Vladimir Putin has been a very active man in the past few days. Last week, he secured a deal with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that would allow Russian troops to gather at the Turkish-Syrian border in their attempt to remove the Kurdish groups from the area and push them 18 miles away from the border.
Shortly after, Putin struck a deal with 30 countries in Africa at the inaugural Russia-Africa summit which took place in Sochi. He declared that Russia would provide those countries a large array of weaponry and hardware that would amount to $4 billion by the end of this year and $14 billion in the next few years, mostly on a free-of-charge basis, opening up “a new page in the history of Russia’s relations with African countries.”
What does the deal with Turkey mean for the parties involved? For Russia and Turkey, it is a way to settle their differences aside that came from supporting different parties in the Syrian civil war (Russia supporting al-Assad while Turkey has helped separatist groups that fight against the government) in their common goal to push the Kurds away from the border. The details of the deal are not quite clear yet, but Russian troops have already arrived at the Turkey-Syria border and started patrolling around. For Syria, this can also be seen as an advantage.
As the Kurds will start moving away from the Turkish border, they will start going further into Syrian territory, which will give Assad power in how to deal with the Kurds. As for the Kurds, the situation seems to get worse day by day. They have almost no control over their fate, the groups fighting against the Turks, such as the YPG and the SDF, will most likely have the retreat because their military power doesn’t compare with that of the Turkish-Russian alliance. This also sparks the question of what will happen with the Kurdish population and whether or not there are reasons to fear the possibility of a humanitarian crisis expressed through ethnic cleansing.
In regards to Putin’s deal struck at Sochi with the African leaders, it is yet another example of Russia’s increasing influence across the globe. It is clear that Russia cannot match the economic power of China, the U.S., or the EU, and hence cannot provide the same amount of aid. But increasing its investment in a territory where, before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was one of the main actors that helped many countries in their liberation movements against colonial powers, suggests that Putin wants to bring Russia back to being a top power in the international realm.
Anton Morozov, a member of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s parliament stated that African leaders should accept Russia’s help because it doesn’t represent a breach of their sovereignty by imposing certain cultural values and liberal ideas, as has often been the case with Western powers. Whether there will really be no strings attached remains to be seen, but the rest of the world should be cautious as to what Putin’s plans are and try to counter it with better foreign policy plans.
This leads us to question what role should the United States play in all this? It seems that the current administration does not want to have any involvement in Syria and the withdrawal of the troops suggests just that. In Africa, the U.S. is still the main donor and it also runs many military bases where it provides manpower, training, and intelligence. But the administration has been quite silent on actions that are to be taken in Africa, illustrating that this part of the world is not a top priority in Trump’s foreign policy. Although there have been plans which seek to address the ways in which the U.S. can be of help to the continent (for example, the Prosper Africa Initiative), the absence of statements and presence of U.S. officials has been perceived by many African leaders as an insult.
The isolationist stance the Trump administration has adopted is wrong. In withdrawing troops from an area that has been engulfed by corruption, civil wars, and disaster, and that is under the threat of yet another humanitarian crisis, the U.S. is not only being oblivious to the needs of the states involved, but it’s breaking its promise of being the perpetrator of democracy and liberalism. By giving up its power in the Middle East and Africa, the U.S. is allowing other states to take the lead in those areas and become the main influence there.
We’re not just losing power there but we’re directly allowing others to gain more power and spread their influence in places at the expense of the safety of the people inhabiting those areas. The Kurds are not safe as a result of the U.S. withdrawal, and many (not all) African leaders are autocrats who don’t care about the rights of their people if it means gaining more power by receiving the help of people like Putin. Thus, at stake for the U.S. is both the danger of losing the international power and dignity that we have left and the need to assist the states that we once promised we would with everything we can.