Expert Commentary

‘A Truly Gordian Knot’ Awaits Trump

Fabrice Balanche
Visiting Fellow, The Hoover Institution

The end of the Islamic state puts the United States in an uncomfortable geopolitical situation.

When it comes, the United States will enter a new phase of the conflict. The Syrian regime is back in full force in the east of the country, and the Iranian corridor from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon through Syria is now becoming a reality. The United States therefore faces a cruel dilemma and has the obligation to urgently define a post-IS strategy.

The province of Deir al-Zour is the top priority

Since last spring, the Syrian army – supported by the Russians and the Iranians – has made marked progress in Eastern Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s regime now controls more than 50% of the territory and 70% of the population. However, the latest advance of the Syrian army and its allies (Hezbollah and other Shiite militias) occurred largely in desert areas, which explains the speed. Nevertheless, the lifting of the siege of the city of Deir al-Zour, which IS encircled for more than two years, is a great victory for Bashar al-Assad. From this city, he hopes to reconquer the whole province, specifically its rich oil fields (50% of the Syrian production before the war). In addition, this province is a key piece in the construction of the Iranian corridor.

In the rest of Syria, we saw a relative lull in the fighting until Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the former al-Nusra Front) launched a new offensive against Hama, Latakia, and Aleppo, from its stronghold of Idlib this September. This offensive resulted in a strong reaction from Russian and Syrian aviation, which are now bombarding the province, but this does not seem to be the beginning of the re-conquest of the Idlib area. Instead, the Syrian regime and its allies are focusing on reducing the last rebel enclaves around Damascus and annihilating IS in the eastern Hama province.

However, at the end of the day, Damascus’ top priority remains the province of Deir al-Zour. The Syrian rebellion in western Syria is no longer powerful enough to constitute an existential threat. Now, the regime wants to take advantage of IS’ weakening position and prevent the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from snapping up any of its territory. The U.S. coalition command constantly reminds us that its goal is the eradication of IS in all of Syria up to the Iraqi border, to the displeasure of Damascus. On October 5, the Syrian Army quickly advanced on Mayadin, a small city on the Euphrates River, instead of cleansing IS from Deir al-Zour city because the regime and its foreign sponsors were afraid to see the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces take the city before them.

The military and geopolitical balance favors Damascus

The military balance seems to be in favor of the Syrian regime. However, the lengthening of communication lines makes the Syrian army vulnerable. In early October, the Islamic State counterattacked in the desert, temporarily cutting off the road between Deir al-Zour and Palmyra. Consequently, the progress of the Syrian Army in the Euphrates Valley was delayed, and the SDF are taking advantage of these difficulties to gain ground and to get closer to the rich oil fields of al-Omar (east of Mayadin) and the Iraqi-Syrian borders. If the SDF managed to seize the border before the Syrian army, that could impede the construction of the Iranian corridor.

Map of the military situation in Syria as of October 4, 2017

Courtesy of Fabrice Balanche and The Hoover Institution

However, would the United States take the risk of a direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic and possibly Russia? This is the most difficult question that will come after ISIS. Will the U.S. maintain American forces in eastern Syria after the elimination of IS?

In less than a year, IS might be eliminated from Syria. Soon, al Qaeda will become the new target in the Idlib area. Russia, Iran, and Turkey are preparing a huge offensive against this jihadist stronghold. However, it is not clear if the United States wishes to participate in the operation. First, the operation would clearly contribute to strengthening the Bashar al-Assad regime. Second, the territory is narrower than in eastern Syria, which increases the risk of incidents between the different actors. Finally, it is not certain that the three sponsors of the Astana conference – Russia, Iran, and Turkey – want to allow the United States into this operation, thus justifying a continued U.S. presence in Syria. On the contrary, these three countries are in a hurry to see the U.S. army withdraw.

The United States faces a Gordian knot in Syria

Whether the U.S. presence in Syria is maintained is crucial to the future of the country and the Middle East. If the United States decides to remain for a long time, they must first prepare for a major crisis with Turkey. U.S. protection of the Kurdish PYD (a PKK outshoot) exasperates Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, because that allows the construction of a Kurdish statelet on the Turkish southern border. This will only accentuate its rapprochement with Russia and Iran.

Finally, American troops could be harassed in the future and suffer heavy losses, as happened in Beirut in 1983 when a truck bomb driven by a member of Hezbollah exploded in front of the U.S. Marines’ HQ, killing 241 soldiers. There was no significant military response, and American and French contingents (the same day a truck bomb destroyed the French HQ causing 56 deaths) quickly left Lebanon.

The United States can also choose to withdraw after the victory against IS, calculating that it is better to leave Syria as a winner than to enter in an uncertain confrontation with Iran and Russia. Moreover, staying in Syria means that the United States will have to support the reconstruction of eastern Syria and to deal with tribal and ethnic conflicts in which there is only ‘bad guys’. The American withdrawal would mean the abandonment of local allies to their fate. Therefore, the Kurds – who form the backbone of the U.S.-allied SDF – will move closer to Moscow in order to protect themselves from the threat posed by Erdogan. As for the Arab tribes in the Euphrates valley, they will have only to negotiate their rapprochement to Damascus.

If the United States chooses to withdraw from Syria, Washington’s loss of credibility in the Middle East and the world would be terrible. The American president will be confronted soon with a truly Gordian knot: an inevitable dilemma in this complicated conflict.

The Author is Fabrice Balanche

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Hoover Institution. Balanche, who also directs the Research Group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East (GREMMO), has spent ten years in Lebanon and Syria, his main areas of study, since first engaging in fieldwork in the region in 1990. Today, he is frequently called upon as an expert consultant on Middle East development issues and the Syrian crisis. His... Read More

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