MOSCOW—"The American military have taken away or burned everything valuable," a Russian TV presenter noted this week, showing clips from blogger videos shot in a U.S. military outpost in Syria abandoned under orders from President Donald J. Trump. Here was the security gate, unmanned. There were refrigerators still full of soft drinks, and a regulation American football in a plastic crate. Great voyeuristic fun—for the Kremlin.
Here in the Russian capital government ideologues have been celebrating "a triumph" for Russia after America’s sudden retreat, made in what appeared to be panicked haste after years on the ground backing up Kurdish-led fighters in battles against the so-called Islamic State.
It’s been half a century since Moscow could feel this smug. “The last time Soviet state officials entered American army bases was in Vietnam,” independent military analyst Alexander Golts told The Daily Beast. “When various Russian publications describe Washington as 'our enemy,' and when Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, tells us there is no peace, just different forms of war, the Russian military taking over an American base does look like a victory.”
The images also underscored the new balance of power in the Middle East, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted decisively toward Moscow as he appears to make key strategic decisions while offering himself as mediator on all sides of the Turkish-Kurdish-Syrian conflict.
President Putin deployed forces to back Syrian troops deep inside the Kurdish-controlled territory less than a day after President Trump withdrew U.S. soldiers, and Russian units now patrol the area between Turkish and Syrian forces.
Sergei Markov, Russian-Turkish Public Forum general secretary and director of the Institute of Political Studies, told The Daily Beast that Russian and Turkish leaders have reached a consensus about the future of northern Syria.
Markov said that despite Trump’s threats to “totally destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy, and despite the U.S. and EU sanctions, Turkey would occupy at least a 20-mile-wide strip of Syrian land.
“This is an immense victory: there will be a buffer zone in Syria, stretching between the Euphrates River and the M4 highway, from Manbij to Iraq,” Markov told The Daily Beast. “Then Erdogan will move up to 3.5 million [Syrian] refugees to that territory, including former ISIS—just simple poor people, who currently live on Turkish territory and we’ll be helping to keep peace.”
On Thursday, Putin invited Erdogan to visit Russia and discuss the future roles of control over the Syrian territory. “Erdogan is our ally, really, and Saudi Arabia recognizes Putin as the strong victor in this war,” Markov said from Ankara in a phone interview on Thursday. “Russia will be pushing Turkey on a diplomatic level to eventually withdraw from the newly created territory; we’ll make sure that Kurds will have their autonomy, too, but no army, of course, no weapons that Americans left for them.”
As Russia replaces the U.S. as the arbiter on the territory where millions of Arab Syrian refugees will now live, commentators in Moscow suggest Washington politicians have only themselves to fault for this twist, and Trump is not the only one.
“You should thank [President Barack] Obama and [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton for this; Obama proclaimed ‘Assad's days are numbered.’ He is still counting them,” Pushkov wrote.
Michael McFaul, Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, was not surprised that Putin and his supporters thanked Trump for pulling out of Syria. “He is delivering now to the Kremlin exactly what they hoped for when they intervened in the U.S. 2016 presidential election to try to help Trump get elected,” McFaul told The Daily Beast.
“Putin’s so-called triumph in Syria has helped to produce 400,000 deaths and millions of refugees. Our failure was in believing that Putin might join the international community in seeking a negotiated solution between the Assad regime and opposition forces that could have avoided this horrific outcome in Syria today."
Some it Moscow would agree it’s a little premature to declare victory. “Maybe it is too early for the Kremlin to be bragging about its mediating position in Syria,” Golts said. “The day might come when both Assad and Erdogan get irritated with Russian soldiers on these territories. They like to control the way they see it.”