October 22, 2019

IntelBrief: Russia Reaps Benefits of U.S. Withdrawal

Turkish tanks and troops stationed near Syrian town of Manbij, Syria, Tuesday. Oct. 15, 2019. Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government and Turkish forces.(Ugur Can/DHA via AP).
  • As the United States continues its hasty withdrawal from Syria, Russia has consolidated immense leverage in the country.
  • Acting as Assad’s air force, Russia has helped to reverse the regime’s territorial losses, committing war crimes by targeting civilians and hospitals.
  • Given the recent U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russia will look to play an even more significant role in future territorial configurations.
  • As U.S. leverage is attenuated, Putin has intensified diplomatic outreach with regional powers, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran.

Russia has solidified its position as one of the most significant international actors in the Middle East in recent years, both a result of President Vladimir Putin’s push to increase his country’s role there and the simultaneous decline in U.S. influence. In recent weeks, President Putin has traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and spoken with Turkish President Erdogan, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Unlike the United States, Russia maintains working relationships with nearly every actor involved in Syria, affording Moscow a level of influence that no other country has been able to achieve throughout the eight-year long civil war.

Since 2015, Russia has served as the de facto air force for the Assad regime. At various points throughout the conflict, Russia’s airpower has titled the balance of power in favor of the regime, helping Assad avoid defeat by allowing the regime to regain critical territory. While doing so, Russia has committed numerous war crimes by deliberately bombing civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. Russia regularly rejects accusations of its role in causing civilian deaths, blithely labeling reports of collateral damage as disinformation and any civilian deaths as terrorists being neutralized. By assisting the Assad regime, Russia ensures its access to the Mediterranean Sea via its naval base at Tartus; it also operates a sizable air base in Latakia. These are important stepping stones from which Russia can project its power in the Middle East. Yet perhaps the greater value for Russia is juxtaposing its demonstrated support for Assad against the United States’ recent decision to disengage from northern Syria and leave its Kurdish partners to face the Turkish military. Russia proudly proclaims its loyalty, a clear sign to others in the region that Moscow is dependable, while Washington is fickle and unreliable in the long term.

Putin is positioning Russia as the essential power broker for any peace deal or political solution, even as the Kremlin continues to fight for Assad. Some Russian personnel are already patrolling zones along the border and many more could do so if Turkey and Russia work out an agreement, leaving the United States sidelined and marginalized in any post-conflict settlement. Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan are scheduled to meet on Tuesday, October 22nd. The abrupt manner in which the United States is withdrawing from Syria—announced via social media in a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump—is extremely damaging to the already weakened notion of Washington as a trusted friend and reliable ally.

The Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lost an estimated 11,000 fighters in the campaign to dismantle the so-called Islamic State. While the United States provided crucial support, including training and weapons,  the SDF carried out the lion’s share of the ground fighting. The October 21st images of Kurdish civilians pelting the withdrawing American forces with rocks and potatoes is both a crushing judgment of the poorly conceived decision by President Trump and a major propaganda coup for Putin. Over the past week, Russia Today (RT) and other Kremlin-linked propaganda have highlighted themes of the United States as an untrustworthy partner and the capricious and unpredictable nature of Trump’s foreign policy. Recent reporting that the United States will leave behind troops to ‘protect the oil’ in eastern Syria only reinforces the callous nature of American foreign policy which has repeatedly been cast in purely economic terms, with little thought apparently dedicated to the importance of securing allies in a region so geopolitically important. To this end, Russia has acted swiftly to capitalize upon U.S. missteps and fill the void in Syria and elsewhere while reinforcing the notion that Moscow has returned to its prior glory as a great power nation capable of providing leadership in a volatile region like the Middle East.


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