Across parts of northeastern Syria, with U.S. military outposts and bases emptied or destroyed after Washington withdrew from the region and left its Kurdish allies — the fallout began to roll in — in the form of Russian armored troop carriers.
The reinforcements arrived Friday, according to Russian media, with an additional 300 Russian military police and 20 armored vehicles preparing to deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border — part of the deal Moscow negotiated with Ankara to end the fighting with Kurdish forces, who until now were backed by the United States.
“The United States has been the Kurds’ closest ally in recent years. [But] in the end, it abandoned the Kurds and, in essence, betrayed them,” Russian media quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
In Brussels, the U.S. defense secretary was skeptical, casting doubt on Moscow’s moves, which some analysts describe as a power play that has helped cement Russia’s role in deciding the future of the region.
“We’ll see in six months how Russia is doing on the Turkey-Syrian border, and we’ll see what the impact is on Russia, on its interests,” Mark Esper told an audience in Brussels on Thursday, ahead of a meeting with counterparts from NATO countries.
“Time will tell with regard to whether or not Russia will benefit,” he added.
Back in Washington, the White House warned that the Kremlin’s actions would not escape notice.
“We always watch the Russians warily, wherever they are,” a senior administration official told reporters, adding, “we caution our friends in Turkey and all others to be careful.”
In fact, U.S. military and intelligence officials have been heavily focused on Russia’s actions in Syria since 2015, when with the country engulfed in a civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending warplanes, helicopters, and eventually tanks and ground forces to help keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.
Like Esper now, at that point, other U.S. officials were skeptical, as well.
“The time will soon come when those supporting the regime will face a choice between continuing to stand by Assad and risk defeat or tossing Assad overboard in order to strike a deal with the moderate opposition,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA in June 2015.
Two months later, the intelligence assessment was much the same.
“It is logical that they will begin to consider post-Assad options,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “It is not clear they will be able to save him.”
By September 2015, the view had started to change. U.S. intelligence remained doubtful that Russia could prop-up Assad for the long-term. But some officials conceded, at least for Putin, the move was starting to pay off.
“Even if Putin’s help can’t prevent Assad from sinking, he is now positioned to play a role in choosing Assad’s successor,” an official said. “There’s no doubt Putin views Syria as an opportunity to build a significant presence in the region and establish Russia as the lead player.”
Russia’s move in Syria
Through different twists and turns in Syria, and as the war gave rise to the Islamic State terror group’s self-declared caliphate, Russia stayed, backing Assad and, seemingly, succeeding.
“The only reason Assad is still in power is because of the Russian’s regrettable vetoes in the U.N. and the Russian and Iranian militaries,” then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told U.S. lawmakers in April 2018.
“We are committed to ending that war [in Syria],” Mattis added. “It has been unfulfilled, again, because Russia has continually blocked the efforts.”
Then, two weeks ago, Russia’s efforts appeared to pay off again.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, battling Turkish forces after U.S. troops left the border region, cut a deal with Assad and Russia, allowing Syrian forces to “enter and deploy along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border.”
For Assad’s forces, it was a chance to establish control over areas they had not been able to access after years of fighting.
According to a veteran U.S. intelligence official, Russia and other U.S. adversaries likely saw the development as something more.
“A sign of weakness and disengagement on the part of the U.S., and they will, I assure you, exploit that,” James Clapper, who served as director of National Intelligence from 2010 until 2017, told VOA.
“I see only downsides,” he added of the U.S. decision to withdraw from northeast Syria. “Everyone involved wins, except, of course, the U.S. and the Kurds.”
Other veterans of U.S. efforts in the Middle East, though, are not ready to hand Russia a decisive victory, even as its forces take up a more prominent position.
“This is over-extending Russia,” said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. military adviser who was embedded with Kurdish forces in Iraq.
Now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington research group, Pregent cautions the Russian military likely does not have the capacity to rein in Turkish forces, Syrian forces, Kurdish forces and the multitude of militias that have been brought into the recent fighting.
“I don’t see how anyone can guarantee stability with all of these factions going at each other,” he said.
Retired Colonel Ketti Davison, who helped lead U.S. intelligence efforts for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State, agreed.
“It is a short-term win for Russia,” said Davison, now with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“It [Russia] is going to have a hard time forming any military settlement or cease-fire,” she said. “This actually complicates its desire to get that larger Syrian political settlement given that Assad has vowed to expel the Turkish occupiers.”
At least for the moment, the SDF seems to be having some second thoughts about the deal it cut with Russia.
“We thank Russia and its president for trying to stop the war, but the points they have agreed on are not in the interest of our people,” SDF Commander General Mazloum Abdi told reporters Thursday, saying that discussions with Moscow would continue.
Still, some residents in northeast Syria said they are willing to give Russia a chance.
“We welcome the agreement with Russia,” one man from the town of Derik told VOA’s Kurdish service. “We support it if it will protect the border, if it will protect our people.”
“Regarding Russia and Turkey joint patrols, God willing, it will lead to peace solution and end Turkish invasion,” a woman said.
Whether or not they get the peace and stability they are hoping for, U.S. intelligence officials have reason to believe Russia will not leave easily.
“We assess that Moscow has heightened confidence, based on its success in helping restore the Assad regime’s territorial control in Syria,” the intelligence community wrote in its most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment this past January.
Putin, the report said “is likely to sustain an assertive, opportunistic foreign policy to advance Russia’s interests beyond its borders and contest U.S. influence.”
VOA Kurdish service stringer Zana Omar contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from Reuters.