Trumping Syria

Something has to change, undeniable dilemma. With these words of wisdom, Tool’s frontman Maynard James Keenan starts one of his legendary songs. An absolute truth. Change is definitely a consubstantial element of existence, it applies to any dimension of human action, evidently, to American foreign policy too.

The highly debated announcement of US troops’ withdrawal from Syria (and the downsizing of those in Afghanistan), confirms Washington’s external action change sponsored by the Trump administration. An administration under pressure in different ways: the shutdown of the federal government, the Russiagate investigation underway, the heated debate surrounding the border wall construction, all at once. The decision to withdraw troops from war-torn Syria, however, is, on the one hand, the result of Trump’s geopolitical worldview based on the America first concept – a vision which is certainly not new to the long course of American foreign policy – and consistent with the key messages of his electoral campaign. On the other hand, it’s the product of two much older stories than the rise of Trump and his isolationist tendencies.

Obama’s unproductive and opaque policies on Syria – which back then definitely did not make the superpower shine either and, at once, paved the way for Moscow’s successful military intervention in Syria – and the staggering financial, logistical and human costs of seventeen years of War on Terror in the Middle East undertaken by George W. Bush and the neocons in the aftermath of 9/11. Soaring costs, efforts and human losses in the Middle East that are met with growing resistance in a large part of the American public. A decision that, therefore, should neither be read exclusively with a Euro-centric perspective, even less with a globalist one, but rather through the sentiment of this large part of the American people, of which Trump championed himself as their supreme defender. A decision that must be read on two dimensions: the global one relative to the clash between superpowers – this is what is all about in the end, a confrontation for world supremacy – and the more regional one which concerns Syria and the broader Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Syria’s US troops’ withdrawal, undoubtedly marks a new stage in a gradual US disengagement process concerning certain regions of the global stage – a process that actually begun under Obama’s leadership with the so-called lead from behind policy, think about Libya – and represents, therefore, a slight (maybe temporary) step back in the Middle Eastern region in front of new emerging powers. We are alluding at the Russian Federation, militarily and geopolitically strong (but with heavy structural, economic and demographic flaws) and, especially, the People’s Republic of China, of which Moscow in recent years became its junior partner in certain dimensions. The People’s Republic of China is in fact, potentially, the most worrying world competitor for the United States; endowed with solid economic-financial bases, powerful technological and research development, a growing military force, sound infrastructures, stunning demographic power and a worldwide presence due to its Chinese communities in every corner of the world.

It remains to be seen, as well, if the reduction of the American presence in the Middle East will be counterbalanced with a broader US presence in the Pacific to check China’s expansion (do we still remember Obama’s pivot to Asia?) or, perhaps, in Central and Eastern Europe – namely Ukraine and Poland – to contain Moscow’s ambitions in the region. Undoubtedly, these phases of the American global disengagement will have an impact (currently difficult to calculate, for which any hypothesis is pure speculation) on the whole system of alliances that holds (what’s left of) the Western-led global order built during the Cold War and then refined after the collapse of the USSR.

With regards to the further undermining of the Euro-Atlantic geopolitical architecture, the resigning Secretary of Defense, the highly respected retired Marine general Jim Mattis, expressed himself in clear terms. Mattis, a man who himself forged, on the battlefield, the creation of the aforementioned American-led order post 9/11. In his resignation letter, the Warrior Monk stressed indeed the importance of working with allies and warned of the threat of “malign actors” as China and Russia. Needless to say, therefore, that the gap in terms of world politics’ visions between the Trump administration and certain sectors of the US deep state is still ongoing.

The announcement of the withdrawal was gladly welcomed by Russian media and authorities, flaunted as a further victory for Moscow in the Syrian battleground. News that, moreover, arrived with a fortunate timing, given the significant drop in consensus for the Russian President due to the country’s economic stagnant conditions and the general discontent stemmed by Putin’s controversial pension reform law.

Moving on to the Syrian regional scenario, Trump’s withdrawal calls for a more general reflection on how the strategic and political context in Syria has drastically changed in a relatively short span of time. We all remember the Russian Ministry of Defence’s accusations towards Turkey being allegedly involved in an oil-smuggling trade from Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq; the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M by Turkish F-16s and the initial Russian uncompromising determination in the war against ISIS and in the resolute aversion towards countries that were back then considered supportes of the extremist Wahhabi militias in Syria. The balance of power changed considerably if we consider the new (temporary) alignment of Moscow with Ankara, and the new positive relations of Russia with Qatar and especially Saudi Arabia, symbolized by the jovial high-five between Putin and Moḥammad bin Salmān Āl Saʿūd at the last G-20 in Argentina.

In this new phase of the seemingly endless Syrian crisis, we shall see if the current Russo-Turkish alignment between Ankara and Moscow will hold on, or if it will crack again. Recent statements made by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova seems to indicate that the ancient national interest divergences between Moscow and Ankara could well resurface again. The Kremlin’s spokesperson Zakharova, in fact, stated that the areas once under US control must pass under the Syrian army. This is no good news for Erdogan, who, soon after the announcement of US troops’ withdrawal, deployed his tanks and troops on the Syrian border, close to the Kurdish-controlled Manbij. Only yesterday a high-ranking delegation of the Turkish state arrived in Moscow for talks, basically to find a solution to the Manbij/Northern Syria conundrum, where also the French army has its outposts. Yesterday’s talks in Moscow organized by Turkish and Russian diplomacy – basically to avoid tensions in the Kurdish enclave – in the best case scenario would lead to a classic Realpolitik’s spheres of influence solution. The situation, though, remains volatile, and could change in a moment’s notice in the upcoming future, as repeatedly occurred in Syria since the crisis’ inception.

The question that should be posed is, therefore, the following: the vacuum left by the superpower in Syria, could turn out to be a problem for Moscow? Putin’s Russia could actually find itself in the very complex and delicate role of arbitrator in a complex, risky and still open match, fraught with delicate balances within a shaky and unpredictable context. It will have to manage the divergent ambitions and strategic impulses of Tel Aviv and Teheran which impact on Syrian soil, while keeping the government of Bashar Al Assad in charge, as long as the support to the current Alawite Syrian power will be sustainable. Moreover, Moscow will have to manage to maintain its improved bilateral relations with the Turks and, at the same time, contain Ankara’s strategic will of territorial expansion towards the Kurdish-controlled territories, and to limit the growing confrontation between Israel and Iran as well.

In the medium term, could Moscow somehow regret the power vacuum left by the US in the Syrian context? If what remains of IS and other extremist armed militias in the area should regroup, if the clash between Turks and Kurds should get out of control, and if the hostilities between Israel and Iran on Syrian territory should intensify, this undesirable outcome for Russia cannot be ruled out. After the successful military intervention in Syria, with which the Islamic State has been reduced to almost complete impotence, it’s now Moscow’s turn to perform the even harder task of stabilization. After the end of major combat operations in the country, Russia has so far been capable of managing such a volatile context, mainly through the Astana de-escalation agreements. Will the Kremlin be up to the task for this new unpredictable phase of the crisis’ stabilization? The coming months – or, possibly, the coming years – will give us an answer, while the United States – which, as President Trump’s visit to the troops in Iraq a few days ago, show its intentions to remain in force in the neighbouring Arab country – will observe the Syrian quagmire’s unfolding events from a good safe distance.

Giorgio Cella – PhD at Catholic University of Milan