The Islamic State is on the way out, but the situation in Syria only grows more complicated. President Donald Trump says he wants a U.S. troop drawdown; his advisors and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia (a U.S. ally) disagree. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani met this week in Ankara to plot a way forward. These five facts give an updated state of play for Syria’s competing foreign powers.
By IAN BREMMER April 6, 2018 I TIME I Article
The U.S. has about 2,000 troops deployed in Syria and has already spent nearly $30 billion waging war there — it’s requested an additional $13 billion for fiscal year 2018. The Pentagon wants to keep U.S. forces in Syria indefinitely (as did Rex Tillerson’s State Department), but Trump’s remarks last week at an infrastructure speech in Ohio that “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon” threw the U.S. security establishment for a loop. Meanwhile, Trump’s military advisors argue that pulling out of Syria now will only give ISIS the oxygen it needs to re-expand. Don’t forget that it was Obama’s troop drawdown in Iraq that gave ISIS the opening to establish itself in the first place — the Pentagon hasn’t. As of this writing, the White House has walked back Trump’s pullout comment. How long that holds remains to be seen.
In addition to rooting out ISIS, Washington also wants to protect its Kurdish allies on the ground while not letting its relationship with NATO ally Turkey fall to pieces. Easier said than done…
… given that Turkey has been targeting those same Kurds with a military campaign in Afrin, northwest Syria. For Erdogan, Syria matters as much for his domestic politics as for Turkey’s foreign policy. In the run-up to presidential elections widely expected in autumn 2018, Erdogan aims to consolidate his nationalist/conservative base ahead of the big vote with military operations against the Kurds — Turkish nationalists fear that successful establishment of a Kurdish enclave in Syria will fan the nationalist dreams of the 15 million Kurds living in Turkey.
Erdogan needs to win these elections to earn the powers that come with Turkey’s newly enhanced executive presidency, and to avoid potentially costly deeper involvement in Syria, he’s willing to swallow his dislike of Assad — a man he once called “a terrorist involved in state terrorism.” Long-term, Erdogan dreams of positioning Turkey as leader of the Muslim world. To do that, Turkey must play a critical role in the Syrian post-conflict negotiations, both for symbolic reasons and to isolate the Kurds.
For Russia, keeping Assad in power protects its naval-base leases in Tartus, its only Mediterranean port; it also underlines the point that Russia remains a powerful military force, and that any road to reconciliation in Syria must run through Moscow. Long-term, Moscow wants a reliable client state in the Middle East.
Russia’s involvement in Syria has already come at considerable cost — Russia’s defense minister admits that nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have at some point been deployed to Syria, and IHS Jane’s estimated that Russian air strikes cost Moscow some $4 million a day back in 2015. With the fall in oil prices since 2014, Russian state finances (36% of which are derived from energy) aren’t what they used to be. Not to mention that the Russian people are more supportive of Russian intervention in Syria to combat ISIS and similar groups (48%) than to prop up Assad (27%). Once ISIS is gone, the domestic pressure on Putin only increases.
Assad’s other main backer, Iran, has a much more ambitious strategy when it comes to Syria. That’s why it has dispatched top military brass from the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (along with Iranian fighters) to help Assad’s forces consolidate control over western Syria; this is in addition to the billions of dollars’ worth of oil subsidies and credit lines it has extended to Damascus. Tehran aims to use its support for Assad to land the plum energy and reconstruction contracts that Syria will inevitably issue when it comes time to rebuild.
More concerning to Iran’s enemies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. security establishment in particular — is Iran’s long-term aim to establish military installations across the country, turning Syria into Iran’s outpost in the Levant and allowing a permanent Iranian (or Hezbollah, Iran’s stand-in) presence near the Golan Heights. That’s a long shot, but Iran should be able to establish some of the military installations it wants throughout the rest of the country, upping the pressure on Israel. Let’s not forget that Iran is nervously eyeing a post–nuclear deal future should Trump unilaterally decide to break the JCPOA; Iran sees great value in having a loyal trade partner for any coming economic crunch.
Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have been fighting their proxy wars across the Middle East for years, and Syria is just one of a number currently raging (a political war in Lebanon, a real one in Yemen and a mix of both in Iraq). Riyadh is no fan of either ISIS or Assad and has been funding a constellation of rebel groups (and funneling them weapons) to take on both; it has also picked up part of the tab on CIA operations in Syria as well.
While ISIS’s footprint in the country dwindles, those rebel groups have basically lost in their fight to dislodge Assad. Saudi Arabia refuses to let Iran have free rein in Syria, but without a U.S. presence there, it has no real options — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman already has too much on his plate readying the ambitious reforms needed to transform Saudi Arabia into a 21st-century economy. That explains his opposition to Trump’s reported desire to start pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump may be focused on ISIS, but Saudi Arabia and his own foreign policy advisors remain wary of what a U.S. pullout might mean for Iran’s regional influence.