Report

How Putin’s Syrian War Is Humbling Trump

The Kremlin is filling the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat from the Middle East—now, with a buffer zone in Idlib.

Syrians chant slogans and wave opposition flags as they protest against the Syrian government during a demonstration in Binnish in the rebel-held northern Idlib province late on Sept. 17. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians chant slogans and wave opposition flags as they protest against the Syrian government during a demonstration in Binnish in the rebel-held northern Idlib province late on Sept. 17. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert Malley has been there before. As U.S. President Barack Obama’s emissary to the Syrian conflict, Malley sat across the table from Russian diplomats in the fall of 2016 in an effort to ameliorate the siege of Aleppo, which the United Nations had warned could be “another Srebrenica.” Malley heard Moscow make the right noises about civilian safe passage. But the corridor the Russians created never quite worked very well, and some 600 innocents died.

Now, Russia and Turkey have announced another such humanitarian gesture, a demilitarized buffer zone in northern Idlib province that will ostensibly protect civilians as Bashar al-Assad makes his final push to retake Syria after seven years of civil war.

It’s questionable whether this will work any better than in Aleppo, and there’s another important factor: Malley’s successor as Syrian envoy, James Jeffrey, wasn’t at the table this time. Nor was there even an emissary from Assad (though the Syrian autocrat later approved the deal). It was an all-Russia show, complete with a closing photo of a smiling Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grasping hands.

And that goes for most of Middle East these days. Russia has become everyone’s pal, whether it’s mortal U.S. adversaries such as Iran, grumbling U.S. frenemies such as Turkey, or close U.S. allies such as Israel.

One vivid illustration: An incident that in the past could have become a flash point between Russia and Israel—Monday’s shootdown of a Russian troop plane by Syrian air defenses that were firing on Israeli fighter jets—was swiftly resolved in an exchange of words between the two capitals. After the Russian Defense Ministry accused Israel of a “hostile provocation” in striking the Syrian port city of Latakia, Putin stepped in and effectively absolved Israel, calling the deaths of 15 Russian soldiers “a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet.”

To Malley and other U.S. observers, all of these moves culminating in Russia and Turkey’s Idlib pact—which the United States welcomes—is just more evidence that Putin has outplayed President Donald Trump as deftly as he did Obama in assuming control of the regional narrative. And more, that the Russian leader has brilliantly exploited Washington’s war-weary reluctance to be heavily involved in Syria or anyplace else in the Middle East.

“There’s no doubt Russia has played its cards in Syria quite well. Having been a victim of that card game, I know whereof I speak,” Malley told Foreign Policy. “Russia’s been very adept at playing for time, saying things that sounded promising, then over time eroding whatever agreement had been reached. We caught on to it pretty quickly.”

But, Malley added, there wasn’t much Washington could do about Russia’s aggression or cavalier attitude toward civilian deaths—or frankly that it wanted to. “The administration made the decision that we wouldn’t try to match Russia’s intervention in Syria.”

The Trump administration, having satisfied itself that the Islamic State, the main threat to U.S. security interests in the region, is dead or dying, appears to have made a similar calculation. Apart from warning Assad that it will send in strikes again if he uses chemical weapons, the administration has been almost entirely hands-off—and fare thee well, Vladimir. Still, such a policy of cold-blooded realpolitik—along with Washington’s active support of Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen—leaves the United States in a morally weak position to criticize Putin in the region. 

The optics of a dominant Russia that is far outpunching its economic weight in world affairs will no doubt be visible in New York next week, when the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings get underway and world leaders schmooze and cut quiet deals on the side. Putin won’t bother to be there this time, but Trump will be, and he won’t be terribly welcome in his home city. Trump plans to chair a session of the Security Council (of which the United States happens to be president this month), and while the topic was supposed to be Iran, U.S. officials were apparently so worried that the president would be besieged by critiques of his withdrawal from the Security Council-approved Iran nuclear deal that they broadened the agenda to nonproliferation in general. “I think they didn’t want a topic where he would be really isolated,” said Malley.

As did Obama, the Trump administration is sending sometimes mixed messages about Syria. Earlier this year, Trump ordered the State Department to freeze some $200 million in funds earmarked for Syria’s recovery, and the president has indicated he wanted out altogether. On the other hand, Trump once threatened to have Assad assassinated after he used chemical weapons—according to Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear—and he has bombed Syrian positions twice before over the alleged use of chemical weapons. Earlier this month, Jeffrey, who was named as Trump’s envoy just last month, announced: “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” About 2,000 U.S. troops remain in the eastern part of the country.

Jeffrey also drew another red line over chemical weapons use last week and seemed to leave the door open to U.S. intervention if there is a humanitarian disaster.

It’s little surprise that U.S. reluctance to get too involved in Syria spans two administrations as different as Trump’s and Obama’s. Back in the 1990s, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke invented the term “Vietmalia syndrome”—a contraction of Vietnam and Somalia (the “Black Hawk Down” debacle)—to explain President Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene overseas. What’s shaping foreign-policy decisions now might be called “Iraq-Afghazi syndrome.” It is the chilling effect of the terrible drain of the Iraq War, the long slog in Afghanistan, and the bloody and embarrassing aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya—especially the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

The risk-averse mood has led to a new stringency about humanitarian intervention overseas. As a result, sometime critics of Trump say the administration is wise to follow Obama’s restraint, as confused as that policy often was.

“Sure the optics are bad. It’s a humanitarian and moral catastrophe. This is the second-largest refugee flow since World War II, with half a million dead,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center. “But the real question both administrations have asked themselves is whether Syria represents a vital national interest to us. We’ve been asking that since 2012. And nobody has come up with an American policy that’s better than splitting the difference between not in and all in.

“By and large, this risk aversion has served American interests, not undermined them,” Miller said. “If Putin, Assad and Iran want to find a way to manage Syria, so much the better. If the Israelis can find a way to work with the Russians, so much the better also.”

What Washington considers its vital interests in the Middle East are largely being addressed, Miller and other experts say. With the Islamic State and al Qaeda on the run, there is far less concern about a catastrophic attack on U.S. targets; access to energy (which is less necessary as the United States becomes more independent) has been maintained through a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; and Washington is working to prevent the emergence of a regional Islamic power with a nuclear weapon—that is to say, Iran. On that latter point—and whether the nuclear deal was effective—Trump and Obama obviously differ, but it’s not as if the current president is ignoring the issue.

And what goes largely unsaid is that Washington’s laissez-faire policy toward Syria is letting Putin do America’s dirty work for it, largely cost-free. Assad’s main enemies—the militants he and the Russians will be targeting in Idlib—are mostly Islamist radicals, many of them linked to al Qaeda. The enormous cost to Putin is his own problem, as Washington sees it. Indeed, Putin’s expenditure of treasure and blood in the region, by draining his resources and his own people’s appetite for overseas adventure, could serve U.S. interests as well at a time when the Russian leader is actively seeking to undermine U.S. influence around the world—not to mention its elections.

The question, of course, is what Putin decides to do in the future with all this hard-earned political capital in a critical region. That remains to be seen.

As to what happens in Idlib, with some 2 million Syrian refugees under threat, Malley has not given up hope that the Russians will at last do what they say in trying to prevent a humanitarian disaster. “Idlib is going to be an interesting test case of whether Putin’s desire to maintain a good relationship with Erdogan is enough to make a difference. It could be a different story [than Aleppo]. We have to do everything we can to make sure it’s a different story.”

In fact, there’s not a lot the United States will do.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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