President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria was widely described as a gift to Russia, and many pundits and politicians were quick to say that Moscow would be the sole beneficiary of such a move. But is that really true? Will Russia actually benefit from a U.S. withdrawal?
At first glance that might seem to be the case, as Moscow looks to be unchecked in Syria, along with its partners in Damascus and Tehran. But dig a little deeper and the situation becomes much less clear — and much less “winner take all” for Russia. In reality, Trump’s decision creates a lot of ambiguity and complexity.
In the first place, there are no details on how exactly the withdrawal will work. It is unclear whether it will be a complete pullout or a partial drawdown. If the military withdraws, will the U.S. leave a limited contingent of special forces and CIA operatives in place? Will it maintain its train-and-equip program for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and give them intelligence and reconnaissance data? Will Washington continue to provide air cover for SDF-held areas? Will the U.S. also withdraw its forces from at-Tanf in Syria’s south? Will American private military companies maintain their presence to the east of the Euphrates?
So far none of these questions has a clear answer. Until we know more we should not rush to conclusions about what the U.S. move could mean, and it is certainly too early to argue about Russia benefitting from it. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed serious skepticism about Trump’s decision during his big annual news conference, saying, “So far, we have not seen any evidence of their withdrawal, but I suppose it is possible.”
The nature of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the reality on the ground will affect other actors’ behavior as well. As the Pentagon and key European partners have made clear, they do not agree with President Trump’s statement about the defeat of ISIS in Syria. This is why, even if the U.S. does withdraw its forces, it may well leave behind a limited contingent of special forces and CIA operatives to prevent any major military escalation, avoid excessively strengthening the Turks and Iranians, and limit ISIS’s resurgence. On top of that, French and British forces are still in place east of the Euphrates. So far, they have no plans to leave and their countries have been highly critical of the U.S. decision.
Secondly, no one should fool themselves about the nature of the U.S. role in Syria. It played and plays quite a marginal part in the conflict. According to official Pentagon data, the U.S. has just over 2,000 troops in Syria, although there are reports that this number may be higher. That said, the primary role of U.S. forces in Syria is not fighting but rather arming and training the SDF, assisting them in the campaign against ISIS, keeping Iranian influence in check, and guaranteeing that none of the regional actors – Turkey, Iran, or the Syrian government – carries out large-scale military offensive against the Kurds.
Thirdly, Turkey and Iran both have a far greater military presence in Syria than the U.S. or even Russia. These two actors, together with the Syrian Arab Army, are the main forces on the ground and have the greatest influence and impact on the ebb and flow of the conflict.
Interestingly, in this context the roles of the U.S. and Russia are quite similar: Both parties act as restraining factors, and their limited military presence in Syria deters regional actors – Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the Syrian government – from large-scale escalation.
Another important point is that Turkey is a NATO member and a major U.S. ally. Trump’s move could be seen as an effort to fix Washington’s relations with Ankara. In this context, the U.S. troop withdrawal and the earlier State Department decision to approve the $3.5 billion sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey might be seen as reconciliatory gestures to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds has long been a major point of contention in U.S.-Turkey relations. Ankara views the SDF, and in particular People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist group. In recent weeks Ankara had been threatening to carry out a large-scale offensive against terrorist positions in SDF-held areas. Now, judging by Erdogan’s statements, the U.S. and Turkey may have managed to reach some sort of a deal to avoid that.
For Turkey conducting large-scale military operation east of the Euphrates is a much greater challenge as it requires far more resources and planning than previous operations against Kurdish-held areas north of Aleppo. Given the country’s economic problems and the need to take into account the U.S. position on the SDF, it was a logical move for Trump and Erdogan to strike a deal that ensures Turkey doesn’t lose face and can carry out a limited anti-terror operation, on the one hand, and that the U.S. can improve its relations with Turkey and make Ankara responsible for eliminating what remains of ISIS in the area, on the other.
As a result, Trump’s decision creates more uncertainty than clarity, while the potential benefits for Moscow are much less obvious. Given that Washington and Ankara seem to be on a path toward reconciliation on Syria, it creates new risks for Moscow and raises new questions. Will the Russia-Turkey Idlib agreement remain relevant? Is Ankara still capable of negotiating a deal on east of the Euphrates with Moscow? Will Turkey change its behavior in and commitment to the Astana format? All of these uncertainties create additional risks for Moscow.
So far, Turkey is the main beneficiary of the U.S. move. It received concessions on the purchase of U.S. Patriot missiles and on the SDF. If the U.S. does pull out all of its military forces from Syria, then Turkey might try to replace it, a move which would likely require it to offer guarantees that it will eliminate what remains of ISIS, keep Iran from filling the power vacuum, and more or less keep control of the Kurds. Were this to happen, the Syrian Kurds would likely be more inclined to negotiate with Moscow and Damascus about the terms of their reintegration under Syrian government rule. In fact, these talks are likely underway, with a delegation of Syrian Kurds arriving in Moscow on Dec. 24. They already conducted three rounds of talks with Damascus and now have even more incentive to continue negotiating a deal.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops could create a number of foreign policy challenges for Moscow. Russia-Turkey relations could potentially sour over the issue of the Kurds and Turkey-U.S. reconciliation. Moscow-Tehran ties might be put to the test if Iran tries to expand its influence as the U.S. pulls out. Russia-U.S. relations might also be harmed as the U.S. will likely seek to prevent Moscow from getting stronger in Syria via Turkey.
There is, however, at least one positive outcome for Moscow. If the U.S. does withdraw from Syria, Russia will remain the only global player with significant capabilities in the country. At a time when the risk of escalation is growing, Moscow could play an increasingly important role as a moderator between the Turks, Kurds, Iranians, and Syrians.
For now, it remains to be seen what the U.S. will actually do, and that will need to be compared with the reality on the ground. For now, Moscow doesn’t have overly optimistic expectations about the U.S. decision to pull out from Syria.
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