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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Is Trump's Syria exit the prelude to a Putin conquest?

News analysis: The US president wants his troops out of Syria, but Russia and its allies will stick around

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. Tolga Bozoglu /Pool Photo via AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. Tolga Bozoglu /Pool Photo via AP

Last week Donald Trump signalled an about-face in US policy, declaring: "We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." Today, those "other people" gathered for a summit in Turkey to discuss how to pick up the baton which Mr Trump had apparently handed them.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia arrived in Ankara on Tuesday for the easy part of the summit — some symbolic reinforcement of Moscow's new partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two presidents watched a ground-breaking ceremony for a Russian nuclear power plant and announced that the delivery of a Russian S400 air defence system — a big poke in the eye for the United States and Turkey's other allies in Nato — would be brought forward.

On Wednesday they were joined by the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to address the tougher issues. Russia, Iran and Turkey are leading the so-called Astana Process, which is in charge of peacemaking efforts after the failure of the United Nations.

While peace is the goal, the real purpose so far has been to neutralise the rebel forces wherever possible and smash the pockets of rebellion of most concern to the Syrian regime — notably in Eastern Ghouta, a collection of Damascus suburbs. After weeks of bombardment, thousands of rebels and their families are being taken north to Idlib Province, a holding pen for the defeated insurgents, under a relocation agreement.

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The three leaders are no doubt wondering what America is going to do. Washington's position has for months been that the US maintains its forces in north eastern Syria to support the Kurdish allies that led the largely successful anti-ISIL operation, to contain Iranian expansion and to maintain the pressure on the Damascus regime.

Mr Trump's upending of that position has promoted several interpretations: he really wants to leave it to Russia to sort out Syria; it is part of a commercial negotiation to force Saudi Arabia to pay for US forces to stay in Syria; or Mr Trump is focused on the November midterm elections and is addressing his voters with the same isolationist policies that won him the presidency.

This is not the most important question facing the three leaders. The problem is that Syria is no closer to being restored as a state, and seems likely to remain divided up into a patchwork of foreign-supported militias, only some of which are loyal to the government in Damascus. For all the talk of a peace process, the Syrian people are notably absent and as long as that continues, it will be no more than a process of stabilising the Damascus government that could last for two or three years.

It will be harder for Mr Putin to win the peace than to win the war. If Washington’s dithering is well publicised, Mr Putin is guilty of inconsistency. At least twice he has declared success on the battlefield and announced partial withdrawals, only to have reinforcements return. He is the ringmaster in Syria, managing a series of competing demands. With Iran providing manpower and financial support to the Assad regime, Russia is in danger of being led by Iran down paths it wants to avoid.

This is particularly clear with Iran's determination to open — at least make a pretence of opening — a second front with Israel from inside Syria, to match the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Mr Putin has no desire for conflict with Israel but the Israelis now realise that their ability to strike at will against Iranian targets in Syria is compromised by the Russian presence there.

Meanwhile both the US and Turkey have their own militias inside Syria. Washington’s is the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the north-east, which is still mopping up pockets of ISIL and reinforcing the semi-independent status of the Kurds there. Turkey meanwhile has scooped up remnants of the rebel Free Syrian Army to create a strike force that has taken over the city of Afrin and driven out the Kurdish party, the PYD, which Ankara labels terrorists affiliated to armed Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

Russia has reluctantly allowed the Turks to enter northern Syria. With Mr Erdogan considering himself the defender of the non-Kurdish population — Arabs, Turkmen, Syriac Christians and others — it cannot be excluded that he may clash with the American-supported SDF to the east.

In this swamp of competing rivalries, Mr Putin may choose to focus on a clearer diplomatic goal — that of securing the departure of the Americans. In this he appears to have an ally in Mr Trump. But is Mr Trump planning to force the military chiefs to do his bidding, or will his words be mere campaign rhetoric?

It is worth looking at what the effect of a US withdrawal might mean. The abandoned Kurds, faced with a Turkish army the other side of the Euphrates, would have no choice but to move closer to Damascus. That would be a win for Russia and Iran. Would it still be possible for the Astana Process to continue, with the Turks starkly at odds with the Assad regime? That would be a real test for Russian diplomacy.

The Turks are letting it be understood that they have the key role to play — as defenders of the interests of the majority population of Syria, the Sunni Muslim Arabs, who are displaced or have fled as refugees in their millions. With the new legions of Free Syrian Army recruits trained and equipped by the Turkish army, they are capable of attracting the less extreme elements of the former rebellion. The areas they control in northern Syria could even be home for returning refugees from Turkey.

It is correct that there can be no peace settlement without respecting the interests of the Sunni Muslim masses. But Turkey cannot be their defender. Mr Erdogan’s main goal is disrupting the development of a Kurdish proto-state on his southern border. The rest is subsidiary. The Arab states need to play the leading role here.

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