reaching out to Assad, without much consideration for what the US might think, given the Iranian presence in the country. 

Turkey has good reason to be wary of a US withdrawal from Syria
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Even former US ambassador Robert Ford, who was the biggest proponent of regime change for years, is now saying Trump’s decision to leave Syria is correct.

The US could not put pressure on Syria in the 1970s and 80s, and in the 90s, Damascus won over the US by supporting the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. After 2003, the US could not reduce Syrian influence in Iraq, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories. 

Whether the Americans leave in four months or next year, they shall continue to be bystanders in Syria. 

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He specialises in contemporary military history of the Arab world and Pakistan, is a Fellow for Syrian Affairs at the Institute for Statecraft, and is a visiting lecturer at several military staff colleges across the Middle East, Pakistan and the UK.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Syrian soldiers stand atop a tank deployed at a position in the village of Qart Saghir, northwest of Manbij, on 12 January (AFP)