The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will cast its shadow over many “theaters” in the world, even if the size of the impact differs in each of them.
Syria may be one of the many countries where the impact will be stronger, for many reasons, the most important of which is that most of the “players” in this “theater”, such as the US and its allies, Russia, Iran, Turkey, ISIS, and its affiliates, are either involved in the Afghan war, or weaving networks to be “active” in the “land of the sun” and the rugged mountains.
- Help Me so I Help You -
The withdrawal of the Soviet Union forces from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s marked the turning of a page in the Cold War. Similarly, the departure of the Americans following their intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks is an indication of the beginning of a new stage - after the throes of the new world order - with the rise of China and the US-Russian search for intersections.
In this context, the summit of Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was held in Geneva in mid-June. The two leaders talked about strategic dialogue, despite differences, tensions, field clashes, and “cyber” strikes.
In remarks after the summit, the US president said that his Russian counterpart asked him about Afghanistan, saying that Russia hoped that some peace and security could be maintained there. Biden replied that this had a lot to do with Moscow. Putin said that he was ready to (help) in Afghanistan and Iran, and the US president responded by saying that his country wanted to help bring some stability and economic or material security to the peoples of Syria and Libya.
After the summit, the two presidents’ advisors held a secret meeting in Geneva, which paved the way for a joint draft submitted to the UN Security Council in New York, to extend the “cross-border” humanitarian aid resolution to Syria. This paved the way for the possibility of resuming US-Russian communication on a “political settlement” in Syria.
Rounds of the “strategic dialogue” between the two countries addressed major issues and trade-offs, given that Syria is important to Russia, Ukraine is essential to Europe, and Afghanistan, and withdrawal arrangements highly concern the US.
- Allies and Partners-
A delegation from the Taliban visited Russia to provide reassurances after the US withdrawal and its expansion in Afghanistan. It also sought to reassure other neighboring countries and their rival, the government in Kabul.
Will it be possible for Washington, Moscow, and their allies to push the two parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reach a power-sharing arrangement?
One of the areas, in which the two sides can also cooperate in Syria, is the East Euphrates-West Euphrates understanding, which was drawn up by the armies of the two countries in mid-2017, after two years of Russia’s intervention and three years of American presence.
US Middle East official Brett McGurk is one of the most vocal supporters of reaching arrangements between the Syrian Democratic Forces and its political wing on the one hand, and the Syrian government on the other, on the basis of securing the interests of the Kurdish allies before leaving the country.
The problem is that Washington’s abandonment of its allies in Afghanistan, and the urgent withdrawal were met with the rollback of the Taliban in the country and along its borders and gates.
Moreover, this withdrawal sent a message to America’s allies in Syria that they could meet the same fate. Indeed, the US military presence in eastern Syria under the Biden administration is more stable than it was during the administration of Donald Trump, who handed over his country’s opposition allies in southern Syria to Russia in mid-2018, and “divided” the areas east of the Euphrates between Turkey, the US and Russia at the end of 2019, however, Washington always says that its presence aims to prevent the return of ISIS, but is “not without end.”
Therefore, the door is open for the Russians to “help” the US in Afghanistan, in return for the US's “help” in strengthening the Russian presence in Syria.
- Opponents and Rivals -
There is no doubt that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib and the northwest of the country, is closely monitoring the US exit from Afghanistan for several reasons:
First: The leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham often sought to imitate the Taliban in the means of fighting and adapting to the outside and local communities.
Second: Many of them may view this as a model for how to deal with the Russian presence in the long term, so that its fate will be similar to the US presence in Afghanistan: fighting, followed by negotiations, then an exit.
Third: Examining how ISIS deals with this new reality: the movement was a rival to Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.
Iran is not new in the Afghan theater, but the recent period saw the emergence of the Turkish role with several aspects. First, there is an understanding with the US to contribute to the management of Kabul Airport, by deploying about a thousand “military experts” at this main crossing for international institutions and governments. There are indications that the Turkish services began negotiating with some Syrian fighters to go to Afghanistan and “protect the facilities” under Turkish supervision, in a similar intervention.
Alike Russia, Turkey will not help the US in the “land of the sun” for free. There is no doubt that one of the areas in which Turkey wants “a price” is in northeastern Syria, at the expense of arrangements concerning the future of the Kurds there.
In this context fell Ankara’s announcement that Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed the situation in Afghanistan and Syria in light of the “understandings” of Biden and Erdogan in Brussels.
- Donors and Refugees -
In addition to all these political and military aspects, there is a humanitarian dimension linking Syrians and Afghans together. Damascus universities attracted students from Kabul during the rule of Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah.
Afghanistan and Pakistan became a destination for the Syrian “mujahideen” against the “Soviets”, before some of them returned to the “motherland,” especially in the northwest of the country.
Moreover, over the past ten years, the two countries have been “competing” in two ways: Who will dominate the newscasts? Which country has the greatest number of refugees and displaced persons? According to the latest report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers increased by 4 percent in 2020, compared to a record number of 79.5 million at the end of 2019.
Last year, more than two-thirds of people who fled abroad were from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Venezuela (4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Burma (1.1 million).
Venezuela stole the spotlight temporarily from Syria and Afghanistan in the past year, but the US withdrawal may open the door for an “Afghan leap” to the fore in news, bombings, and conflicts between the Taliban and ISIS. This situation is likely to attract the interests of donors and international institutions, at the expense of Syria and support to the Syrians, especially amid the suffering of the world’s economies from the Covid-19 pandemic.