The situation in Syria only grows more complicated.
Donald Trump says he wants a U.S. troop drawdown; his advisors and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince (a U.S. ally) disagree. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani met last week in Ankara to plot a way forward—and all that was before the Assad regime launched a chemical attack in a rebel-occupied Damascus suburb over the weekend, killing at least 42 and drawing international cries of outrage, Trump’s among them.
These five facts give an updated state of play for Syria’s competing foreign powers.
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 recent remarks 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.
Last week, the White House walked back Trump’s pullout comment. But reports over the weekend that Assad deployed chemical attacks to break the rebels’ hold of Douma, a suburb of the country’s capital, drew Trump’s fury: “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” Trump tweeted, before adding that Obama shoulders part of the blame for not living up to his own declared red lines in Syria. Trump is not wrong in that regard. The real question is what the U.S. does next.
Trump already defines himself in opposition to Obama, so expect some form of direct military response from the U.S. in short order. Trump set a precedent last April when he fired 59 US Tomahawk cruise missiles at an empty airstrip in response to the last chemical attack Assad launched. It was one of Trump’s few generally-celebrated foreign policy moves so far; if Trump is smart, he will leverage the universal condemnation against Assad into a coalition strike against Syrian forces. France and its president Emmanuel Macron—an outspoken critic of Assad and his use of chemical weapons—should be particularly helpful in this regard.
But a devastating air strike against Assad’s forces (with or without a coalition) won’t help the U.S. deal with its other headache in Syria: Trying to protect its Kurdish allies on the ground while not letting its relationship with NATO ally Turkey fall to pieces. Turkey has been targeting those same Kurds with a military campaign in Afrin, in 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 the fall, 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,” a view vindicated yet again by events this past weekend. In the 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 Russia’s 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. In the long term, Moscow wants a reliable client state in the Middle East. Assad’s use of chemical weapons isn’t making Putin’s life any easier, but so long as Russians on the ground in Syria aren’t directly compromised by Assad’s aggressive actions, Putin is likely to continue backing his man in Damascus.
Putin probably didn’t think it would come to this—he plunged into the Syrian chaos because he saw a geopolitical opening and figured he could steer the situation to Russia’s benefit. But 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 airstrikes cost Moscow some $4 million a day back in 2015. With the fall in oil prices since 2014, Russian state finances (36 percent 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 percent) than to prop up Assad (27 percent). 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. Iran is also 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.
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 instillations 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.
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 and funneling weapons to a constellation of rebel groups to take on both; it has also picked up part of the tab on CIA operations in Syria.
While ISIS’ 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. They’re not the only ones: On Monday, Israel launched an airstrike on a military base in Syria, reportedly killing a number of Iranian military advisers—just in case you thought things in Syria weren’t complicated enough.