Most western experts (and western journalists) have negatively evaluated President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Over the past month, the president has been accused of chaotic policies (an accusation which is already customary) and acting to the detriment of the interests of the United States and to the benefit of Russia (an even more familiar accusation) and even Turkey (something new). The head of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Richard N. Haas, said that after the betrayal of the Kurds, the United States has allegedly “reinforced already existing doubts in the region and around the world that the United States remains a reliable ally.” Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post that the actions of the White House are the result of the president’s knowledge-free foreign policy.
Another prominent figure from the Obama era, Admiral James Stavridis, said that “Assad, Putin, Erdogan and ISIS” benefited from the president’s policies in Syria, while the United States, the Kurds, Israel and the US’ Arab allies lost the battle. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and many other experts and journalists who have touched on this topic also expressed their anger and disappointment, but is their anger justified?
Americans start and win
On October 7, US President Donald Trump confirmed information on the withdrawal of US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border. Following this, Turkey announced the start of Operation Peace Spring. The American leadership was subsequently accused of betrayal of the Syrian Kurds.
Over the last month, US actions in Syria have appeared chaotic and inconsistent. For example, the United States first imposed sanctions against Turkey, and then canceled them. First, they began to withdraw troops from Syria, leaving parts of their bases, but then returned troops to the country to control oil fields and build new bases.
All this led to talk in the media about the defeat or at least the weakening of the United States. However, such estimates are rather premature. If you look at the results of Washington’s actions related to Operation Source of Peace, you will notice that the Trump administration has remained in the black overall.
- In the field of domestic politics, Trump managed to show his voters that he began to withdraw troops from Syria. According to opinion polls, people who voted for Trump in 2016 supported this move even at the cost of abandoning the Kurds.
- At the same time, by threatening Turkey, the Trump administration was able to demonstrate its rigidity to the “hawks”, showing that it did not cave under pressure.
- In regard to relations with Ankara, the Trump administration has found the right balance of threats and promises. Washington does not believe that Turkey can withdraw from NATO. The fact that President Erdogan received the American delegation after Trump’s openly boorish letter only assured Americans that Turkey can and should be pressed, and most of the angry rhetoric of its leaders is a bluff.
- In fact, despite the loud declarations, US troops did not actually leave Syria, they retain their influence over the country’s oil fields. This is an important tool of political pressure on the other parties to the conflict. To restore the country’s economy, the Syrians will need this oil. This means that Damascus, Ankara and Moscow will have to negotiate the future of Syria with the Americans.
- One of the main problems of relations with Ankara for Washington was their support of the Syrian Kurds ( PYD – YPG ) in the regions of Syria bordering Turkey. Now the responsibility for the actions of the Kurds near the Turkish border lies with Russia and Syria. The United States shifted the costs of its interaction with the Kurds to its rivals. This might also give new impetus to expand US-Turkish collaboration.
- At the same time, the Kurds are not controlled by Damascus and Moscow completely. Until now, they have turned to Washington with a request to introduce a no-fly zone and claim that they have reservations in relations with the Syrian “regime” and the “Russians.” Obviously, ties between US and Israeli intelligence and these structures have been preserved. So, while retaining partial support for the Kurds, the United States can destabilize the situation in the area of contact between Turkish, Russian and Syrian troops, blaming the Syrians and Russians.
- Even the liberation of ISIS militants during the Turkish military operation threatens the Syrians, the Turks themselves, the Europeans and the Russians more than the US which is located over 5,000 km away.
Turkey, having launched Operation Peace Spring, has also significantly strengthened its position.
- It created a buffer zone on the border, thus protecting its border areas from YPG attacks.
- It has expanded its controlled territory in Syria.
- It created a zone to accommodate part of the Syrian refugees, thereby reducing the burden on their own country.
- Ankara has demonstrated to the Syrian opposition that it is still being supported. Ankara, strengthening its military presence in Syria, demonstrates that is impossible to decide the fate of the country without Turkey.
- The Kurdish quasi-state in Northern Syria has ceased to exist.
- The expansion of the control zone did not happen at the cost of losing Idlib.
Russians: challenges and problems
Russia also played an important role in this story. There are several obvious pros from their involvement:
- The memorandum, signed by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 22, gave Moscow the opportunity to more actively play a role as a mediator in resolving conflict situations in Syria.
