Russia’s Mideast influence grows as U.S. turns its back on region

Russia’s Mideast influence grows as U.S. turns its back on region

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serves as a symbolic full stop to the many civil wars that have engulfed Syria in the past eight years, although Baghdadi was not personally in charge of anything by the time he died.

The outcome of all those wars was already becoming clear, and it is the Russians and Bashar al-Assad who have won.

Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from eastern Syria makes the Russian victory clear: within days, there were Russian soldiers taking selfies in the abandoned American bases on the Syrian side of the frontier with Turkey.

Trump’s elaborate thanks to the Russian, Syrian and Turkish governments for their aid in the Baghdadi operation was a genuflection before the powers that now really count in the region, but the Russian response was as disdainful as ever.

“We are unaware of any alleged (Russian) assistance during this operation,” said Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

What have the Russians won? Four years after they began providing air support to a Syrian regime that was teetering on the brink of defeat, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule once again extends over almost all of Syria.

They never had to commit Russian ground troops to combat, and yet they are now the dominant outside power in the entire Fertile Crescent.

Assad didn’t do too badly either. First he cleared the rebels out of all the big cities, then he regained control of all Arabic-speaking rural areas except the northwestern province of Idlib, and now his troops are re-occupying most of the Kurdish-speaking east without a fight.

He never had to fight Baghdadi’s Islamic State either. It was a Syrian Kurdish militia with U.S. air support that destroyed the part of Islamic State that was located in Syria. And when Trump pulled U.S. troops out of Syria on Oct. 6, betraying the Kurds, Russian diplomacy finessed that into another win for Assad.

The Syrian Kurds were immediately attacked by Turkey, which intended to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish population from northeastern Syria and replace them with Arabic-speaking refugees from other parts of Syria.

It was almost certainly Russian emissaries who persuaded the Kurds to give up their dream of independence and invite the Syrian army back in to protect them from the Turks.

When the Syrian army went back in last week it, was accompanied by enough Russian soldiers to deter the Turks from shooting at it, so Syrian troops now control most of the border and ethnic cleansing is presumably off the menu.

Turkish troops still hold some bits of Syrian territory that they grabbed last week, but Ankara has publicly stated that it will not try to keep them indefinitely.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the jihadi rebels throughout the Syrian civil war and still protects them in their last stronghold in Idlib.

He even kept the border with Syria open so that foreign jihadis could cross to join Islamic State. But he is a pragmatist who understands the new realities, and within months, he will reopen diplomatic relations with Assad’s regime in Syria.

That will mean that Turkey can no longer provide military protection to the jihadi groups in Idlib (most of whom now acknowledge the leadership of Osama bin-Laden’s old organization, al-Qaeda).

Thereupon the final operation to reconquer Idlib can begin, although it may be done quite slowly and methodically to keep the Syrian army’s casualties down.

The Russians have accomplished everything they set out to do in the region in 2015, and the main risk they face now is over-confidence.

They saved Assad and he owes them a lot, but he also owes Iran, which provided and paid for the foreign Shia volunteers who provided vitally needed military manpower when the Syrian army was running out.

They have drawn Turkey away from its old reflexive loyalty to NATO, but it is still a member of the alliance and Erdogan’s political position in Turkey is weakening.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago went well, because Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has been seeking friends elsewhere after Trump did nothing in response to the recent drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. But the prince’s position at home is hardly secure either.

The truth is that Russia has won the prize, but the prize is a can of worms.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Innisfail RCMP arrest man following ‘lengthy pursuit’

Innisfail RCMP say a “lengthy pursuit” through a rural area ended with… Continue reading

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan speaks in the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday in this image from his Facebook page.
Red Deer MLA Jason Stephan sounds off on socialism in anti-lockdown speech

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan has applauded his government’s COVID-19 response, saying… Continue reading

(Photo by Paul Cowley/ Advocate Staff)
Mask bylaws not popular in rural areas

Red Deer and Blackfalds bylaws requiring masks in public places kick in on Monday

A GoFundMe campaign to support a Stettler couple following a fire has raised more than $3,000. (Contributed photo)
Family pet dies in Stettler fire

GoFundMe page has raised more than $3K so far

Canadian Olympic gymnast and National Sport School alumni Kyle Shewfelt announces his retirement in Calgary, Thursday, May 21, 2009. Calgary's board of education will close the National Sport School that has produced Olympic and Paralympic champions for 26 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Calgary’s National Sport School to close, looks to join a different school division

Calgary’s National Sport School to close, looks to join a different school division

Canada's Erica Wiebe, left, celebrates after defeating Nigeria's Blessing Onyebuchi, right on the ground, to win Gold medal in women's FS 76Kg wrestling at the Commonwealth Games on Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Canada’s Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe eyes return to competition

Canada’s Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe eyes return to competition

Louisiana-Lafayette running back Elijah Mitchell (15) is tackled by Coastal Carolina linebacker Enock Makonzo (43) and safety Cameron Mitchell (49) during the first half of an NCAA football game in Lafayette, La., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. It's already been a season to remember but Canadian Enock Makonzo and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will chase two more firsts Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Paul Kieu
Canadian Enock Makonzo, Chanticleers chase Sun Belt East regular-season crown

Canadian Enock Makonzo, Chanticleers chase Sun Belt East regular-season crown

Atlanta United's Mo Adams, right, challenges Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo during first half MLS soccer action in East Hartford, Conn., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo says he finished the season with an injured leg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jessica Hill
Toronto FC ready to refocus on future as long, hard season comes to an end

Toronto FC ready to refocus on future as long, hard season comes to an end

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart speak to the media during a visit to the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Thursday, January 16, 2020. City councillors in Vancouver voted unanimously this week to ask federal officials for an exemption to Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, a decision advocates hope will blaze a trail for the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use in other municipalities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Advocates aim to shape ‘Vancouver model’ for drug decriminalization

Advocates aim to shape ‘Vancouver model’ for drug decriminalization

Senator Murray Sinclair appears before the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Sinclair is planning to leave the Senate early next year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Sen. Murray Sinclair, former head of TRC, set to leave the upper chamber next January

Sen. Murray Sinclair, former head of TRC, set to leave the upper chamber next January

Carolina De La Torre, right, owner of Arepas Ranch in Calgary, poses for a photo with her husband in this undated handout photo. The Venezuelan woman who believes she was used as part of Jason Kenney's argument not to lockdown restaurants in the province remembers her encounter with the premier as a lot less dramatic than he suggested. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Carolina De La Torre *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘No crying’: Venezuelan refugee Kenney cited says interaction was less dramatic

‘No crying’: Venezuelan refugee Kenney cited says interaction was less dramatic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question from a reporter during a bi-weekly news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau feels most Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021

Trudeau feels most Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021

Most Read