Trump's Syria withdrawal has opened up an opportunity for Iran to strike a deal with the US - if Iran is willing to make some concessions in Syria. Without it, it is unlikely the US can confidently withdraw from Syria.
Last year was a remarkable year in the Middle East undoubtedly marked by Trump moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, imposing sanctions on Iran and, of course, the ghastly murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist who critiqued the Saudi Crown Prince through his Washington Post columns.
But perhaps it is a decision taken by the capricious, if not blundering, US president in the last few days of the year which will have us talking more about the turbulent year.
The implications so far of the US withdrawal from Syria are far-reaching, if not cataclysmic, leading many experts to wonder if Trump even understands the region and the geopolitics, let alone the history of the warring factions in this part of the world.
A new third way is emerging, which in many respects, Trump seems to be taking advantage of with his move to outsource the war against ISIS (Daesh) to Turkey, while pulling US soldiers out of Syria.
Things are getting quite complicated, leaving John Bolton who recently visited both Israel and Turkey, looking like an envoy who had to back peddle on his master’s outbursts.
With such a frivolous move, the US not only upsets the apple cart of its relations with key allies – notably Israel and Saudi Arabia – but also flies in the face of what he and Obama both agreed on: to alienate Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.
For Trump, of course, the irony is even greater as the move gives a free hand to Assad to strike a deal with the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which looks near certain while allowing Iran and Russia both to gain more influence in the country. It will also place America in a quandary as it backs forces who fight Washington’s NATO ally, Turkey.
If that isn’t hard enough to grasp, the US is still likely to continue supporting the YPG/PKK with arms, which they will, in turn, use, not to fight Daesh, but to fight Turkey itself. And with the ultimate winner overall being Russia, the decisions have left even Trump’s closest aides asking themselves, what really is the logic behind his thinking? A few speculate that he's gone ahead and smashed the arduous, long-standing grip that Pentagon chiefs – and in particular James Mattis – held over him in one swoop.
But Israel comes out of it as the biggest loser as Syria strengthened with Iranian forces taking more ground, the stakes just get higher for Netanyahu who is under great pressure to destroy Hezbollah weapons dumps.
Of course, we are all left wondering what the real deal with Turkish President Erdogan is. Rumours are that Trump is planning to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, the mastermind behind the failed 2016 coup—Turkey maintains there is no link with the Gulen extradition case—as well as US arms sales signed off for Ankara, now that relations between Trump and Erdogan are cordial once again.
But for how long? While we read reports of Trump back-peddling over the move after US Senator Lindsey Graham described Trump’s move as more of a ‘pause’ on the withdrawal decision, it appears that Trump may well reverse his decision in the coming weeks, when he trips over his own banal logic.
Graham reiterated that Trump would only pull out on three conditions: protection of 'Kurdish' allies, destruction of Daesh, and Iran does not fill the power vacuum.
This places an opportunity Iran’s way. While Trump has indulged himself with the fantasy that Daesh can be destroyed and that their allies can be ‘protected’ it’s this last point which is the crux of a deal in the making – or a status quo remaining in place.
If Iran can take advantage of the situation and, through the back channel talks they are holding now, assure the Americans that they won’t be looking to send their units (or their proxies) there, then this might buy them some leverage over the sanctions ‘talks’.
The problem with this precarious scenario is that it is plagued by two realities. One, Trump’s tumultuous relations with Erdogan may not hold out very long, and this will be a problem for US allies in Syria, and the second, the thinking in Tehran is that Trump will probably lose the 2020 US elections – meaning they only have two years to put up with sanctions.
Remarkably, this preposterous geopolitical heresy which Trump is playing with both his traditional allies is matched only by Tehran’s erroneous beliefs about his demise at the 2020 ballot box. There is a deal there to be made, and Trump has signalled to Tehran that he is willing to talk. But Tehran can’t see the forest for the trees.
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