Last week’s announcement by President Trump, that US forces would be leaving Syria came as a surprise to pretty much everyone – Even senior members of his own administration. The story has unsurprisingly been covered far and wide across the global media. It has also sparked widespread speculation over the fallout from Trump’s dramatic decision. Media commentators have adopted varying views over what the consequences may be. However, too many appear to have missed the major point, that Iran is the major beneficiary of a US withdrawal.
In fact, Tehran’s leaders will be rubbing their hands with glee. Iran’s military presence in Syria is no secret. Large numbers of Iranian troops have fought in Syria during the country’s bitter civil war, with at least 1,000 losing their lives in the fighting. At a time when Iran is seriously struggling economically, the country’s leaders are perfectly willing to invest not only lives, but significant money in a war far from their own borders. Why? Because quite simply the Iranian regime refuses to scrimp and save when it comes to its grand ambition of regional hegemony. And the chaos in Syria presents a rare opportunity – A chance to establish an uninterrupted arc of influence all the way from Iraq westward to Lebanon, to the Mediterranean, to Israel’s doorstep. While Syrian leader Assad and Russia’s President Putin have no objection to these aims, the two thousand American troops stationed in Syria have been a bulwark to such ambitions. Their removal leaves the door wide open to contiguous Iranian influence, a free flow of its arms and a significant step closer to realizing Iran’s dream of regional domination.
Some commentators manifestly understand this startling state of affairs. NBC’s Dan De Luce, Josh Lederman and Courtney Kube plainly call the US withdrawal a “victory for Iran and Russia,” explaining that “particularly Iran — which sent thousands of proxies and its own elite forces into Syria — stand to emerge as the dominant players”. In the New York Times, David Halbfinger similarly comments that Washington’s pull-out will see the Middle East tilt towards Tehran and that Trump’s decision “has abruptly scrambled the geopolitics of the Middle East, clearing the way for Iran to expand its influence across the region.” Meanwhile, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week describes the Trump withdrawal as a “signal of retreat that will have damaging consequences for his Iran strategy.” All are spot on with their analyses.
In addition, they all rightly point out that one of the biggest losers in the new Syrian configuration is the Kurds. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia in northwest Syria, fought bravely alongside US troops to subdue ISIS. However, Washington now leaves them abandoned and at the mercy not only of ISIS, but of Turkey which views them as dangerous separatists. As Ishaan Tharoor rightly notes in the Washington Post, the Turkish military already invaded northwest Syria earlier this year in an anti-Kurdish offensive. Worryingly, in the wake of Trump’s announcement, as Erin Cunningham reported in the same publication, Turkey’s Defence Minister has ominously threatened that his army will bury the Kurdish forces “in their trenches.”
But not everyone seems to acknowledge the Iranian victory, nor the plight of the Kurds. In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall barely mentions Iran, instead reflecting on Trump’s announcement as “a good week for ISIS.” He predicts that ISIS “now has a chance to regroup and regain the initiative to threaten the west again.” Similarly, in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn argues that an American withdrawal from Syria “might provide exactly the anarchic conditions in which ISIS has always flourished.” Taking a different tack in Time Magazine, Rebecca Collard says that “With one tweet, Trump may have given Assad a path to victory in Syria.”
While the ebb and flow of power in Syria is of course unpredictable, too many media titles and commentators continue to ignore one key factor not only in the Syrian conflict, but in the regional balance of power – Iran’s appetite for naked authority, influence and control. Tehran has already sacrificed plenty of Iranian lives in Syria for this very cause. The removal of America’s presence will only serve as encouragement to Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. Unless the global media shines an unequivocal light on this, the Iranian peril will stand a greater chance of becoming reality.