In Syria, Russia is pleased to fill an American void
Date: 2019-10-16 14:09
Russia asserted itself in a long-contested part of Syria on Tuesday after the United States pulled out, giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Assad army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East.
Russian and Assad troops drove through a key town where the United States had held sway and picked over abandoned American outposts to announce their presence in the area and deter the Turkish incursion that began last week.
The Russian advance, enabled by President Trump’s decision last week to withdraw, may boost Russia’s Assad ally, while blunting the Turkish incursion. It was a telling demonstration of how influence over the eight-year-old conflict in Syria has shifted from the United States to Russia. But in this case, there appeared to be little balance left in the Americans’ favor.
“Look at how they were preparing the base,” a Russian-speaking reporter said in a video shot inside an abandoned American outpost in northeastern Syria, its water tanks, communication towers, tents and fridges full of soda all left behind. “They thought they were going to be here for a long time.”
The abrupt order by Mr. Trump to remove United States military personnel from the area set off days of violence that sent more than 150,000 civilians fleeing, shattered the American partnership with Assad’s Kurds, raised fears about an ISIS revival and allowed Mr. Assad’s militias, backed by their Russian allies, to sweep up new territory without a fight.
Pentagon concern about the safety of the departing United States forces amid the chaos in northern Syria intensified, as seen in a low-flying buzz of a Turkish-backed militia on Tuesday by American Apache helicopter gunships. The militia was about four miles from the Americans at the time of the incident, which was first reported by Fox News and confirmed by an American military official.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plan to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in Ankara on Thursday. The White House said Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo would relay Mr. Trump’s demand that Mr. Erdogan negotiate a ceasefire in Syria and reiterate the president’s threat to impose economic sanctions if he does not comply.
It remained unclear on Tuesday whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intended to keep his forces in the area indefinitely. But for Russia, the reshuffling of northeastern Syria, which had in recent years been a virtual American protectorate, yielded two main benefits. It empowered Mr. Assad, a longtime Russian patron, to accelerate his quest to regain control of all of Syria’s territory, and gave Mr. Putin another place to advertise Russia as a good friend to have in the Middle East.
As the United States has sought to reduce its commitments across the region, Mr. Putin has increasingly cast Russia as a worthy alternative. On Tuesday, as American troops were leaving their bases near the Syrian town of Manbij, Mr. Putin was on a state visit to the United Arab Emirates after a trip to Saudi Arabia the day before.
Both are longtime American allies that have begun questioning the United States’ commitment to their security and looking to diversify their international partnerships.
“I think of Russia as my second home,” Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the de facto ruler of the Emirates, told Mr. Putin. “We are connected by a deep strategic relationship.”
Throughout the war in Syria, Russia has been Mr. Assad’s most loyal foreign backer, protecting him from sanctions by the United Nations and sending Russian troops to support his militias and jets to bomb his enemies.
As of last month, Russia’s assistance had helped restore Mr. Assad’s control over most of Syria, the largest exception being the northeast, where the United States had partnered with a Kurdish-led militia to fight the ISIS and had maintained a contingent of about 1,000 troops, in part to keep Mr. Assad away.
But that changed last Wednesday when Turkey launched its military incursion, setting off new violence that sent American troops scrambling to get out of the way. Feeling betrayed by the Americans, the Kurds made a deal with Assad that would put his militia along the Turkish border.
The United States has begun moving its troops onto bases elsewhere in Syria as the first stage in a near total withdrawal from the country.
On Tuesday, the United States and its international allies used a single tweet to announce their departure from Manbij, a contested area where they had sought to prevent fighting between their Kurdish-led militia allies and Syrian fighters backed by Turkey.
Assad militias soon drove through town with tanks and Russian military vehicles, residents said, before digging through nearby outposts and expressing surprise at how much the Americans had left behind.
“I am on an American base where they were just yesterday morning, and this morning we’re here,” Oleg Blokhin, a pro-Kremlin reporter embedded with Russian troops in Syria, said in a video on his Facebook page. “Now we’ll take a look at how they lived, what they were doing.”
Another video posted by Anna News, a pro-Kremlin outlet, declared “Manbij is ours!” and gave a virtual tour of the base. A wireless router sat on a desk and cables hung from an office ceiling. A tube of Pringles and a bag of animal crackers lay on a table. A military canteen was stockpiled with boxes of cereal, multiple bags of bagels and four fridges full of soda and juice boxes.
Throughout the war, Russia has used means ranging from military force to creative diplomacy to make itself a central player in Syria — at the expense of the United States. In 2015, it dispatched forces to help Assad by heavily bombing his rebel enemies, turning the overall battle in his favor and away from the opposition supported by the United States. The Russians have repeatedly blunted Western attempts to hold Mr. Assad’s regime accountable for using banned chemical weapons.
And to steer diplomacy away from United Nations peace talks the West hoped would remove Assad, Russia opened an alternative track with Iran and Turkey that sidelined Western nations.
Mr. Shumilin, the analyst, said Russia also had found ways to benefit from Western missteps.
“It must be said that all of Russia’s most significant successes in Syria have not been reached as a result of deliberate efforts by Moscow,” he said. “They simply crashed down onto Putin and Moscow as manna from heaven as a result of the peculiar behavior of the Western countries and of Turkey.”
Mr. Putin had also hoped to use Syria in the service of a broader geopolitical goal: to strengthen ties with Turkey and pull it away from NATO.