President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria sparked a political firestorm in Washington D.C. that still has not subsided one week later.
As the White House finds itself bombarded by criticism from all sides over this decision, one line of attack has gained particular steam. Trump’s change of course on Syria is nothing less than a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a surrender of American national interests to Moscow, his opponents in the media and on Capitol Hill insist.
A cursory look at some recent headlines reveals how central Russia is to the current outcry over Trump’s withdrawal and the ensuing Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria. “Russia Savors U.S. Missteps in Syria, and Seizes Opportunity,” claimed The New York Times. “In Syria, Russia’s big moment may have arrived,” declared CNN. “Trump hands Putin another win with Syria pullout,” asserted The Washington Post.
But how accurate is this view? The truth is that Russia is far from thrilled about the current situation in Syria. Although Moscow is not sad to see American troops leave the country, it regards Turkey’s intervention more as a problem than as an opportunity. (RELATED: Moving Troops Out Of Syria Was The Right Call, And Trump Should Go Further)
Just consider a statement yesterday by Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s special envoy to Syria. When asked by reporters if Turkey had consulted with Russia prior to launching its military operation, Lavrentiev offered an unusually blunt rebuke of Ankara’s actions.
“No. We had always urged Turkey to show restraint and always considered some kind of military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable,” he said.
“The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length. That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition,” Lavrentiev added.
Although Putin himself has been careful to avoid directly criticizing Erdogan, he too has signaled his displeasure with Turkey’s offensive. In a weekend interview with Saudi television, the Russian president called upon all foreign militaries not invited by the Assad regime to get out. (RELATED: Turkey Launches Military Offensive In Northern Syria As US Troops Leave The Region)
“Everyone who is illegitimately on the territory of any state, in this case Syria, must leave this territory. This applies to all states,” he said.
Even though Putin did not single out Turkey by name, it was clear to everyone watching who he was talking about.
Moscow’s negative reaction to Turkey’s military operation is unsurprising when one considers what’s at stake for Russia. Ever since the Syrian Civil War broke out 2011, Russia has sought to help the Assad regime regain control of the country. Turkey’s invasion threatens to derail that outcome just as pro-Assad forces appear on the cusp of victory. There is no guarantee that Ankara will be able to wrap up its military operation quickly, creating the prospect of a prolonged Turkish military deployment in northeastern Syria.
As Putin’s comments about foreign troops in Syria make clear, that’s not a scenario Russia wants to see at all.
Another concern that many in Moscow have is that the conflict could put a serious strain on its emerging partnership with Ankara. Over the past few years, Russia and Turkey have managed to strengthen their economic and military ties despite major differences over Syria. Erdogan purchased the Russian S-400 air-defense system earlier this summer despite threats from Washington that it would kick Turkey out the F-35 program and impose sanctions.
Now these enormous gains could be in jeopardy, many Russian observers fear. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the United States deliberately put the Russia in a “trap” by withdrawing from Syria.
Artyom Sheynin, the host of the popular Russian political talk-show Time Will Tell, argued that it seemed as though Trump was purposefully trying to fuel tensions between Russia and Turkey over Syria. (RELATED: Here Is The Letter President Trump Reportedly Sent To Turkish President Erdogan After Pulling Troops From Syria)
“In this situation, can we discern a very subtle tactical and strategic game by the Americans, as a result of which they leave [northeastern Syria], the Turks enter, the Kurds ask the Syrians for help, and then we – not they – find ourselves between the Syrians and the Turks,” he said.
Finally, the Kremlin shares the fear of many in the West that the Turkish invasion could lead to an ISIS revival. In an interview over the weekend, Putin expressed concern that as the Turkish advance into northeastern Syria continues, thousands of imprisoned ISIS fighters currently under Kurdish watch could break free.
“There are zones located in the north of Syria where Islamic State militants are concentrated. They were guarded until now by Kurdish armed forces,” he said. “Now the Turkish army is going in, the Kurds are abandoning these camps. They could just escape.”
“I’m not sure if the Turkish army can rapidly get this under control,” Putin added.
To be sure, this crisis does present some opportunities for Russia. Now that the Kurds can no longer rely on Washington as a client, they have turned to Damascus and Moscow instead. If Putin manages to orchestrate a settlement between the Kurds and the Assad regime that will also be acceptable to Turkey, then he will solidify his reputation as major dealmaker in the Middle East.
But this is a best-case scenario that is far from certain. Striking a deal with the famously unpredictable the Turkish president will be far from easy, especially at a time when his political opponents at home are gaining momentum. If Erdogan’s offensive leads to protracted battle between Turkey and the Kurds and thousands of ISIS militants escape from their prison cells, two outcomes some experts think are more likely than not, then Moscow will have its hands full.
Sooner rather than later, we may be calling Trump’s withdrawal from Syria as a headache for Putin instead of a gift.