Trump’s Kurdish Fumble: What’s in it for Putin?

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Mark N. Katz

It is commonplace to observe that U.S. missteps in the Middle East will end up benefiting Moscow. Often, though, these observations are either mistaken or exaggerated. What is described as a misstep may only be a U.S. policy that the observer dislikes. The U.S. policy identified as a “misstep” may simply not be to the liking of a Middle Eastern government about which the observer is especially concerned. Warnings that Moscow will benefit unless Washington changes course are often made to induce the U.S. to adopt a policy more to the observer’s liking when other appeals prove unsuccessful. And even if the U.S. policy in question really is a misstep, Russia is not always in a position to capitalize on it. Indeed, Moscow has been known to make mistakes of its own.

But when it comes to Donald Trump’s recent statements about withdrawing U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, acquiescing to Turkey’s intervention in this area, and essentially abandoning the Syrian Kurdish forces there with whom U.S. forces have fought against ISIS, there is absolutely no ambiguity. Trump’s actions have betrayed a longstanding ally and damaged America’s reputation. And Moscow will definitely benefit from Trump’s actions.

Indeed, what Trump has done furthers two narratives that Moscow has long advanced in the region. The first is that while Russia is a reliable ally, the U.S. is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria (even if then-President Dmitry Medvedev did not do so for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011). By contrast, Trump’s abandoning the Syrian Kurds is seen as just the latest example of the U.S. not firmly supporting its allies in the region—including the Shah of Iran in 1979, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the coup attempt against him in 2016.

The second narrative is one directed at the Syrian Kurds themselves. Putin has long sought to persuade them that they cannot rely on America’s fickle support, and so the best option for them is to make peace with the Assad regime—which Moscow can help them do. As a result of being under attack from Turkish forces and without help from the U.S., the Syrian Kurds may well conclude that they have no other choice but to take up Moscow’s offer to mediate a deal with Assad.

What is especially amazing about this situation is that even though Trump has betrayed the Syrian Kurds by acquiescing to Turkish military action against them, Trump’s expressions of disapproval for what Erdogan is doing and threats to damage Turkey’s economy means that Trump does not even get the benefit of improved relations with Ankara in return for enabling its intervention. Putin, by contrast, stands to not only improve Russia’s ties with the Syrian Kurds, but gain from a further worsening in the relationship between Washington and a NATO ally. Further, just by expressing his misgivings about Turkish actions in far more measured tones compared to Trump’s rantings, Putin appears to be far more consistent a partner not just for Erdogan, but for other Middle Eastern leaders as well.

If nothing else, Trump’s abandoning America’s Syrian Kurdish allies, as well as his erratic behavior generally, will encourage other Middle Eastern leaders to hedge against Trump treating them in a similar fashion by seeking pragmatic cooperation with Putin—something that will undoubtedly be on display during his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia in a few days, even though Riyadh is not happy about Moscow’s close ties to Tehran.

In the over 35 years that I have spent writing about Moscow’s Middle East policy, I have often tried to point out how the USSR or Russia will have difficulty capitalizing on regional dislike of various U.S. policies. But on this occasion, I simply cannot do so.

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Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com

SHOW 11 COMMENTS

11 Comments

  1. The world today is a very different world than the one U.S. inherited after WWII : essentially a world flattened by a truly devastating world war. U.S. is not a power with millennial background and its electorate base is in average of lower education that people in older nations like European’s, Russia, Japan or China. I’d risk to say that the Obama presidency was an exception as he precisely wanted to re-orient the U.S. relationships with the rest of the world in a more balanced way. He was at the level of world leaders such as Putin, Xi, Merkel and the younger Macron today. Trump is not and furthermore, he lost all the most capable advisors available to him. The situation in the Middle East and other places like in the Pacific are not easily managed today. History, traditions, cultural backgrounds have their own dynamics and require vast information and a truly open mindset that only high level world leaders historically have had.

    As I said, after Obama, U.S. cannot pretend to contribute significantly to peace and development in the world today mainly because the source of its strategic views is primarily the assumption that the peremptory presence of military bases is a precondition.

    Other leaders, Europeans, Russians or Chinese look more likely to contribute with a rather deep rooted willingness towards diplomacy, dialog and a more focused interest on intense commercial exchanges than war.

    What will happen to the Kurds in Syria? I believe Putin has a satisfactory and solid predisposition to go after a balanced stance presiding in the redistribution of cards in the Middle East. I’m pretty sure he’ll look for European’s and Far East (China, Japan) advise as well as the essential local ones (Iraq, Iran, Syria Turkey) acknowledging its own position as a broker by default. I guess even Erdogan, the most bellicose today, might be ready to embark in this process in such a context.

  2. I am thinking how badly the Kurds need a friend right now. How can Putin help?

    Will whatever he chooses echo the time he pulled Obama’s chestnuts from the fire, relieving him from the consequences of crossing a red line he never should have drawn?

    Methinks we should all stop calling West Asia the “Middle East.”

  3. Without even considering the Kurdish minority, Syria’s ally Russia has come out a winner and the regime-change US has come out a loser — that’s only right. . . .After 35 years, a welcome change for the people in the Middle East. . ..Viva Russia!

  4. Professor Katz

    What is that you Americans are trying to achieve in the Near East?

    Do you know?

  5. The Non-Iranian Kurds in Levant had rejected their own associated central governments in Iraq and Syria! The Kurds in Iraq by taking over the oil fields in norther Iraqi with no agreement with the Iraqi government and in Syria they joined the anti-Syrian groups against the government of Syria. The Kurds in Levant had also aligned themselves with the US for their own territorial reasons and they were selling Iraqi crude oil to Israel in order to fund their own resistance against the central governments in Iraq and Syria! In this recent event Turkey was the best candidate amongst the 3 powerful countries, Russia, Turkey and Iran, to forcing the Kurds into reconciling their differences with their own associated central governments in Iraq and in Syria and quit demanding for an autonomous state.
    Turkey considers the Kurds as its enemies and being a semi-member of the NATO and the gate keeper of refugees into the EU was and is the best candidate for attacking the Kurds without facing a serious retaliation from the West. Turkey’s action may further stabilize the two countries of Iraq and Syria to the benefit of themselves, the region and Russia. Now who are the losers of this event? Your guess is as good as mine!

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