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Will US pullout from Syria increase risk of conflict with Russia?

The announcement of the US pullout from Syria was received with caution in Moscow. Besides the security and political challenges it may bring about, the Trump decision could mean the end of a practical, relatively constructive US-Russian approach to conflict at flashpoints.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during annual news conference in Moscow, Russia December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1168D50140

On Dec. 20, speaking at his annual press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprisingly praised US-Russian collaboration on Syria.

“Despite all the disagreements, our specialists, our military personnel, security services and foreign ministries have established a rather constructive dialogue to address acute issues in combating terrorism in Syria. Overall, we are satisfied with our cooperation,” he said.

This may seem odd because the two countries' stances throughout the Syrian conflict have been as different as chalk and cheese on a wide range of issues. They backed opposing warring parties and had at best different views on the desirable outcome of the confrontation. Hence, when President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, most US commentators viewed it exclusively through the lens of a zero-sum game, claiming the United States had capitulated to Russia. Thus, the countries' shared objective of eliminating the Islamic State and their joint success in accomplishing this goal are practically disregarded despite the threat the caliphate posed to both. In turn, geopolitical rivalry in the region is considered the real “big game.”

And what about Russia? Is the Kremlin exulting over Trump's snap announcement? What aims does Russia set for itself now and what are some key results in 2018?

When Moscow decided to launch a military operation in Syria in 2015, several goals were established. More than three years later, virtually all of them have been achieved. Radical Islamists have been crushed. President Bashar al-Assad has retained and strengthened his power. Russia’s regional clout has grown dramatically alongside its military and political impact on the global stage. However, one aim has not been fulfilled. Syria has failed to amplify and give a boost to the US-Russian agenda, and the constructive, albeit reluctant, interaction between the two countries' militaries seems likely to be on the wane and may even be viewed as something no longer necessary.

Syria is a poster child of Russian success, rather unexpectedly even to most of those who had launched the operation. The balanced combination of rigidity and flexibility, the use of military force, diplomatic astuteness and political maneuvering with a clear ultimate aim in mind — to preserve the Syrian regime — have borne fruit. Regardless of continuing skirmishes, the highly charged atmosphere in general and the extremely entangled relationships between numerous parties to the conflict, Russia continues to implement its plans.

To some extent, Russia owes its success to inconsistent policies of other stakeholders, primarily those of the United States. It should be noted that the policy is less incoherent under Trump than under his predecessor. Washington has ultimately failed to formulate its goals in Syria while European nations, beset with internal problems and possessing little force-based leverage, quit as independent actors in Syria long ago. Some of them are now back in the game thanks to Russia, which has been seeking EU financial support for restoration efforts. Negotiations between Russia, Turkey, Germany and France took place this fall.

It should be mentioned that these circumstances made life easier for Russia but didn’t pave the way for its success in Syria. This year, Moscow has coped with challenges that could have easily derailed the process and forced it to backslide. These include crises linked to the use of chemical weapons and their military and political repercussions, the Turkish military offensive in Afrin, the Idlib standoff — which could have degenerated into a full-scale conflict — and the accidental downing of a Russian aircraft by Syrian air defenses caused by an Israeli air raid on Syria. This is not to mention mind nasty, even if minor, skirmishes, as well as the stalled political settlement process and the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and between Iran and Israel on the other.

All this did not discourage Russia to the point of altering course. The preserved Astana format is a miracle in itself since it witnesses the cooperation of states that are largely distrustful of each other and have different interests in most regards. However, the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle demonstrates a new type of partnership. The parties are united not by the desire to attain a common goal but each to achieve its own. However, each party understands that the other two make it all possible. 

Russia’s success in Syria has been the bridge to the formation of the shared stance on the Middle East. Without it, Russia would not have cultivated trade relations with Saudi Arabia and OPEC, which has turned Russia into a key actor in the global oil market. Even the Soviet Union failed to achieve that much in this realm. Moreover, one can see remarkable advances in Russian diplomacy in Libya, where a range of local actors have been trying to secure Moscow’s backing. There are some advocates of active involvement in Libyan affairs in Russia as well. Such an undertaking, however, apparently exceeds the amount of available resources.

It is noteworthy that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria announced by Trump has not caused any exultation in Moscow.

First, as Putin put it, “The statement about the pullout and the actual departure of troops” is not always the same. Many policymakers believe that the withdrawal parameters can be adjusted along the way, with some units staying on the ground. In addition, since American military forces are deployed in Iraq, strikes can be carried out if necessary.

Second, the US withdrawal creates additional problems for Russia. The US units in the Kurdish-controlled regions stood in the way of Turkish military operations there. If the leaks in the US press about Trump’s conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be trusted, the US president actually “handed over” Syria to Turkey. Now Ankara is promising to continue the anti-Kurdish campaign. On the one hand, it implies further Turkish actions on the territory under Assad’s jurisdiction, which would exacerbate the already-tense situation between the two. On the other hand, the delicate Astana balance will have to pass one more endurance test.

The third and most curious aspect is that the stationing of the Russian and US troops in close proximity ensured the necessary and inevitable communication, at least at the military level. While this interaction can hardly be referred to as cooperation, the parties have shown that they are both taking their responsibility very seriously as both American and Russian generals want to avoid accidental clashes, which could escalate uncontrollably. In that respect, the undoubtedly dangerous incident near Deir ez-Zor in February — about which more information should be revealed — is illustrative. The episode allegedly involved mercenaries from a Russian private military company. The sides have preferred to turn the page on it, at least publicly.

Given the current state of US-Russian relations, Syria has been almost the only area of relatively constructive interaction. Just as during the Cold War, the military can exercise a more sober and practical approach than politicians. The higher the risk of a collision, the more cautious military leaders are. Following the end of the Syrian story, the two major powers' militaries may still interact in the Black and Baltic seas. However, in these cases the situation is more fraught with risk, given the absence of military standoff and the presence of political ardor. Naturally, one can lament that what could be termed as rule-based US-Russian hostility, which has characterized the situation in Syria until now, is almost the apex of bilateral relations. However, such is the current phase. In other spheres, nothing of the kind can be detected, with hostility being more chaotic and, therefore, particularly dangerous.

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