by Mark N. Katz
At this point, it is not clear when—or even if—the Trump administration will carry out the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria that President Donald Trump said he would undertake. Trump’s initial statement that the United States would pull out in a month’s time because the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) had been defeated was revised to a more deliberate withdrawal that could take four months. National Security Advisor John Bolton revised the plan further by making the withdrawal contingent on the actual defeat of IS. Most recently, the withdrawal appears to have actually begun. It would not be surprising, though, if there were further revisions still in Trump’s Syria policy.
Whether U.S. forces actually depart from, remain in, or get reintroduced into Syria after their departure remains unclear. But whatever the United States ends up doing, Russia in particular appears to have benefited from the uncertainty that Trump has created. Fearing that a U.S. withdrawal will lead to Turkish intervention against them, the Syrian Kurds have reacted by seeking an alliance with the Assad regime—something Moscow has long been calling on them to do. And although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly welcomed Trump’s initial announcement that the United States would withdraw quickly, his fury at National Security Advisor John Bolton for saying this would be contingent on assurances of protection for America’s Syrian Kurdish partners further serves Moscow’s long-term interest in terms of the deterioration of the Turkish-U.S. relationship.
Moscow is also happy that Trump’s withdrawal has coincided with (and perhaps even accelerated) the trend among the Gulf Arab states to deal with the Assad regime. The UAE and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus, and Kuwait signaled that it will do so as soon as Syria is readmitted to the Arab League (Oman never closed its embassy in Syria). Saudi Arabia has not yet done so, but it reportedly believes, along with the UAE, Egypt, and possibly even Israel, in working with the Assad regime as a way of limiting Turkish influence. Moscow, of course, welcomes any Gulf Arab recognition of the Assad regime and hopes that this presages their financial support to Syria’s reconstruction.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain as opposed as ever to the Iranian presence in Syria. Riyadh’s previous hopes that the overthrow of the Assad regime by its Sunni Arab opponents would push Iran out of Syria were dashed when the Russian intervention that began in September 2015 ensured Assad’s survival. The U.S. military presence in Syria aimed at combating IS limited Iranian behavior in Syria to some extent. But once a U.S. withdrawal occurs, even that possibility will be gone.
Israel, of course, can be counted on to strike at Iranian forces and their allies in Syria whenever it feels threatened by them. There’s even some Arab Gulf (as well as other Arab) cooperation with Israel against the common Iranian foe. But most Gulf Arab governments—and even Israel—also see improved relations with Russia, as well as their own willingness to accept or even work with the Assad regime, as a way to induce Moscow to restrain Iran in Syria.
Moscow, of course, is very pleased that, because of the potential U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the fear of what Iran may do there afterward, Gulf Arabs are more likely to view the Russian presence in Syria as a stabilizing factor that could protect them not just from Iran but from Turkey as well. Moscow values its collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular since they trade with and invest in Russia, help Russia evade Western economic sanctions, cooperate with Russia in limiting oil production through the OPEC+ format, and can potentially provide reconstruction assistance for Syria that Moscow is neither willing nor able to come up with itself.
Indeed, Russian-Gulf Arab relations may now be better than at any point in the past. Common interests have contributed to this, but so has inconsistent U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s withdrawal announcement—and his statement that Iran can “do what they want” in Syria—has only made it more prudent than ever for the Gulf Arabs, as well as Israel, to hedge against the possibility of further U.S. withdrawal from the region by turning toward a Russia that clearly intends to stay.
Still, common dissatisfaction with U.S. policy does not guarantee that Russian-Gulf Arab relations can further improve or even avoid friction. The Gulf Arabs may hope that their acceptance of the Assad regime and improved ties with Russia will persaude Moscow to distance itself from Tehran, but this does not appear to be happening. If anything, Moscow and Tehran have been increasing their security cooperation.
Why would Russia do this even though it definitely wants, and values, improved ties with the Gulf Arabs? Moscow might be cynically calculating that, since the United States is no longer willing to protect Gulf Arab interests in Syria, the Gulf Arabs have no choice but to increase their reliance on Russia even though Moscow is cooperating with Tehran. Indeed, Moscow may see increasing its cooperation with Iran as a way of pushing the Gulf Arabs to work harder to curry favor with Moscow—just as increasing Russian cooperation with the Gulf Arabs may force Iran to do the same. The danger for Russia in pursuing such a strategy, though, is that the Gulf Arabs will limit their cooperation if Russia cannot or will not contain Iran like they hope it will.