Russia and Turkey gain control of Syria as the U.S. withdraws its troops. How it got so bad, so fast?
The Syrian Conflict is a very complex one with multiple state and non-state actors vying for power in the strategically significant region. The U.S. announced the withdrawal of troops from the region, except for a small few to remain to secure U.S. oil reserves, prompting Turkey to attack the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in the region due to the fear of the rise of Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Democratic Forces, largely composed of Syrian Kurds, were a U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria up until last week when U.S. troops withdrew.
On the 14th, President Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to its offensive attack on the Kurdish forces. On the 17th, Pence met with Erdogan and seemed to come to an agreement in the form of a temporary ceasefire.
Then Putin came into the picture to negotiate with Erdogan. Under the agreement with Putin, Turkey now had control over the entire Turkey-Syria border about twenty miles deep into Syrian territory. All the Kurdish fighters will be removed from this area, though what this means for the families and civilians in the region is unclear. Not exactly what Erdogan wanted, but it solidifies Russia’s hold on Syria and increases Russia’s power in the Middle East in general. The decision by the U.S. also weakens U.S. reliability on an international scale as a “promise” was broken to a U.S. ally.
The Complexity In Syria
The Syrian Civil War very quickly — because of its strategic position and the multitude of different state and non state actors within the Middle East and abroad searching for power — became an international conflict. Currently, the war in Syria is barely even about Assad supporters vs. the Rebels. The rebels are composed of many groups, some of whom are considered jihadists or terrorists. Many of them only support each other’s efforts to dispose of Assad, but have little in common otherwise. Assad and his supporters also have their own ties to extremist groups looking to help Assad maintain control in Syria, specifically Hezbollah who is backed by Iran.
Where the whole conflict becomes an international nightmare is the involvement of Russia and the U.S., and then everyone else decides which side they are on. Russia supports Assad, and the U.S. supports whomever the U.S. wants to support when it is convenient; in the beginning, the U.S. supported the ousting of Assad, especially after the chemical weapons attack of 2013, during the Obama presidency. Then, when ISIS (ISIL) gained a foothold in Syria due to the increasing messiness of the conflict, the U.S. simply supports the removal of ISIS from the region.
Also, as jihadist groups begin to mix in with the rebels, claiming to support the Syrian people while also committing attrocities against them, the U.S. largely strayed away from its support of the rebels, though still supported some groups. Instead, the U.S. began to focus on the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by General Mazloum, largely composed of the largely Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Unit). It was they who helped to drive ISIS out of northern Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia still supports Assad along with Iran, though was united with the U.S. in driving ISIS out of Syria. However, Russia would use this as an excuse to sometimes attack rebels and civilians to protect Assad. Before the current events of the past two weeks, many who debated whether keeping Assad in power is ultimately a good idea or a bad idea, considering that he may bring stability to the region and help drive ISIS out of Syria.
Whatever stability Syria had seemed beyond repair, however, even for someone like Assad, especially when Syria became the group for another Cold-War esque conflict. Whether initially supporting the disposing of Assad was a good or bad idea, Assad did shoot people who were simply peacefully protesting and calling for him to step down and attempting to further democracy in Syria. He is, to many in the West, a brutal dictator.
Syria’s Strategic Value For Russia
How it got so bad, so fast, has a lot to do with both ethnic and geopolitical conflicts. Russia supports Assad because of Syria’s strategic position near the Black Sea and its oil. Under an agreement soon after the Cold War, Russia still has a naval base in Syria, Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the region and the last remaining outside of the former Soviet Union.
Syria is basically Russia’s singular solid ally in the Middle East, losing that strategic advantage in the Middle East and Mediterranean at large would hurt Russia. As a key members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia, along with China, were able to block three separate resolutions by the UN to intervene in Syria against Assad. It is similar to the reason why the U.S. and Canada still support Saudi Arabia despite the human rights abuses in Yemen and the Saudi connection to 9/11: oil and power.
So when Putin and Erdogan met to discuss Syria, the deal previously made between Erdogan and the U.S. (Pence) was basically thrown out. Turkey supports the Free Syrian Army, a group of soldiers previously a part of Assad’s Syrian military, but their bigger concern is the Kurdish uprising in Syria. Turkey has been fighting an approximately forty year conflict between Kurish separatists in the region, who Turkey considers terrorists.
The idea in Turkey is that any Kurdish separatist groups that gains momentum anywhere is a threat that could boost the power of Kurdish separatist in Turkey. The original deal with the U.S., once the U.S. announced the withdrawal of troops from Syria was that there would be a temporary ceasefire at the border.
