January 30, 2019 Special Dispatch No. 7867

In Syrian Opposition, Harsh Criticism Of U.S. Decision To Withdraw From Syria

January 30, 2019
Iran, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 7867

U.S. President Trump's December 19, 2018 announcement that the U.S. would withdraw its forces from Syria came as a surprise to many, and prompted a range of reactions in Syria, Arab countries, and worldwide.[1] Most reactions from the Syrian opposition reflected disappointment along with apprehensions about what would follow. Top Syrian political opposition officials warned that terrorist elements, primarily the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran-backed forces, would fill the vacuum left by the U.S., and that the withdrawal would strengthen the Syrian regime, Russia, and Turkey and would harm the Kurds and supporters of the Syrian revolution.

These fears were expressed also in articles published by the opposition or journalists identified with it, some of whom harshly criticized the U.S., saying that it abandoned its allies, was acting selfishly, and was to blame for the crisis in Syria and for the destruction it  had wreaked. Some noted that the withdrawal would prompt the opposition to stop deluding itself that it could rely on the U.S., and compared the U.S.'s actions in the Syria crisis with its actions during the Holocaust era.  

In contrast, some opposition elements close to Turkey expressed hope that the latter could fill the vacuum and that the Turkish army could now launch a long-planned operation in northeast Syria.

This report will review Syrian oppositionists' reactions to the U.S. announcement that it would withdraw its forces from Syria.

Top Opposition Officials: Iran Will Fill The Vacuum Left By The U.S.

Nasser Al-Hariri, chairman of the High Negotiations Committee, the body representing the Syrian opposition in political negotiations, attacked President Trump's announcement, saying that it was not well thought out and that it could have very negative consequences. He tweeted on December 23: "The U.S. withdrawal is poorly considered and could create a vacuum, to be filled by ISIS or by the Syrian regime and the Iranian militias. Thus we strongly support the idea of a gradual withdrawal, in full cooperation and coordination with the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, the Turkey-supported united armed opposition factions in northwest Syria, and local activists..., in order to prevent these dangerous outcomes."[2]  

At a January 6, 2019 press conference in Riyadh, Al-Hariri reiterated his fear that Iran would take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal to infiltrate deeper into Syria, and more openly criticized the U.S., calling for it to take measures to prevent this from happening. He said: "We call on the U.S. and the friendly countries to take responsibility for the withdrawal from Syria and to prevent an additional tragedy... [The withdrawal] will have dangerous consequences, first and foremost an incursion by the Iranian militias into areas vacated by the American forces – meaning a reemergence of branches of the terror organizations."[3] He said further: "We hoped that the U.S. would withdraw only after ejecting Iran from Syria. We are in touch with all the elements in order [to assure] that the withdrawal takes place in a planned and gradual manner and does not leave a vacuum to be filled by Iran, [its] terror militias, and ISIS. There is nothing to be done but to involve the residents of the regions from which the U.S. is withdrawing, in order to prevent a vacuum and developments destructive to the political process and to the international community's efforts ".[4]

Harsher criticism of President Trump's announcement came from High Negotiations Committee spokesman Yahya Al-'Aridi: "[The withdrawal is] an incomprehensible move, unless [it emanates from] a president in the midst of an internal crisis who wants to cover up something with something worse, or who is hard-hearted, or is being coerced into doing something by an element that is extorting him and forcing him to act against U.S. national security. Or perhaps he is being tricked, or [is acting] or on orders from Israel or someone else..."[5]

Some opposition elements guessed that the withdrawal would be partial. For example, Fateh Hassoun, a commander in the National Liberation Front/Tahrir Al-Watan movement who headed the military committee of the Syrian opposition delegation to the Astana talks, stated: "The announcement of the U.S. withdrawal constitutes political haggling by Trump and his opponents [in the U.S.], since the bazaar among them is already open." He added: "If the withdrawal does indeed take place, I assess that it will be partial. [The troops will relocate] to [other] American bases that will serve as control centers. [I] also [assess] that the aircraft of the [international] coalition [fighting ISIS] that are commanded by the U.S. will continue to operate, as happened before in enforcing the no-fly zone in northern Iraq."[6]

In contrast, it appears that opposition elements close to Turkey, among them the Syrian National Army, perceive the withdrawal as a more positive development, because it would allow Turkey greater freedom of operation in northeastern Syria. Top National Army officials expressed hope that Turkey would fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, and announced that Turkish forces could then set in motion a long-planned operation to subdue the Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Some of them even called on the Kurds to sever relations with the PKK and join them and Turkey.[7]

Articles By Oppositionists And Opposition Writers: Fear Of The Future, Disappointment With U.S. 

