By Katie Abrams and Matt Slade
The Syrian civil war has been ongoing for the last eight years since protests began against President Assad’s regime. Since then, different international actors have taken sides in the conflict, with the United States supporting the anti-government rebel groups, and Russia supporting the Syrian government. In early October, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would begin the process of withdrawing American troops from Syria in preparation of an upcoming Turkish military incursion into the country.
Many have said that this decision is an abandonment of our Kurdish partners in the region, who assisted U.S. forces in the fight against the Islamic State. As U.S. troops withdrew from the border regions of Syria, Turkish forces moved in, shelling cities, killing Kurdish fighters in the process and exacerbating regional instability. Erdoğan’s military action and Trump’s decision has thrown the already unstable situation in Syria into more uncertainty.
Who are the major players in this conflict, and what are their respective goals? As of December 5, 2019, U.S. troops had completed withdrawal from the northeastern region of Syria, leaving a total of only 600 troops remaining in the country.
The American Position
As President Trump was the one who decided to pull troops out of Syria, it should come as no surprise that the policy of the administration is in support of this move. For months before the actual withdrawal of troops from the Turkish-Syrian border, President Trump spoke about his desire to bring troops home from Syria.
He claimed that it is not the responsibility of the United States to act as a security force for other nations, and the service being provided by the troops in Northern Syria was not an indefinite guarantee. On the matter of a possible resurgence of militant groups like ISIS, former National Security Advisor John Bolton expressed concern that the United States was leaving a power vacuum behind, and that this would allow ISIS to return in force to the region. However, it should be noted that the U.S. withdrawal is not complete; a small number of forces are being stationed at important oil reserves and stations to protect them from militant capture.
As for the issue of Erdoğan and Turkey as a NATO member, Trump doesn’t see a disconnect between his actions and commitments to the security alliance; furthermore, Trump seem to believe that he can work with Erdoğan in this situation and that a pullout from Syria is another step in the direction of ending endless wars in the Middle East.
The European Position
Compared to the United States or Russia, the European Position seems the weakest of the three major powers; unwilling to allow Erdoğan to take military in Northern Syria on the basis of NATO membership and EU ambitions, but unable to reprimand him for fear of a new wave of refugees into the continent. European powers seem to have their hands tied, as they are not a central figure in the conflict. EU leaders were taken by surprise by the pullout of U.S. troops when Trump announced the change, and while European powers valued the presence of troops on the Syrian-Turkish border, they were forced to pull out their small forces in the area when the United States withdrew.
In an announcement about the invasion, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that any military action was going to create a humanitarian crisis in a country already ravaged by years of civil war and extremist violence. The EU sees the U.S. pullout as potentially leaving room for ISIS to return to the region, and general instability to increase and threaten chances at peace in the region. While the EU has been careful not to criticize President Trump, instead of leveling their accusations at Erdoğan, it is undeniable that the validity of US security agreements has been thrown into question by the developments in Syria.
The Russian Position
Russia sees the pullout by the United States as a means to advance its own agenda in a region it has long sought more influence. Russian influence in this specific foreign policy issue can be seen as a win for President Putin, and he has made this clear in speeches. After Erdoğan moved to invade Northern Syria, he and Putin struck a deal to split the occupation of the “safe area” around the Turkish-Syrian border. Between the long-standing support Russia has lent the Syrian government over the years during the Syrian Civil War and the considerable influence Moscow has over Turkey, Russia’s entrance into this conflict comes as no surprise.
The country is poised to act as an arbitrator in the conflict, swinging the current balance of the Syrian war in favor of Assad. In recent years, Ankara has been pivoting towards Russia and away from the European Union; considering that Russia supplies a large portion of Turkey’s energy needs and has been selling military equipment recently, this military maneuver by Erdoğan could be proof of the strengthening relationship between the two powers. Russia is seeking to counter the U.S. as the largest power in the Middle East and the vacuum left by the pullout ordered by President Trump was just the opportunity to advance Russian interests in Syria.