- The control of the Russian-friendly Assad government over territories in Syria has expanded.
- The Kurdish quasi-state has ceased to exist to the benefit of Assad.
At the same time, the incomplete withdrawal of American troops from Syria and their firm intention to control the oil fields significantly complicated the positions of official Damascus and Moscow as well as Tehran:
- The main advantage of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria was regaining control over their oil. However, neither Damascus, nor Moscow, nor Tehran ended up with control.
- Covered by the large-scale military operations in northern Syria between Turkey and the Kurds, the SAA could eliminate the nest of terrorism and the armed opposition in Idlib. The Turkish operation opened up the possibility for Moscow to strike at Idlib, while Turkey was involved in fighting Kurds. This could also eliminate any immediate threat to the Russian base at Khmeimim.
However, the US peacekeeping mission did not allow Ankara to get bogged down in the fight against the Kurds to such a degree that Moscow and Tehran would be able to crush Idlib.
- Russia, beating out the United States as a guarantor of security on the Turkish-Syrian border, now bears all the costs that the United States had previously incurred. Russia is responsible for ensuring that the Turkish forces are safe so that there are no sabotage attacks by the Kurds. It bears responsibility for the restoration of cities destroyed by American aviation, the establishment of a peaceful life and the fight against ISIS terrorists. Accordingly, to fulfill this mission, Moscow must invest more resources in Syria, both financial and human.
- Finally, due to the Kurdish factor, for which the Russians are now responsible, relations with Turkey are becoming more fragile and require more active interaction and consultation. This is a challenge, an inadequate answer to which can destroy the architecture of the tripartite dialogue Moscow-Ankara-Tehran, which has developed recently in Syria.
Transfer of responsibility
Donald Trump himself previously unequivocally compared Russian participation in the Syrian campaign with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. ” Russia was involved in Afghanistan. Used to be called the Soviet Union. Now it’s called Russia for a reason, because they lost so much money in Afghanistan, that they had to downsize. A very big downsizing. So, if Russia wants to get involved with the — with Syria, that’s really up to them”, Trump noted back in mid-October.
According to an observer from Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Mukhin, Trump’s assessment is largely fair.
The prospects for victory in Syria for Moscow look vague, but it is increasingly drawn into the conflict. “Moscow continues the battle for the oil resources of the warring country, but victory in it is not obvious,” the expert said.
A professor at the US Military College of the United States of America, Lyle J. Goldstein, shares the assumption of the Russian expert
In the article “Did Russia Really Win the War in Syria?”, An American expert emphasizes that it’s premature to talk about some kind of Russian victory or the US defeat in Syria.
Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb expands the argument: the withdrawal of American troops from Syria creates more “headaches” than advantages for Moscow. Playing the “second fiddle” in the Middle East, it could take advantage of the differences that arise between the powers of the region and the United States. It was more profitable and less problematic than being the “first chair” and bears full responsibility for the region.
Similar thoughts were expressed by MIT professor Carol R. Saivetz this spring: the US withdrawal from the region makes Russia fully responsible for all of the quarrels between the Turks and the Kurds, Ankara and Damascus, Tehran and Tel Aviv. This burden of responsibility could crush Moscow’s image as intermediary between various parties of the conflict in Syria.
As a result, we can take not of what is not so much the liquidation of American presence in Syria, but a change in its status and format. Washington maintains control over key assets in Syria, but has radically reduced its responsibility for what is happening– the result is a strong minimization of costs. The costs that were previously endured by the United States are now passed onto the shoulders of other players: Turkey and Russia (primarily Russia). At the same time, due to the preservation of partial ties with the Syrian Kurds, the United States still has in its hands an instrument to destabilize the peace process and undermine Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria.
The criticism of the Trump administration by the American expert community, which claims that the actions of the White House led to the strengthening of opponents: Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, look too ideological and unfounded. Firstly, there is no serious reason to consider the situation in Syria from the perspective of a “zero-sum game”. Winning for Moscow, let alone Turkey’s NATO ally, is not always a loss for the United States.
Secondly, through its actions the United States has complicated the situation for Moscow. If they had completely withdrawn their troops from Syria, one could speak of a serious victory for the competitors of the United States. In fact, Washington is simply regrouping their troops, which puts Moscow in a rather vulnerable position. It is too early to count out Washington’s Syrian strategy.