As the United States withdrew its troops from Syria this week, some Kurds threw food and stones at the departing American convoys. It was an ignominious close to the US efforts in the country — and it foreshadowed what could very well be the waning of any American influence there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, instead, looks to be the kingmaker in Syria, after signing a deal with Turkey that apportioned influence in northern Syria and could determine the future of the country after years of civil war.
According to the terms of the deal, Syrian Kurds will leave what had been a buffer zone of about 20 miles into northern Syria from the Turkey-Syria border. Turkey will maintain control of the area set aside in the ceasefire it reached with the US, while Russia and the Syrian government will move into and secure the rest. The agreement, in short, is a gift to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his benefactor, Vladimir Putin.
One might not get that impression from listening to President Trump’s speech on Wednesday, in which he declared the Turkey ceasefire “permanent” and took a jarring victory lap. “This outcome was created by us, the United States.”
Trump said a small number of US troops would stay behind in Syria to secure the oil. Sanctions imposed on Turkey over its invasion would also be lifted.
There are still a lot of unknowns about what comes next for Syria, but one thing is apparent from the past 24 hours. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin have eagerly filled a vacuum left behind by the United States. Here’s what you need know.
Erdoğan and Putin reach a deal to divide up influence in Syria
On October 9, Turkey launched an assault called “Operation Peace Spring” across the border in Syria, days after the Trump administration withdrew troops from the area. It left the Syrian Kurdish forces — America’s partner in fighting ISIS — alone and at the mercy of Turkey, which sees the Kurdish presence as a threat to national security.
Though the removal of US troops ultimately gave Erdoğan the ability to invade, the Trump administration said it did not endorse Turkey’s move, punishing them with sanctions the following week. Trump also dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and other officials to Ankara, Turkey, to work out a truce. The US and Turkey agreed to pause the fighting for 120 hours, though it also forced Kurdish forces to withdraw from that 20-mile buffer zone.
The 120-hour Syrian ceasefire brokered by the US ended just as Erdoğan had a planned meeting with Putin in his summer home in Sochi, Russia. Experts I spoke to after the US-Turkey deal last week told me that Erdoğan and Putin were likely to reach some sort of an agreement on Syria, one that would leave the US on the sidelines and be to the detriment of the Kurds who fought alongside the US against ISIS.
Historically, Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides of the Syrian war: Moscow backs Syrian president Assad and Turkey has supported the anti-regime opposition. But they’ve been working together in the Astana process — basically a peace process between Russia, Iran (allies of the Syrian government), and Turkey to end the war.
And here, Turkey’s and Russia’s interests aligned. Turkey wanted to secure this buffer zone and evict the Kurds. Russia wants to consolidate the territorial gains for Assad in the region and prove that it’s the powerbroker in the region. So after hours of talks on Tuesday, Erdoğan and Putin emerged with a deal that would secure a 20-mile buffer zone into northern Syria near the Turkish border.
Kurdish forces would be removed from that area in 150 hours, a slightly larger area than the one the US-Turkey agreed to last week. Russian and Turkish forces will conduct joint patrols in the areas controlled by Turkey, and once the Kurds leave, the two sides will patrol the area jointly. Russian forces have already moved in.
The deal also says Russia and Turkey will facilitate the return of refugees to the area. Part of Erdoğan’s motivation for the invasion of northern Syria had been to carve out a safe zone to relocate some 3.6 million refugees currently in Turkey.
Turkey got what it wanted: both a safe zone and the removal of the Kurds, something it couldn’t have achieved had the US not withdrawn. Meanwhile, Russia is expanding its influence in Syria and in the broader Middle East. While the US abruptly pulled out, Moscow proved that it’s willing to stay.
“The Turkish objective is to destroy the [SDF] and they are,” Elyse Semerdjian, professor of Middle Eastern History at Whitman College, told me. “And it seems as if Putin is just creating, in these moments of American indecisiveness or lack of American will to continue these forever wars, as an opportunity for himself to fill the vacuum.”
It is also in many ways a victory for Assad and Iran, an important backer of the Syrian president. Though Turkey will continue to control some territory in Syria, the Putin-Erdoğan deal creates a further pathway for Assad — a dictator who brutalized his people — to regain legitimacy and consolidate control.
