As the U.S. withdraws, Assad and Putin are emerging as the winners in Syria

Analysis: Damascus and Moscow are now in a much stronger position in the region, following Turkey's assault and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal.
Image: Turkish soldiers with US-made M60 tanks drive through the town of Tukhar, north of Syria's northern city of Manbij
Turkish soldiers with U.S.-made M60 tanks drive through the town of Tukhar, north of Syria's northern city of Manbij, on Monday as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.Aref Tammawi / AFP - Getty Images

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By Bill Neely and Saphora Smith

ERBIL, Iraq — In less than a week, the tectonic plates have shifted beyond recognition in the Middle East.

The U.S. counterterrorism operation against the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, in northern Syria is in shreds. The U.S. military is accelerating its plans toward an almost total withdrawal from Syria, and the Kurdish troops in the northeast have called on Damascus and Moscow to help repel the invading Turkish forces.

The map of territorial control in Syria has begun shifting. Kurdish fighters who once stood side by side with the United States are now being absorbed into the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps, under Russian command. And Russia will, quite literally, move into the space vacated by President Donald Trump.

And Trump does not appear to mind.

“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” he posted on Twitter on Sunday. “Let them!”

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Analysts said it was clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were emerging as the winners of the geopolitical puzzle, and the Kurds and the U.S. as the losers.

It also looks like ISIS will benefit too and may be able to resurge as stability eludes the region.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters take part in a battle in Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria on Oct. 14, 2019.Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP - Getty Images

On the ground

“There is no other way to say this other than Assad has basically won,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

“The agreement between Assad and the Kurds has effectively handed Assad back almost the entire country and of course it’s a benefit for Russia,” he said.

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On Monday, after it emerged that Kurdish forces had appealed to Assad for help, the Syrian leader made more gains in one day than he has in the past three years. His forces are moving across northern Syria toward the Turkish border with speed and into areas controlled until recently by Kurds, and before then by ISIS. Places they have not set foot in for years.

As the regime’s troops creep north, it looks like Assad will be able to take back swathes of northern Syria — possibly even without a fight. Last week, Kurdish forces controlled about a quarter of the country — an area rich in oil, water and agriculture. It represented the largest chunk of Syria not in state hands.

The Kurds were strengthened by the support of U.S. troops and have pushed for greater regional autonomy. But with impending U.S. withdrawal and the deal with Assad, the dream of a separate entity and even a state appears to be fading away.

“They had little choice but to call on Assad to come to their rescue,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.

“Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and greenlight the Turkish assault hammered a deadly nail in the coffin of the Kurdish dream.”

The chaos is also a “godsend” for ISIS, he said.

Russian and Syrian national flags flutter on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria on Oct. 15, 2019.Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

The geopolitical chessboard

Russia is now the undisputed power broker in the region with Iran also benefiting. America’s leverage and influence have disappeared and there are risks of a wider confrontation among Turkey, Syria and perhaps even Russia.

Syrian government troops are now facing their old enemies, the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, but today those rebels are wearing a different uniform and are part of the invading Turkish-led forces.

There is a risk of a wider war, of Syrian and Turkish armies clashing, of Russian warplanes confronting Turkish warplanes, now that they are on opposing sides in Syria. But some analysts believe these clashes are unlikely to escalate into full-blown war and that Russia will be able to broker a deal between Syria and Turkey.

What all this means is Moscow is now in a commanding position.

“The big point to keep in mind is that Putin is in charge in Syria now,” Gerges said, adding that while Erdogan might not fear Trump he would not cross Putin.

“This speaks volumes about the decline of the U.S.’ role and the rise of Russia’s,” he said. “A new regional order is in the making. The Syrian moment might be remembered as a turning point in the emergence of this new regional order.”

Becoming the mediator would further empower Moscow and make it even more of an indispensable player in the region, according to Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director at the Center for a New American Security.

Goldenberg pointed to Russia’s arms deals cut with Egypt and Putin’s efforts to build a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.

Russian, Syrian and Manbij military council flags flutter near Manbij, Syria on Oct. 15, 2019.Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

“All of this is a function of being viewed as a kind of new player, as a central power broker in the region,” he said. “The events of the last week are just going to further cement that.”

On Monday, as U.S. troops prepared to leave Syria, Putin was visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in more than a decade, meeting the king and crown prince; a symbolic illustration of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. Tuesday, he was headed to the United Arab Emirates.

Goldenberg said perhaps the biggest win for Putin was that he gets to point to “the contrast of Russian staying power and Russian reliability and Russian behavior with its allies, compared to American volatility, inconsistency and weakness.”

As for Iran, Goldenberg said if Assad controls northeast Syria, it would make it easier for Iran to establish logistical lines of support from Iraq into Lebanon via Syria in order to supply the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

If Assad controlled northern Syria “it should be open season for Iranian transportation of assets into Lebanon,” he said.

In just one week, Turkey has invaded Syria, the U.S. has cut and run, ISIS supporters may have escaped, Kurdish forces have come under Russian command, several civilians and scores of fighters are dead and tens of thousands of people are fleeing the fighting.

The speed of events on the ground has dwarfed most other geopolitical events of recent years.

Saphora Smith reported from London, Bill Neely reported from Iraq.