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U.S. Troop Withdrawal Creates Opening for Revitalized Syrian Regime

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/2/2019 Raja Abdulrahim
© Carol Guzy/Zuma Press

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad clawed back control over much of his country with the help of Russia and Iran. Now he is poised to take back much of the rest—in large part because of the U.S.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from northeastern Syria reordered the security landscape in the country, opening the door for Mr. Assad to reclaim areas he hasn’t held in years.

The Syrian leader will still face numerous challenges. The U.S. is keeping some troops behind to guard oil fields, Turkish forces are pushing into northern Syria and Kurds governing swaths of eastern Syria want to hold on to at least some autonomy.

Kurdish forces have turned to Mr. Assad for protection against the Turkish offensive bent on driving them away from its border, allowing the Syrian military to return and begin re-establishing the central Damascus government’s control.

“Definitely he gains without having to pay or fight,” said a Western diplomat in the region. “Once you give the keys over, it means the regime will, perhaps over some time, return to complete control.”

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Upon entering parts of northeastern Syria in recent weeks, the Syrian military promptly raised the Syrian national flag and brought with it photos of Mr. Assad. State media portrayed the operation as the government doing its duty to protect the homeland and reported that army units were welcomed by residents throwing rice and roses.

While some residents have greeted the return of the regime as a bulwark against the Turkish offensive, many others fears what the return of an Assad police state will mean for the thousands in the northeast who are wanted for opposing the regime or refusing mandatory conscription. As government military units move in, some fearful residents are considering fleeing toward the border.

Still, the return of government forces to parts of northeastern Syria helps bolster Mr. Assad’s claim that his regime is the only viable government for the country. It also undermines U.S. efforts to prevent regional states from normalizing relations with the once pariah state. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Arab governments against rapprochement with the Syrian regime.

Already some Arab states, such as Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, have reopened embassies or sent diplomatic delegations to Damascus. That trend will likely gain momentum, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“The American withdrawal is a big win for the Syrian government and for its allies, Russia and Iran,” Mr. Landis said.

On Wednesday, the Syrian Defense Ministry invited fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led force that Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train, arm and support, to become part of the national Syrian army. In response, the commander of the SDF said in a tweet that they proposed having the entire SDF become part of Syria’s defense forces.

The Trump administration now says it plans to keep some troops in eastern Syria to maintain Kurdish control over the country’s oil fields, complicating Mr. Assad’s plans. President Trump decided to safeguard the oil after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) urged him to consider its potential importance, saying he wants to deny the Assad regime and Iran use of the oil fields.

The Syrian government has already granted contracts for the oil fields to Russian companies, widely seen as a quid pro quo for Russia’s backing of the regime.

Turkey and its proxy Syrian rebel fighters are continuing to push further into northern Syria as its offensive lingers into a fourth week, despite two separate cease-fire deals. Now there are low-level clashes between Turkish-backed fighters and the Syrian military, 18 of whose soldiers were captured on Tuesday, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry and pro-regime media. Early Friday, the defense ministry said it had handed over the soldiers to Russia.

There are still questions about how Mr. Assad would govern a reconstituted Syria, if that occurs. The Kurdish-led administration that has governed northeast Syria semiautonomously for years still hopes to maintain some level of self-determination.

In a TV interview broadcast Thursday night, Mr. Assad said the agreement to deploy the Syrian army in the northeast would eventually allow for the complete return of government authority, though he said obstacles remained.

“But the ultimate goal is to return to the situation as it used to be previously which is the full control of the state,” he said, according to a transcript published by Syrian state media.

Another question is whether Syrian forces will also try to retake the province of Idlib, a small pocket of territory in northwest Syria that is controlled by opposition rebels and extremist groups. A U.S. raid in the area led to the suicide death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend.

For now, Idlib remains partially protected under a yearlong agreement between Turkey and Russia, but earlier this month Mr. Assad visited his military on the front lines in what was seen as a sign of an impending offensive.

At its weakest point several years ago, the Assad regime controlled less than a third of Syria. Since then, it has gradually recaptured territory, mostly through brutal military offensives that have left thousands dead and entire areas destroyed. Russian air power and Iran-backed foreign militias were vital to this comeback given the regime’s decimated military ranks.

Last week, the government dispatched the country’s highest Muslim cleric to lead Friday prayers in the city of Hasakah near the Turkish border, as a way to further establish its presence. The government has also tried to highlight its efforts to provide people in Kurdish-controlled areas with basic services such as water and electricity and repair infrastructure damaged in the Turkish offensive into northern Syria.

A Foreign Ministry official told state media that the government would work to welcome its citizens back and reintegrate them into Syrian society. The Syrian regime has long accused the U.S.-backed SDF, which is dominated by Kurdish commanders and fighters, of being separatists wanting independence for northeast Syria.

Kurdish officials insist that their deal for protection from the regime, which they reached with Damascus in the hours after Mr. Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, was just a military agreement, and that a broader political arrangement needs to be negotiated. On Sunday it called on the Russian government, which mediated the first deal, to ensure a “constructive dialogue” between the Kurdish administration and the Syrian government.

Previous talks between the two sides have fallen apart because the Syrian government was unwilling to make any concessions, Kurdish leaders have said. In other areas the regime has recaptured it has bulldozed any opposition, reasserting its iron-fisted rule.

Syrian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

One of the biggest challenges facing the regime’s return to the northeast is the sudden decision by Mr. Trump to keep U.S. forces at oil fields.

Retaking control of Syria’s oil resources has long been a priority for Mr. Assad, in part to reward his allies. Russia, whose support has helped bring the regime back from the brink of defeat, characterized the U.S. decision as “international state banditry.”

“Absolutely all hydrocarbon accumulations and other mineral resources located on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic do not belong to the IS terrorists, and definitely not to the ‘American defenders from IS terrorists,’ but exclusively to the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a recent statement.

“Syria is deeply in debt to Moscow. It is also in debt to Tehran. Both have stood by their ally through thick and thin,” Mr. Landis said. “They will want payback but they also need Damascus to get back on its feet.”

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com

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