Donald Trump has handed Vladimir Putin a free gift in Syria by forcing the Kurds to strike a deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime to hand over Manbij, Kobane and other areas along the border to the Syrian army in their final push to survive Erdogan’s assault.
Yes, this was the deal from the beginning. Trump, in allowing the Turkish incursion was, in reality, clearing a path for Assad and Russia to regain control over northeast Syria.
Despite his constant blabber about Obama’s failures in Syria, Trump has just echoed his policy. Obama looked the other way when Russia decided in 2015 to fully intervene and crush the opposition. Trump has effectively granted a licence to Russia to finish the Kurds (using a Turkish enforcer) in 2019.
Whether you like it or not, Russia is taking the stage in the Middle East as the sole interlocutor in disputes, the guarantor for those desperate for protection. It wants to be seen as an honest deal broker, and the future flagship for stability in Syria. Trump has helpfully shepherded Putin towards this goal.
The US president’s “sand and death” doctrine on Syria pulled the plug on any western involvement and dovetailed neatly with Putin’s long-term objective of knocking out the Americans and Europeans. Under the Syrian peace process discussed in Astana, Russia forced the UN to back Putin’s promoted Syrian Constitutional Committee last month, his first step towards a peaceful resolution.
Thus the Kurdish dream to establish an autonomous region on the border with Turkey is done for good, as is the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, Turkey will bear the brunt of a rejuvenated Isis, Assad still has a long way to go in Idlib fighting al-Qaeda affiliates and as it deals with the humanitarian crisis throughout the country.
The only true winner is Russia.
From its new position of strength, Russia can guarantee contracts of exclusive access to the oil-rich area in northeast Syria, and holds sway over a large launch pad for influence across the whole Middle East and Africa. Russia is already involved in propping up General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and still pushing for establishing military bases in Egypt.
Trump has left even his voters utterly baffled. If the pullback of 1,000 soldiers from Syria has anything to do with his campaign promises to “bring our troops home”, why did he decide last week to send almost 3,000 extra troops to Saudi Arabia? Of course, the Kurds have no cash to pay.
The attack on the Saudi oil facility of Abqaiq, the drawdown of US troops from Syria, Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, and President Putin’s visit to the Gulf today mark a rapid transformation away from the post-second world war American hegemony.
Russia still has a long way to go to present a real alternative to the US, but it does appear to be sprinting in this direction.
GCC countries seem to be so frustrated that they have steadily become willing to grant Russia a fresh and clear mandate in the Gulf. For them, the message behind Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in Syria was clear: the US has no consistent or coherent strategy of containment against Iran’s influence in the region, and has no desire to protect its allies. This is despite huge Gulf payments being funnelled into the American economy.
Trump showed great reluctance to go beyond economic sanctions in his tentative moves towards Iran, even though he kept up the bogeyman rhetoric, most likely in the hope he would keep the flow of cash rolling. Now though, he has made way for the Turks to proceed with what many believe to be the kickoff in a future permanent settlement in Syria under Russia’s terms, and with Iran’s consent.
Putin has already offered the Saudis the S-400 anti-aircraft system to protect themselves against the drones and ballistic missiles attacks by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudis and Emiratis once saw Trump as a historical opportunity to curb regional rivals in the region, but they are now having a change of heart. Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is a delicate strategic calculation from those two wealthy countries, which reflects their great anxiety towards the likelihood of having to deal with an erratic Trump (if he is to win in 2020) for the next five years.
It may even be that Putin’s advance in the Middle East also delivers an opportunity in Ukraine, where the new president will be infuriated to be dragged into a US impeachment inquiry. Russia is searching in the ruins of that crisis for a way to secure leverage over its western neighbour. That may yet come to pass, but what is certain is that the new reality in Syria pushes Turkey much closer to Russia, and away from the volatile western powers who have been bashing Erdogan since the start of his operation.
In the past three years – since Trump took office – US influence has been draining in the Middle East, and Russia’s has been rising. It has been a startling turnaround, especially if we wonder what might happen if Trump stays in the White House for another five years.
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