Trump’s withdrawal does not mean victory for Russia

Following Trump’s commencing of US withdrawal of troops from Syria, there has been much talk about Russia ‘replacing’ the US in Syria. A viral video of a Russian filming an abandoned US base caused a stir and discussion over Russia’s growing importance in the region.

However, given the circumstances on the ground, there is more to suggest that the ‘seismic’ shift being touted is not quite as it seems.

Firstly, although Trump is influential on US foreign policy, US withdrawal cannot be considered as a case of Syria being ‘handed over’ to Assad and Russia, and therefore a dwindling of US influence. It is clear that at the same time the US abandoned the PKK, they sought to maintain their influence over the Kurdish groups by handing over Kirkuk to the Peshmerga. For those not acquainted with the importance of Kirkuk to the nationalist Kurdish forces, it is an essential economic lifeblood and of fundamental importance in any bid to build an independent state that can stand a chance of surviving on its own.

Moreover, handing Kirkuk to Barzani demonstrates a clear understanding of the deep divisions among the nationalist Kurd forces who bear a deep resentment towards one another. Barzani will relish the opportunity to once again present himself as the only viable leader of a future Kurdistan. He will also enjoy watching his rivals (PKK/YPG/PYD) weakened, and welcome the US initiative that empowers him in the face of the Talabani family who capitalised on Barzani’s disastrous independence bid, and have since been significantly improving their ties with Iran.

In other words, Kirkuk is such a valuable prize, and brings such benefits for Barzani that he would be happy to forget past betrayals and return to an alliance with Washington. For Washington, Barzani and the Kurds remain integral in acting as a power card to stem the huge influence Iran has accumulated in Baghdad.

Secondly, even if Russia seizes the Northern Syria territories and hands them back to Assad, the problem of rebuilding Syria suddenly comes to the fore. Russia does not have the resources. It is already struggling economically and the domestic population are only content with Russia’s strongman foreign policy as long as they do not suffer significant casualties. If the war comes to an end and an insurgency fuelled by the devastation becomes protracted, it is unlikely Putin will risk domestic unpopularity for the sake of Syria. Putin will certainly have noticed how the US casualties caused by Iraqi insurgencies successfully turned US public opinion against US army involvement overseas.

Iran, another Assad ally, also has no interest in rebuilding Syria. It neither has the resources nor the desire. For Tehran, Syria’s primary use is as a bridge to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. With Hezbollah in Lebanon well-resourced, and firmly allied with Tehran, Iran is satisfied with its objectives and sees the seismic task of rebuilding Syria as tertiary and only relevant in demographically/sectarian aligned areas to the South where it has already commenced building ‘cultural centres’ to promote its religious and cultural ideologies.

Europe lacks the will and desire. Since the start of the conflict, Europe has preferred to take a backseat. Although Chancellor Merkel of Germany initially welcomed the influx of refugees, the subsequent rise of the far right, a defeat in the Brexit vote for Europe following concerns over immigration and refugees, and a deteriorating migrant crisis fuelled by the Libya conflict, have all contributed to a foreign policy paralysis in Brussels. Rather than looking outwards, Europe is now engaged in putting out its own fires with little capacity to focus on external affairs.

If Damascus believes it can play on Western fears of China, then such hope may be overstated. Beijing is more likely to look suspiciously at such a ‘toxic’ destination. Although China has been adept in expanding its influence in Africa despite rampant corruption in a number of African states, war is a different matter altogether and the Far-East Asian states remain deeply apprehensive over issues relating to terrorism.

The only option left for Damascus would be the Gulf states that Putin has been wooing in recent times. These states are heavily allied to the US, and are very unlikely to abandon the US for Russia. For one, US companies are deeply entrenched in their economies. Secondly, US military bases surround those Gulf states. Even if they thought about displacing US interests for Russia, history shows that such attempts tend to receive a brutal response from Washington (assassination of King Faisel, Israel invasion of Sinai etc…). In other words, US may withdraw militarily but it looks set to exert considerable economic influence in Syria.

Thirdly, the language of US policy makers towards Turkey is changing. Where once it was outright condemnation, there is now a reluctant acceptance that Washington should have taken into account Erdogan’s concerns over the security of his border. Moreover, Erdogan has not entirely forsaken the US for Russia. As much as the Russians are often referred to as an ‘alternative’, they are not seen as an equal superpower to the US in the minds of the ordinary Turk, Arab, Kurd etc, or even among the leaders and policymakers of the region. Russia is powerful enough to make the US worry but not powerful enough to provide protection against any potential US retribution if any of the Middle East states did ever decide to throw in their lot with Moscow. For Erdogan himself, there are major advantages to restoring normal ties with the US; the most significant of them being that it would be seen as a victory domestically for Erdogan and be touted as an example of Turkey’s emergence as a major power. In other words, Turkey will have forced a reality on the US, and Washington will be seen to have accepted this reality.

Therefore, this is hardly a seismic shift. It is important to note that the US never sided with the Syrian revolution in the first place. Obama hesitated and spent much time watching the conflict unfold. Trump likewise has done the same. So, it cannot be said that the US is ‘losing’ or has ‘lost’. Its policy has always been to back the winner.

Russia and Iran may have saved Assad. But holding such a victory is a very different task from securing it.