The Syrian opposition's apprehensions and criticism of President Trump's announcement were also expressed in articles by oppositionists and journalists identified with the opposition. They warned about Iran's current entrenchment in the region and accused the U.S. of abandoning its allies. However, they also noted that the withdrawal would put an end to the opposition's delusions that it could rely on the U.S.

Syrian Oppositionist: The U.S. Withdrawal Is A Gift To Iran

Syrian Christian oppositionist and human rights activist Michel Kilo wrote in the London-based Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily that the unexpected U.S. withdrawal is another blow against the world order by President Trump, and warned that it would serve Iran: "The decision came suddenly, and was neither understood nor logical. It was unilateral, not coordinated with anyone. Otherwise, how is it possible to explain the statement by U.S. Secretary of State envoy James Jeffrey, two days previously [i.e. on December 17], that American forces would remain in Syria until there is a political transition and until Iran leaves it? Are such declarations, that Trump himself made [as well], mere lies aimed at tricking the Kurds, on the pretext of fighting terrorism, and at [tricking] the rest of the Syrians with talk about a political transition and expulsion of Iran?... In short, this is a blow that will be lethal to the regional and global order that exists today in and around the Arab world. [This] blow joins [President] Trump's staggering blows to the world order, that will almost certainly prepare the ground so that Iran can continue to burden the region, allowing it to complete its takeover of Syria and to strengthen its positions in Syria vis-à-vis Russia, Turkey, and Israel..."[8]

Syrian Journalist: After It Withdraws, The U.S. Will Become Marginal And Lose All Influence In Syria

Likewise, Syrian journalist Ghazi Dahman stated that the U.S. withdrawal would marginalize the U.S. in all matters concerning a solution to the crisis, and would speed up Iran's establishment in eastern Syria. He wrote: "The American presence in Syria, despite its disadvantages, is the only element [that can] create a balance, delicate as it may be, in the struggle against the Russian and Iranian takeover [of the Syrian arena], in the absence of a UN presence or the presence of any other international element...

"The Americans' decision to withdraw destroys any chance of creating a reasonable balance [that will lead to] the formation of a political order. This withdrawal will neutralize any motivation or incentive for the other side [i.e. the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad] to go down the path of such an arrangement. When the U.S. completes its withdrawal east of the Euphrates, it will become marginal and lose all influence, except in bargaining with the Syria rehabilitation card... Perhaps the most important question in this matter is connected to Iran's presence and fate in this sensitive region, because Iran sees this as an important region for its future influence – it has already turned [the city of] Al-Bukamal and its environs into a jumping-off point for future activity, particularly with regard to Shi'ization and to changing the demographics in Syria's Jazira region. It has even created many militias comprising locals, and has turned these tribes into Shi'ites, particularly the tribes affiliated with the family of the Prophet Muhammad, which happens to be widespread in the region. This is where Iran has impressive logistical capabilities because of the direct land routes between Tehran and eastern Syria and because of [the presence of] the Iraqi Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi militias in the region facing the Syrian Jazira region.[9]

"Accordingly, everything that the Trump administration has done recently allows Iran to establish itself as a force capable of taking over the eastern Euphrates after the U.S. leaves it. Furthermore, it seems that Iran, with its experience in American haste and rapid evasion of its commitments, has prepared itself well for this day."[10]

Syrian Oppositionist: The Withdrawal Will Prompt The Opposition To Stop Deluding Itself, And Free It From Relying On The Flimsy U.S. Reed

Among the oppositionists there were also those who were harshly critical of the U.S. because, they said, it had proven once again to be unreliable and that it abandons its allies. Burhan Ghalioun, former chairman of the Syrian Transitional National Council, wrote of his fear that Iran and terrorist elements would take over the areas vacated by the Americans, but added that the withdrawal would prompt the opposition to wise up and stop relying on the U.S. whose unreliability is proven. He wrote:

"This move [i.e. the U.S. withdrawal] is likely to generate many dangers. First is... [the danger that] the Islamic State [ISIS] will return to play a more significant role in Syria and in the region – [a danger] that will increase Iran's chance of assuring [for itself] an open path to the Mediterranean... It may even [increase] the hopes of the genocide regime in Syria of retaking another area in Al-Hasaka province [north of eastern Syria, populated mostly by Assyrians and Kurds]. Yet despite these dangers, I think that this withdrawal [also] brings an element of liberation, since it is a step along the way to unloading the great delusion regarding the American superpower and the destructive and dubious gamble, by many social and national forces as well as by regimes in the region and in the world, that this superpower will actualize their goals...

