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Syrian withdrawal a dangerous regional gambit

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and the ensuing Turkish offensive against the Kurds have thrown the Middle East into a deadly spiral of bloodshed and mayhem.

Following the withdrawal, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his military offensive in Syria, which has resulted in the evacuation of thousands of Kurds from their ancestral villages on the Syrian-Turkish border. The Kurdish forces that have fought the Islamic State or ISIS alongside American troops feel abandoned by Trump’s administration. For self-interest and survival they joined the Assad regime.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan reached an agreement about setting up a 20-mile security zone along the border that is free of Kurds. Putin has emerged as the key player in that conflict.

Nations in the region view America’s abandonment of its Kurdish allies as an act of short-sightedness, undependability and vacillation. The president’s claim his decision was to stop “endless wars” rings hollow, especially as he continues to support the Saudi de facto ruler in his savage war in Yemen. Once more, the region will be thrown in the throes of war.

Beyond Syria, the decision to withdraw is creating a set of dangerous unintended consequences for peoples of the region and for American long-term interests. As Washington disengages, ISIS, al-Qaida, the Syrian dictator, Russia, Iran and Turkey are ready to fill the vacuum. Many ISIS fighters have already broken out of Kurdish-held prisons and are ready to join the fighting.

American leadership is at stake. Without America’s watchful eye, regional autocrats can stay the course of corruption and repression without interference. Ongoing street protests across Arab countries, especially Lebanon and Iraq, demand their governments end corruption and repression.

As Arab dictators no longer perceive the defense of human rights as a central tenet of American foreign policy, they proceed to suppress their peoples’ demands for justice and freedom without fear of retribution from Washington and other Western capitals. Autocratic leaders have resorted to tribal nationalism to mobilize regime supporters against regime opponents, and pro-democracy and human rights dissidents whom they call “enemies of the state.”

Terrorism revived

The resurgence of rebranded ISIS and al-Qaida groups in Syria has been largely thwarted by the presence of Kurdish fighters and American military strikes. Kurdish fighters are focusing on surviving the Turkish assault and ignoring the resurgence of ISIS. As Turkish advances target Kurds, terrorist groups will have unprecedented freedom to operate in those parts of Syria beyond the reach of the regime.

Terrorist groups are poised to spread into Iraq and reopen the border. Iraq is preoccupied with street protests, with fewer resources fighting terrorist resurgence.

The faltering Saudi war in Yemen against the Houthis has also created opportunities for the resurgence of terrorist groups. Some of these have even been used by the Saudis in the fight against the Houthis. When terrorist organizations conclude Washington is surrendering leadership in the region, they will be more brazen at recruiting followers and jihadists.

If some regimes that are close to the Trump administration begin to wonder whether Washington will abandon them as it did the Kurds, the gathering threat of terror becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pro-American Middle Eastern regimes and governments are no longer sure their close relations with the U.S. would necessarily endure. Consequently, Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, to name a few, will emerge as powerful political players. Will these regimes be able to face the rising terrorist threat and the growing uncertainty of their relations with Washington?

Diplomatic, military and national security collaboration among some of these countries and the United States will also suffer as these states engage in a reassessment of their traditional alliances. Putin’s Russia will likely, even certainly, emerge as the winner from the murkiness that followed Trump’s tweet to withdraw from Syria.

In recent years Russia has played a dangerous game to destabilize Western democracies. Now it can destabilize Arab autocracies under guise of more reliable ally.

Despite the ensuing chaos, some Middle Eastern regimes might seriously begin to explore the possibility of rapprochement with their neighbors. Saudi Arabia would reach out to Iran to deescalate tensions and end the war in Yemen. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also might make peace with neighboring Qatar. MbS might also seek acceptable government structures in both Yemen and in Libya.

Street protests across the region against corruption and repression might force their regimes to rethink their relations with their people. If these regimes can no longer rely on outside support to maintain their hold on power, they might conclude inclusion is the only sure policy for stable societies. A pipe dream, perhaps.

Emile Nakhleh is director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM. A longer version was published on LobeLog.