President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria has confounded many analysts and reporters, in what some branded as a capitulation to Russia. Was it merely a troop withdrawal to fulfill a campaign pledge? Was it a redeployment of troops to fight ISIS elsewhere? Or was it just another repudiation of the president’s predecessor’s policies?
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Turkish counterpart Recip Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Oct. 22. During their press conference, Putin said, “Syria should be free from the illegal foreign military presence. To achieve a long-term stabilization in Syria, on the whole, this is only possible by observing the territorial integrity of this country. It’s important that our Turkish partners share such an approach to protect the peace and stability on the border.”
Erdogan concurred: “We have taken very important steps in the defense industry, and we will continue to do so. We’ve talked about peace and equality in Syria.”
Russia and Turkey arranged for joint military patrols to be set up along the Turkish-Syrian border, and demanded Syrian Kurdish fighters withdraw from the area. Putin and Erdogan agreed that Russian military police and Syrian border guards would soon enter the Syrian side of the border as two military units will begin patrols by early evening on Oct. 29.
Erdogan also said on Oct. 24 that he ruled out any type of negotiations with Kurdish militant fighters he long deemed as terrorists. “Our proposal is that right now, tonight, all terrorists lay down their arms, their equipment and everything, and destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated.” To Erdogan, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) harbors sympathies for, and acting to further the interests of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a separatist group engaged in an insurgency against the government.
“The good relations between the Russians and Turks serve the Russians as it is considered as of now,” Ksenia Svetlova, a policy fellow at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and former Knesset member, tells me. “[For Russia and Turkey] to be considered as allies, it’s really too early to tell; there are many disagreements … For Erdogan, he knows Russia will never let go of the territorial integrity of Syria except for what was agreed between he and Putin.”
Subsequent to the press conference, Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey, and declared this breakthrough – a nod to strongman politics – as a positive development for the Middle East.
“It’s their neighborhood. They have to maintain it; they have to take care of it … What a great outcome. Congratulations,” Trump said. “Erdogan is a man who I have gotten to know very well, and who loves his country. In my mind, he’s doing the right thing for his country.”
“I think it’s quite clear that the U.S. is distancing itself from the Middle East, step by step,” adds Svetlova, who also worked as a reporter specializing in Arab affairs. “When the cost of protecting the Kurds became too high for Donald Trump, leading to a frontal clash with the Turks, the decision was made very sharply against U.S. allies; the Kurds. I think everybody in the region should be worried about that.”
In a CNN interview, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper detailed to Christiane Amanpour how U.S. forces intend to fully withdraw from Syria. “We began with what we call ‘phase 1’ – an immediate zone of attack. Now we are in ‘phase 2,’ which is from the northeast corridor … Then then we will have another phase, which will draw all of the forces out. We will temporarily reposition in Iraq, pursuant to bringing the troops home,” he said.
“The president authorized that some will stay in the southern part of Syria, and we are looking that we may keep some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and other access to key oil fields in the middle part of the country – but that needs to be worked out,” added Esper.
In recent months, Trump contended ISIS had been thoroughly defeated, and the U.S. presence in the Middle East should not be embroiled in “endless wars,” as he called them. But NBC News’s Richard Engel, who has covered the civil war in Syria since its inception, pointed out: “[The troops in Syria] proudly gave the air power to Kurdish militias fighting ISIS, and jihadist forces.”
“President Trump said that the ceasefire reached with Turkey is a win for civilization – that it saved millions of lives, and that the Kurds are happy with it. The Kurds are not happy with it. They fear it is the end of their homeland,” said Engel.
There are nearly two million Kurds who live in northern Syria, and they formed a relationship with the U.S. military “out of necessity,” continued Engel. “The United States was looking for a partner to fight ISIS … They found the Kurds willing to risk their lives. They lost 11,000 people alongside the most elite units in the U.S. military to fight against ISIS.”
Two years ago I covered protesters near the White House demonstrating against Erodgan’s visit in Washington. Hours later, chaos ensued as the Turkish president’s personnel beat some of them up near the Ambassador’s Residence.
“If you look at the Kurds in Turkey – that’s a huge population; he’s bombing them, and killing innocent civilians. I don’t think people against terrorism would commit these kinds of killings against innocent civilians. [Erdogan’s] a dictator,” a protester told me. “All he cares about is his power.”
So will Kurdish statehood ever be a viable opportunity?
“What do you mean by viable opportunity? Every state depends on other states, especially on the big … strong states to promote its interests,” underscores Svetlova. “We are talking about up to 35 million people here … They deserve a state no different than the Kuwaitis, or Bahrainis deserve a state. So, in this way, I believe it’s natural that the Kurds would seek their independence whether it’s viable or not.”
The Syrian Kurds “seized their opportunity that was presented by the Arab Spring, and by the reprisal of the civil war in Syria, and who could blame them? They suffered for years and they were oppressed for years – so they did what they had to do. They could count on their American allies with whom they fought against ISIS,” adds Svetlova.
As for Putin serving as kingmaker in the Middle East, it’s a position he’s cemented in his quest for achieving superpower status for Russia.
“Since 2015, Putin only gained in Syria, and in the Middle East, he [hasn’t been] losing,” concludes Svetlova. “He has developed a very interesting and diverse web of relations with every single player in the Middle East, starting with of course, Syria, Iran, but also Turkey, and Israel. He [maintains working relations with] the Saudis, the Kurds, and the Gulf states. His focus is being the guy who has excellent relations with everybody, and this is how he will be able to play different actors against others. Then he will act as a broker, and will achieve what he wants.”