"If we look at the results of the American military intervention in the near and more distant vicinity over the past three decades, we see that they all ended in catastrophe... In the case of Syria, the illusion cultivated by the U.S. policy caused many, if not all, actors to miscalculate, and it complicated the conflict in a way that is difficult to undo and to extricate [ourselves] from. And now it is abandoning the Syrian dossier after thwarting all opportunities to reach a solution, [and] turning the country into an outpost where a criminal regime has dug in... with Tehran's and Russia's support, and has divided the society into regions controlled by foreign militias with foreign support, which caused the residents to emigrate, seeking safety and bread across the five continents of the world...

"The Americans' withdrawal today liberates the Syrians, the residents of the Gulf countries, and the Kurds from their delusions in gambling on an American presence... [It liberates them from] the [Americans'] egoism and use of others to serve their goals and subsequent abandonment of them to their fate when the goal is achieved, or not... Likewise, the Gulf countries will always fail if they bet that the U.S. will protect them. It [i.e. the U.S.] loots their coffers, but when the bill comes due there is nothing to prevent them from saying, We are not going to sacrifice our young people for you.' Also, it would be wise for Syria's Kurds – who were always part of [Syria's] social fabric and of its political, educational, military, and technological elite, and who have participated in the building of state and society since its founding – to free themselves from the delusion of [attaining] a state or quasi-state that almost made them foreigners in their society and on their land, and to participate equally with the rest of the Syrians in actualizing the project of a democratic Syria that will be certainly come to fruition soon..."[11]

U.S. declares its withdrawal from Syria, announcing "Mission Accomplished"  leaving behind destruction (Source: Alaraby, UK, December 22, 2018)

Syrian Human Rights Activist: Also During The Holocaust, The U.S. Did Not Meet Its Humanitarian Obligations

Following his visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Syrian journalist and human rights activist Mansour Al-'Omari compared the U.S.'s reactions to reports of humanitarian disasters during the Holocaust to its actions today in Syria. He wrote: "In my visit to the exhibit, [I imagined] myself back in that period. In every photo, item of information, and quote I read [in the exhibit], I saw what is happening today in Syria to the Syrians. What amazed me is the similarity between the past and the present, in all things connected to U.S. policy in humanitarian issues.

"When information about the Auschwitz concentration camp and about the crematoria for the Jews [began] to spread during World War II, a debate began about the best way to tackle this ongoing crime. Should we bomb the Nazi concentration camps or not? In the spring of 1944, the Allies received more precise information about the mass murder by gas at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jewish organizations submitted various proposals to stop the campaign of extermination and to save Europe's remaining Jews. A small number of Jews called for bombing the gas chambers at Auschwitz, while others opposed this. The Allies feared that killing the prisoners in this camp would allow the Nazis to [disseminate] propaganda showing them pretending to lament the killing of the camp's prisoners.

"The same exact argument broke out [in May 2017] after the U.S. State Department released photos of the crematory operated by the Assad regime in Sednaya prison in Syria[12] to burn the bodies of the victims and hide its crimes. Should the crematorium be bombed in order to stop [its operation]? Or would this serve Assad for propaganda [purposes], and hide the evidence of facilities that help Assad complete his crime by making the corpses disappear?

"When Obama declared that he would punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, in 2013, human rights organizations hastened to obtain precise information on where prisoners were being held in Assad's military camps and intelligence centers. It was expected that he would [order] aerial bombing of these sites. The prisoners [there] might lose their lives, and this was surely one of the reasons why the Assad regime kept so many of them at its intelligence headquarters, whether in airplane hangars at the Al-Mezzeh airbase or at air force intelligence headquarters. [But] Obama backed down from his [own] red line...

"Historic comparison is the best way to understand a current surprising policy such as the U.S.'s withdrawal from Syria, and more."[13] 

The U.S. withdrawal as an Iran-U.S. deal, as the two split control of the "Arab ummah" (Source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, December 25, 2018)


[2] @Nasr_Hariri, December 23, 2018.

[3], January 6, 2019.

[4] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), January 7, 2019.

[5], December 23, 2018.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 19, 2018. In Operation Northern Watch, a U.S. European Command Combined Task Force (CTF) was charged with enforcing the UN-mandated no-fly zone above the 36th parallel in Iraq.

[7], December 19, 2018;, December 21, 2018.

[8], December 22, 2018.

[10], December 25, 2018.

[11] Alaraby (UK), December 30, 2018.

[12], May 15, 2017.

[13], December 23, 2018.

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