Trump’s curveball confuses powers at regional summit
Since the beginning of the year, the three powers have found themselves under increasing pressure from the United States. Russia, already accused of interfering in the 2016 US elections, has faced a Western backlash over the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. Turkey, which occupied Afrin last month, is becoming restless over the fate of northeastern Syria. Its leaders are demanding the US ends its support for the Kurds. Meanwhile, Tehran has watched as two anti-Iran figures, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, made their way to the top of the US foreign policy-making process. Iranian leaders can now expect the nuclear deal, and with it sanctions relief, to suffer a serious setback in the coming weeks. American pressure is, therefore, bringing the three powers closer despite their divergent interests, and Syria has become the main theater for their confrontation with the US.
The new American strategy for Syria, announced in January by now ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (and co-charted by ex-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster) represented a direct challenge to the interests of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The strategy’s declared goals were to curb Iranian influence and to continue support for the Kurdish forces— Turkey’s arch-enemies — in northeastern Syria. The American strategy, even though it did not take aim at Russia, was a challenge to the latter’s interests in Syria, as it signaled a vigorous American return to the Syrian scene. This became evident in the following weeks as the US challenged the Russian-backed Ghouta operation in the UN Security Council, and went as far as threatening military strikes against Damascus. The most dangerous point, however, was when American forces struck and killed a number of Russian citizens working as private military contractors near Deir Ezzor.
It is, therefore, not difficult for observers to claim that the three leaders’ meeting in Ankara was to discuss ways of confronting this mounting American challenge, while trying to ameliorate any disagreements they might have over certain issues. The table at Ankara, however, suddenly changed on the eve of the summit, thanks to no other than US President Donald Trump. To everyone’s surprise, Trump announced to a crowd in Ohio that the US would “soon” pull out of Syria, effectively turning the “Tillerson-McMaster strategy” on its head.
The announcement confused Trump’s own administration. In the following days, he has reportedly told his staff to prepare plans for withdrawing US troops from Syria. Trump also canceled $200 million in “recovery funds” designated for areas controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces. The Pentagon and the US military do not seem happy with the abrupt decision. Media reports indicate that the US military has set up a new base in Manbij following Trump’s declaration, and is considering the deployment of more troops to Syria. Reports have also revealed French forces have arrived in northeastern Syria. France has been active on the Kurdish front in the past few days, signaling a possible attempt by President Emmanuel Macron to cushion the impact on the Kurds of an impending US withdrawal. Russia, the ostensible leader of the emerging entente, has both welcomed and expressed doubts over Trump’s announcement.
The power vacuum resulting from an American withdrawal in Syria would undoubtedly encourage Russia, Iran and Turkey to advance their own interests.
So how would this American curveball reshape the negotiations at Ankara?
The power vacuum resulting from an American withdrawal would undoubtedly encourage all three powers to advance their own interests. If not mitigated properly, inheriting this geographical space — which is home to Syria’s oil, wheat and cotton riches — will cause friction within the bloc. Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani, however, will recognize Trump’s move for what it might also be: A cleverly-timed curveball aimed at disrupting the summit. Therefore, it was unlikely that the three leaders would immediately move on to the laborious task of negotiating the shape of a post-American northeastern Syria. They would more likely continue to focus on coordinating their steps as if the US was intending to stay.
Erdogan would be the most eager to push for outcomes. He wants to capitalize on recent Turkish gains in Afrin to line up Russian and Iranian support for further moves against the Kurds — most probably in Manbij. Erdogan will also demand a Turkish stake in northeastern Syria if and when the US does withdraw, again under the guise of disrupting the Kurdish “project.” Putin and Rouhani would try to temper Erdogan’s appetite for bigger roles in Syria (and Iraq) and to balance against newfound Turkish confidence. Iran, for its part, has to wait and see the next US move concerning the nuclear deal and whether the Tillerson strategy for Syria is actually overturned.
Putin, having to prepare for a rolling confrontation with the West, would want to strengthen cooperation with Erdogan over the Idlib “de-escalation zone,” which is steadily transforming into a Turkish sphere of influence. He would want to press his partners for renewed support for the Russian-led effort toward a political solution in Syria, which now revolves around the Sochi Conference’s outcomes. Russia, above all, wants to work to preserve its dominant position and to prevent either regional power from making enough gains to tip the balance of power in Syria. Finally, Putin could work to transform the tripartite entente into a larger club (with China on board) to kick-start the Syria reconstruction effort.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics.
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