On the morning of November 9, 2016, when the surprising news hit Moscow about Hillary Clinton conceding the presidential race in the United States to Donald Trump, there was spontaneous celebration in the Russian parliament (see EDM, November 10, 2016). Champagne was uncorked and flamboyant pro-Kremlin nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared, “The problems in Syria and in Ukraine will be solved and everything will be fine—the American people do not want foreign commitments” (RIA Novosti, November 9, 2016). A speedy improvement in US-Russian relations was expected but never ultimately materialized, even though Trump and President Vladimir Putin have had several friendly meetings since then (see EDM, July 23, 2017, June 27, 2019; Kremlin.ru, December 1, 2018) and repeatedly publicly praised one another other. Russian officials, including Putin, have regularly complimented Trump but have had to acknowledge the US president’s persistent problems with domestic political opponents, whose alleged hate of Putin’s Russia prevent a true rapprochement. This state of affairs is seen as regrettable, but the Russian disappointment seemingly does not yet extend to Trump himself. According to the Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, “Trump has fulfilled all his election promises except improving relations with Russia, and now is the time to do it” (Interfax, October 28).
The decision by Trump, on October 6, 2019, to begin a withdrawal of US forces from northeastern Syria, abandoning the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allied with the US in the fight against the Islamic State, was cheered in Moscow as a decisive victory (see EDM, October 17). Russia is today supervising the deployment of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the northeastern region formerly controlled by the US and its allies, establishing top-level contacts with the SDF command. Putin bargained a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on October 22, 2019, in Sochi, on delimitating spheres of control in the previously US-controlled part of Syria. The Turkish military invasion of Syria was blunted by Moscow deploying a single battalion of Chechen Kadyrovtsi fighters, with some light armor dressed in Russian Military Police uniforms as a tripwire force, maintaining a balance on the ground and keeping the Turks and Kurds separated and under control (see EDM, October 24, 28). All this came about thanks to Trump’s decision to pull back US units, Turkey’s subsequent armed intervention, and Russian readiness to effectively insert itself and exploit the situation. The Russian military command in Syria announced it will be facilitating and securing the US withdrawal and called on the locals to restrain from harassing the retreating Americans (Militarynews.ru, October 15).
Northeastern Syria is rich in oil and natural gas deposits, which provided Damascus with a steady flow of hard currency before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Moscow sees control of these natural recourses as crucial to stabilizing the overall situation by giving the al-Assad regime a secure source of income, making it less dependent on assistance from Tehran, which is presently equally short on cash because of US sanctions. Damascus could begin repaying some of its debts to Moscow, and some of Putin’s closest associates could potentially procure some access to these funds. A deeply held Russian belief is that control over a given country’s oil deposits inevitably translates into control over everything else. So when it comes to Syria, helping the al-Assad regime regain control over the oil should guarantee a permanent Russian military presence in Syria—the Tartus and Hmeimim bases. Recently, Russia has begun massively expanding these twin military outposts, deploying submarines and warships as well as building an additional airstrip, reinforced concrete shelters, bunkers, and so on (Kommersant, September 30).
Moscow believed that the US forces’ withdrawal would be from the entire northeastern corner of Syria, including the most important oilfields in Deir el-Zour province. So when Trump changed his mind and declared that troops would remain in Deir el-Zour and be reinforced with additional mechanized infantry (including Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles) to guard the oilfields, this was seen as an acute example of American treachery. After talks in Geneva with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described US actions as “arrogant and illegal.” Washington, Lavrov said, “first declare[d] a full withdraw from Syria and then, in a couple of days, announce[d] [it would] stay and, in fact, begin moving in and deploying additional forces on Syrian territory under the pretext of defending oilfields against Islamic State terrorists who were reportedly all defeated” (Militarynews.ru, October 29). The Russian defense ministry, in turn, accused the Pentagon of facilitating illegal trade in contraband oil produced by oil wells belonging to the Syrian state. The ministry described US control of Syrian oil as “international banditry” (Militarynews.ru, October 26).
Trump’s move to partially reverse his Syrian withdrawal and move in armor to control the oilfields has seriously rattled Moscow. As a reprisal and a demonstration of animosity, Russian officials and experts dismissed the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US soldiers as a fake public relations stunt (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 28). Additional US proof, including video footage and reports of a confirmed DNA test, were equally dismissed (RIA Novosti, October 31). According to Kremlin-connected pundit Fyodor Lukyanov, “Moscow will now concentrate its efforts on stabilizing the situation in northeastern Syria with Turkey and strengthening al-Assad’s agreement with the Kurds within the framework of a future united Syria.” As soon as Moscow and Damascus reinforce their positions and their connection to Ankara, according to Lukyanov, the time may come to “try to covertly squeeze [prishemit im khvost—kick their ass] the Americans” (Vzglyad, October 30).
The Pentagon threatened that any attack on its forces remaining in Syria shall be met with an overwhelming response, and this has been noted in Moscow (Militarynews.ru, October 29). But some Islamist or other anti-US proxies could still be emboldened to take action without directly involving Moscow or Damascus. A single suicide attack could feasibly trigger a political decision in Washington to cut its losses and go. The October 6, 2019, decision to begin the Syrian withdrawal left the remaining US forces in a much more exposed and potentially vulnerable position.
The overall appraisal of Trump as a potential partner may be changing in Moscow after his sudden Syrian oilfield reversal. Is Trump indeed a serious leader Putin can make deals with? Is he in charge even in his own White House? Does he control his own staff? A serious reassessment of long-term strategic priorities could be underway in the halls of the Kremlin.