When power is balanced as delicately as it is in the Middle East, minor changes can have major consequences. So while 2,000 troops may not sound like much, Donald Trump's decision to withdraw them from eastern Syria has generated a rich list of winners and losers. Here's a rundown:
Russia: Nancy Pelosi's Dec. 20 description of the pullout as "a Christmas present to Vladimir Putin" is not off the mark. Not only has the Russian president gained leverage in Syria, he's now the chief arbiter across the entire Mashriq, the area from the Nile to the Tigris. But the pullout alters the balance of power in another arena as well: the Black Sea. The Nov. 26 fracas in the Kerch Strait, in which Russia captured three Ukrainian navy boats attempting to force their way through what Moscow regards as its territorial waters, ended in a clear Russian victory, because it showed that it could limit access to the Sea of Azov (and therefore to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk) without NATO able to do much in response.
It's a far cry from the heady days of February 2014, when the U.S. thought it could use the "AutoMaidan" protests in Kiev to force Russia out of its historic naval base at Sevastopol in the southern Crimea, a move that, if successful, would have virtually closed off Russian access to the Black Sea. But now the shoe is on the other foot. If the Syria pullout is a sign that the American appetite for foreign adventures is on the wane, Russia will gain even more room to maneuver -- not only in Syria but in the Black Sea as well.
Iran: The last time Iran opened a corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean was in the early seventh century, when it overran Syria and captured Jerusalem. Then the Byzantines counterattacked in 628, and the Arab conquests began in 632. With the U.S. out of Syria, the path is once again open from Iraq to Lebanon. It's a victory of historic proportions.
Turkey: Reportedly, Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria was born of a Dec. 14 phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "OK, it's all yours," the American president said. "We are done."
While the Turkish president can't be very happy to see his old enemy, Bashar Assad, return to power in Syria, an end to U.S. support for Kurdish separatists is a Christmas present in its own right.
Syria: In August 2011, Barack Obama called on Assad "to step aside" while Secretary of State Clinton entered into talks with Saudi Arabia and other "friends of Syria" about launching an armed Sunni invasion. But with Obama writing his memoirs and Clinton still nursing her wounds from 2016, the British-trained ophthalmologist can finally set about reunifying his country.
As heir to a 30-year family dictatorship, Assad was arguably little more than a Levantine Michael Corleone when he took office in July 2000. After withstanding a brutal seven-year assault by U.S.- and Saudi-backed mujahedeen , however, he's emerged as a hero of the Third World masses.
Democrats and neoconservatives: Rarely has a strategy backfired as roundly as the Dem-neocon approach has since 2011. In Libya, Clinton spent weeks persuading Qatar to join the anti-Gadhafi coalition, only to stand by and watch as the gas-rich sheikdom massively funded Islamist militias spreading anarchy from one end of the country to the other. Decades of social progress were erased, slavery was restored and Libya turned into a happy hunting ground for Islamic State and al-Qaida.
In Syria, the U.S. gave Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil monarchies the green light to flood the country with thousands of Wahhabi head-choppers, unleashing a sectarian war that may have cost upward of half a million lives. In the Ukraine, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, a Clinton protegee, encouraged an uprising spearheaded by the ultra-right that sent a legally elected president packing and ushered in a regime heavily dependent on neo-Nazi militias. In Yemen, the Obama administration couldn't say no to a Saudi-United Arab Emirates war of aggression that, after nearly four years, has killed as many as 80,000 people and brought up to 14 million more to the brink of starvation
The results have been every bit as destructive as the shock and awe that George W. Bush unleashed on Iraq in 2003. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney may have exaggerated when he said that Syrian withdrawal is "very popular with ordinary American people," but not by much. Certainly, no one is taking to the streets to keep the troops in place. Democrats have suffered a major rebuff, deservedly so.
Israel: The Jewish state had counted on U.S.- and Saudi-backed rebels to bring down Assad, even providing medical treatment to wounded al-Qaida fighters and all but formally backing an Islamic State. "If we have to choose between [Islamic State] and Assad, we'll take [Islamic State]," former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren explained. Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon echoed the sentiment, claiming: "[I]f the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State."
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