Military forces of the United States are in retreat in portions of Syria, relocating and airlifting service personnel and Special Forces that were operating together with Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the remnants of the Islamic State (IS). Other anti-IS coalition special forces contingents from the United Kingdom, France, Norway and other allied countries deployed in Syria together with the US are also hurriedly disembarking. US troops are abandoning their bases and reconnaissance outposts without much dignity or ceremony. The US Air Force actually bombed the abandoned former US headquarters in the semi-independent Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (a.k.a. Rojava) to destroy a munitions depot and “make the facility unusable.” The US military is apparently retreating without much preparation or any solid plan, possibly just after receiving a sudden tweet from President Donald Trump. In Moscow, this is being compared with the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Elements of pro–Bashar al-Assad forces, together with Russian military police, entered the strategically important town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, and the Russians took over a former US base near the city, finding the air conditioning units in abandoned US military tents still on. Communication masts with attached radio dishes and antennas tower over this abandoned US outpost, which will be searched with vigor by Russian specialists to unearth any military secrets possibly left behind during the retreat (News-front.info, October 17).
The Russian military has, for months, been sending across Russia a train full of “trophy” exhibits of weapons and equipment captured in Syria from opposition and IS fighters to promote the victorious Syrian campaign Russia entered in 2015 (see EDM, April 18). Soon, this traveling militaristic PR stunt could be expanded to display US military exhibits collected in Manbij or elsewhere in Rojava to further humiliate Washington and project Russian prowess. Of course, the Russian military is overjoyed to see the US finally leave Syria, as Trump has been promising for some time; and the undignified manner of the retreat is an additional bonus. The Russian military is so pleased the US is moving out that it has offered to help facilitate the process. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on October 15, discussed the withdrawal with his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The chief of the “Pacification Center” in the main Russian air base of Hmeimim, in Syria, General Alexei Bakin, told journalists, “We are taking all appropriate steps together with the Syrian government to ensure a safe withdrawal of all foreign solders.” Bakin called on the locals to restrain from harassing the fleeing Americans and their allies (Militarynews.ru, October 15).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered his military, together with elements of the Turkish-armed and -supported Free Syrian Army (FSA), to invade Rojava on October 9. The goal of Operation Peace Spring is to disarm or destroy SDF forces, which Ankara considers “terrorists.” In January 2018, the same coalition of Turkish regular forces and FSA militia attacked the most western canton of Rojava—the Syrian city of Afrin. A Russian military police unit was stationed in Afrin, but it withdrew to allow the Turks to attack. Pro-al-Assad units moved into Afrin to raise the Syrian flag, but the Turks quickly pushed them out. After 58 days of fighting, the Kurdish militia—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—withdrew from Afrin (see EDM, January 25, 2018), which, today, remains under Turkish/FSA control. After Afrin, Erdoğan has been pressing the US to abandon the Kurds in the rest of Rojava so that Ankara could nullify the entire Kurdish semi-independent federation. Southern Turkey has a large Kurdish population that desires autonomy or possibly independence; thus, the existence of Rojava is seen in Ankara as a direct threat. On October 7, Trump ordered US forces in Syria to step aside and eventually to fully withdraw, effectively green-lighting Operation Peace Spring. Abandoned by their US allies, able to fight but unable to sustain indefinitely Turkish air and heavy artillery bombardments, the Kurds have turned to al-Assad and Russia for protection (RIA Novosti, October 17).
Damascus and Moscow have moved token forces into northern Syria. Militarily they cannot stop the Turkish onslaught or effectively provide the SDF air cover by enforcing a no fly zone over Rojava. But neither President Vladimir Putin nor President Erdoğan want or need to fight. Erdoğan has accepted Putin’s invitation to come to Sochi on October 22, for a summit to possibly seal a deal to resolve the crisis (Militarynews.ru, October 16). Moscow is apparently ready to grant Erdoğan a free hand in establishing a “security zone” south of the Turkish border, eliminating all Kurdish opposition and possibly resettling there some of the over three million Syrian refugees who are today in Turkey. Al-Assad’s government, together with Russia and Iran, will take over the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province north of the Euphrates along with Raqqa and other parts of southern Rojava now being abandoned by the US. These oil-rich lands may provide the regime in Damascus with a much-needed source of revenue when Tehran has gone low on cash because of US sanctions. Likely, the battered and disgruntled but battle-hardened SDF fighters will eventually retreat from the fight with Turkey to the south, pledge fealty to Moscow and Damascus, and wait to fight another day.
The amount Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have achieved in only one week is astonishing and may not be the end of wishes coming true. Trump seems to like Erdoğan and clearly does not want to punish Turkey; but depending on the direction events take in the next days and weeks, internal pressures may ultimately force the administration to impose more punitive sanctions, which could further worsen bilateral relations and strain Ankara’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For centuries, Russia has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure and fought multiple wars in the hopes of either directly annexing the Turkish Straits or to establish a friendly client regime there, effectively moving southern Russia’s line of defense from the Black Sea coast out into the Aegean (see EDM, July 18). Pulling Turkey away from the West has been a strategic dream for generations of Russian rulers; and today, the Kremlin believes, this suddenly seems at arm’s length.