The US Syrian envoy reveals the chaos of the US’s decision to pull out of Syria
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, told the Senate on Tuesday that he wasn’t given advance notice about the US troop withdrawal in northeastern Syria ahead of Turkey’s invasion.
Jeffrey faced a tense Senate panel on Tuesday, where despite admitting he hadn’t been consulted about Trump’s decision, he defended the administration’s handling of the Syria situation. Jeffrey returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday for another hearing on the House side.
But Jeffrey also admitted in his Capitol Hill appearances that Trump’s abrupt decision to pull US troops out of Syria had tragic consequences, including the deaths of hundreds of Kurdish fighters and the escape of ISIS prisoners.
Jeffrey also said that the US had evidence that Turkey may have committed war crimes. “Many people fled because they’re very concerned about these Turkish-supported Syrian opposition forces, as we are. We’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes,” Jeffrey said Wednesday.
The UN estimates that the Turkish incursion displaced about 180,000 civilians, including tens of thousands of children.
Jeffrey also admitted that the withdrawal of US troops was a boon to ISIS, telling the House that “we do have a problem right now.” He confirmed that more than 100 ISIS fighters have gone missing since the offensive began (despite Trump’s claims Wednesday that they’ve “been largely recaptured”).
Jeffrey’s testimony was a reminder of the consequences of Trump’s chaotic and abrupt foreign policy decisions — and the implications of that disarray, from the threat of a rejuvenated ISIS to an unfolding humanitarian crisis.
Trump rescinds sanctions on Turkey and declares the US all done
The Turkey-Russia deal was undoubtedly a victory for Putin. And Assad. And Turkey.
But on Wednesday, Trump declared it a success for the US, too.
“I want to again thank everyone on the American team who helped achieve the ceasefire in Syria, saved so many lives. Along with president Erdoğan of Turkey, a man I’ve gotten to know very well and a man who loves his country,” Trump said on Wednesday. “And in his mind, he’s doing the right thing for his country.”
The US-Turkey brokered ceasefire did cease most of the fighting (though not completely), but the chaos — and killing — in Syria was largely of Trump’s making, when he decided to withdraw US forces from northeastern Syria, allowing Erdoğan to invade. And now, the Russia-Turkey deal supersedes anything the US accomplished. Washington simply isn’t a player in Syria anymore.
Trump likely doesn’t care, as it fits with his “America First” doctrine and lets him fulfill a campaign promise to bring troops home. (Whether abandoning US partners, giving free rein to Russia, and bolstering Iran’s presence is in the national interest is another matter.)
“Others have come out to help and we welcomed them to do so; other countries have stepped forward,” Trump said, though he didn’t mention Russia or Turkey. “They want to help and we think that’s great.”
In short, Trump declared victory and made clear that Syria was not America’s problem. “Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand,” he said.
Trump also said that he would remove all sanctions on Turkey, imposed just last week to punish Turkey for its Syrian offensive. Though Congress is still considering whether to put new sanctions on Turkey, it’s unclear if they will move forward, especially now that Trump has declared the matter all but closed.
What is the US relationship with the SDF going forward?
Trump, in his remarks on Wednesday, also said that he’d spoken to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi, who Trump said thanked the United States for its support. Trump also said that the SDF was continuing to guard ISIS.
The Syrian Kurd leadership hasn’t been shy about criticizing Trump, with the spokesperson accusing the US president of unleashing a genocide over the weekend.
But Mazloum Abdi seems to have changed his tune.
“We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people,” the statement read.
2. We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people.
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 23, 2019
3. President Trump promised to maintain partnership with SDF and long-term support at various spheres.
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 23, 2019
Mazloum added that Trump “promised” to maintain a partnership with the SDF and “long-term support at various sphere.”
What that means, exactly, is unclear. Trump retweeted the commander’s praise, then tweeted out his thanks for the commander’s “kind words and courage.”
Jeffrey, the envoy, recommended that the US partner with the SDF in Syria, but the future of the Kurds — and their democratic experiment in northeastern Syria — is still unclear. How the US can actually support them, especially now that the Kurds have signed a pact with Assad, is strategically confusing. And after the events of the past month, it’s doubtful America has much influence — or credibility left — in Syria.