There were no Syrian leaders present at the meeting, which makes it obvious that the leaders do not trust Assad or other leaders else in Syria, but still need Assad to maintain control of their interests.
Turkey, Russia, And Syria
The concerns of human rights groups and the international community is that Turkey would use the opportunity to push the Kurdish forces away from the Syrian-Turkey border and lead an ethnic cleansing campaign in the region. As a result of the U.S. withdrawal, around seven hundred Kurdish fighters died. So when the U.S. imposed sanctions and intervened, allowing Turkey a piece of the Turkey-Syria border to control, there was a brief and uncertain period of ceasefire. Erdogan agreed to meeting with Putin to discuss further.
Putin allowed the Turkish-control stretch along the entire Turkey-Syria border all the way to Iraq, but only about twenty miles into Syria. There is still a concern that Erdogan could enforce his anti-Kurdish policies within this twenty mile strip along the border. Assad sees the incursion of Turkey as an insult and a threat to the sovereignty of Syria. According to Trump, the ceasefire is a permanent one, but just because Turkey stopped its offensive does not mean the crisis in Syria is over.
What Does This Mean For U.S.?
There are still a lot of problems to be worked out. ISIS flags are rising again in areas that were controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces for years. Many of the prisons holding ISIS members are controlled by Kurdish forces in the north of Syria, their future and security are uncertain, despite Trump and Mazloum’s assertion that the prisoners are secure.
Today, the U.S. finally lifted the existing sanctions on Turkey, apparently trusting Russia to be the watchdog in the Syrian conflict. The rebels and Kurdish forces have been weakly fighting ISIS and Assad from the beginning, even with the Western support. Russia needed Assad in power and used any means necessary to get it done, and still will. Now, more than ever perhaps, the West’s support in this conflict is still necessary.
By lifting the sanctions on Turkey, Trump solidifies Russia’s power in Syria. Perhaps he believes that the Syrian conflict is not a conflict worth fighting. In his statements earlier today, he reinforced the xenophobic stereotype that the Middle East contains multiple cultures of people who are naturally violent and destinted to constantly fight;
“The same people pushing for these wars are often the ones demanding America open its doors to unlimited migration from war-torn regions, importing the terrorism and the threat of terrorism right to our own shores. But not anymore . . . Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” he said.
Though Trump takes much of the credit for what happened in Syria these past couple of weeks, his initial decision to pull the U.S. out of Syria is what caused the deaths of seven hundred Kurdish fighters at the hands of Erdogan. Congress almost unanimously, bipartisanly, condemned Trump’s decision. As the U.S. tanks left Syria, the people threw food and other items at them, calling the U.S. forces traitors when a week before they were allies. It seems that the U.S. is both divided at home and abroad.
Perhaps, Trump believes that Syria is destined to be a fail-state or he believes that Russia has the best solution for the region’s unification, if that is even possible at this point. Due to all of the international meddling in the Syrian conflict, the humanitarian crisis and the instability in the region only got worse and became what they are today — the largest refugee crisis of our time and a crisis that still develops every day. In light of recent developments, many Kurds also flee their native territory on the Turkey-Syria border into Iraq and it is likely many more will have to flee.
Trump’s decision to abandon the conflict in Syria not only abandons our allies, mainly Kurds, but strengthens Putin’s power in the Middle East. Remember, Putin is essentially, by western definition, a dictator in his own right. His grip on power in Syria will only serve to strengthen his hold beyond Russian borders. The annexation of Crimea, it seems, was perhaps only the beginning of Putin’s power grab.
It is understandable why President Trump wants to keep the U.S. out of endless, costly, and ineffective wars in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, as was U.S. policy for years. However, history will also tell that pulling out in such a drastic way leaves behind vacuums creates more problems than it solves. The U.S. need not be the world’s police — as it seemingly has been for over a hundred years —, or involve itself in every conflict, but the U.S. does need to keep her promises both at home and abroad.
In Syria, it seems as though the U.S. abandoned her promise to the Syrian people, both as allies in the fight against ISIS, Assad, and Russia, and for the civilians on the ground, forced to flee their homes, who are now refugees. The U.S. is now a largely unreliable international partner and Trump just lit a flare and let the entire world know. It is only the international faith in the U.S. that makes her so powerful, rarely does isolationism ever increase the power of a nation. The future does not belong to patriots, it belongs to globalists. Russia seems to want to fill the gaps the Trump leaves in his wake, but only time will tell if the U.S. will ever regain her standing on the world stage.