Fabian Hamilton argues for a multilateral approach to the Syrian conflict
Like most people in this country, I have watched in horror in recent years as – far from bringing the horrific Syrian civil war to an end – the dozen or so foreign powers who have intervened in the conflict have simply turned the war into a global free-for-all, with regional rivalries and geopolitical power struggles being played out against an ever-worsening background of death, displacement and humanitarian tragedy for the people of Syria.
So, in theory, for Donald Trump to announce that he will be withdrawing US forces from the country and ending American involvement in the conflict should be a welcome development. However, to have any chance of restoring peace to Syria in the current circumstances, Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops must be part of a multilateral plan which encourages all foreign powers to leave the country.
First and most immediately, the reason offered by Trump for his decision – that ISIS has been destroyed in Syria, hence US troops no longer need to be there – is unfortunately premature.
ISIS has lost almost all the territory it once occupied. Therefore, Trump’s announcement has given them every incentive to melt into the Syrian population, lay low, wait for the US to withdraw, and switch to a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terror strikes, as indicated by their recent deadly suicide attack in the US/Kurdish-held town of Manbij. Preparing to withdraw with ISIS so low on territory and lacking the masses of personnel they once had, means the use of UN peacekeeping operations to replace existing foreign powers. Establishing and expanding de-escalation zones must also be considered as part of any political settlement.
Second and most important, because this withdrawal is not being carried out alongside other foreign militaries stationed in Syria, it risks leaving the Kurdish territories in Northern Syria completely vulnerable to attack. The Kurdish fighters who sacrificed so much to liberate their own towns and cities, and most of Northern Syria, from ISIS control, now risk seeing those same towns and cities – the heartland of the Syrian Kurdish community – again become war zones, particularly if ISIS were to mount a resurgence.
Is it any wonder that many Kurdish leaders – taken unaware by Trump’s announcement – are now contemplating an unholy alliance with the Assad regime, simply so they can maintain the protection that America is threatening to withdraw?
And third, the unilateral US withdrawal risks wiping out one of the few bright spots of progress in this wretched war, and one which should be serving as a model for what can, in due course, happen in the rest of the country. Only by having a proper multilateral plan in place for withdrawal, while working with the UN to establish peacekeeping forces where necessary, could this progress continue.
In the now largely peaceful Kurdish-controlled Self-Administration Area of North-East Syria, secure educational facilities have been set up to teach children formerly living in areas controlled by ISIS about the rest of the world and about non-extremist values. Yet these are exactly the communities that would be thrown to the wolves if Donald Trump has his way.
So instead of Trump’s impulsive lurches in military policy, what we need to see now in Syria is a strategic approach on three fronts.
First, the continued reclamation of all remaining territory from ISIS, and the total destruction of all remnants of ISIS forces trapped in those enclaves.
Second, the resumption of genuine talks between all parties in the Syrian conflict, meeting without pre-conditions, to work towards a negotiated political solution; and the establishment of an inclusive government that can deliver the lasting peace, stability and unity the Syrian people deserve, as well as having the strength to stop any re-emergence of ISIS as a serious force there.
And third, as part of that settlement, we need to see all foreign powers who have intervened in Syria withdraw from the country, and focus on providing support with the reconstruction it so desperately needs, not aiding in its continued destruction.
Yet again, Syria stands at a fork in the road.
Down one path lies the final elimination of ISIS, and a concerted effort by all sides to negotiate a political solution, an end to the conflict, and the start of an end to the humanitarian crisis.
Down the other path lies the opening of a whole new theatre of the conflict in North-East Syria, the betrayal of the Kurds, the continuation of the war into a ninth year, and the conditions that will allow ISIS to regroup and plan their resurgence.
Working under the auspices of the UN, combining the Geneva and Astana processes could rid the country of the dozen or so foreign powers that have intervened militarily and restore peace and stability to the people of Syria.