OPED: Putin testing an unaware Trump on Syria
Want to view the costs of President Donald Trump's persistent pursuit of Vladimir Putin?
Look no further than Syria, where the Kremlin is determined to drive out U.S. forces that are assisting the Syrian Kurds who defeated ISIS. The consequence would be a likely return of jihadis to Syria along with a strengthening of Iranian influence. Putin's role as Mideast kingpin would be strengthened.
But Trump has no clue. Just this week, he rebuffed aides' advice for a phone call with Putin, congratulating the Russian warmly on his victory in (rigged) elections, while refusing to condemn Russia's nerve-agent attack in Britain or hacking of U.S. targets.
After the call, the president trumpeted three times that he and Putin would meet soon. Current developments in Syria (along with Trump's famous disdain for briefers) show how just risky such a meeting would be.
Russian planes and Iranian-backed militias have ensured that Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in power, despite Assad's continuing use of chemical weapons (crossing Trump red lines) and massacres of civilians.
Moscow and Tehran, however, left the successful battle against ISIS to the Americans and their Kurdish allies; Kurdish fighters now control a large swath of northeastern Syria, called Rojava, that stretches along the bulk of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Syrian Kurds hope this territory will become a federal region within Syria (they insist they don't want an independent state).
The United States has 2,000 troops in this region, hoping to use their presence as leverage in international negotiations over Syria's future (now dominated by the Russians). Some U.S. officials, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had overly grandiose hopes, arguing this leverage could help unseat Assad.
The reality is more limited, but still important. The northeast of Syria contains most of the country's oil, its richest, grain-producing soil, and the route for key pipelines. This could give Washington – and the Kurds – at least some voice in final Syrian arrangements, including Iran's future role.
The departure of the Americans, on the other hand, would embolden ISIS holdovers to try to make a comeback. It would also leave the bulk of Syria's border with Turkey open to movement by jihadis, which Turkey was notoriously reluctant to stop.
Yet Putin, eager to give America a black eye, and encouraged by Trump's passivity, is playing a sophisticated game to drive the Americans out of Syria, in cahoots with Iran, and with the help of his new alliance with Turkey.
He could succeed.
In January, Turkey invaded another Kurdish canton, known as Afrin, in northwest Syria and separated by 60 miles of territory from the bulk of Rojava, where U.S. troops are based. Turkey's main goal is to smash the Kurds and push out the Americans, whom it blasts for supporting Kurdish forces.
In recent days, Afrin fell to the Turks. Ankara now says its forces will proceed east, to the town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are supporting the Kurdish-Sunni Syrian Defense Forces, or even farther into Rojava.
Here is the headline: The Turks could not have made their move into Afrin without a green light from Putin.
Russia controlled the airspace over Afrin. The Russians had a few hundred observers inside Afrin. Moscow pulled out its forces, withdrew its air cover, and let Turkey advance in order to poke a finger in America's eye.
What has Putin achieved? He has weakened the U.S. alliance with the Kurds by demonstrating that Washington would not aid Kurdish forces imperiled in Afrin. He has weakened NATO, by setting up Turkish troops for a possible conflict with American forces.
And he is testing, testing. In a meeting with Trump he would no doubt urge the president to pull U.S. forces out of Rojava. Why not let Russia take care of everything?
Never mind that U.S. and Russian interests in Syria are hugely divergent. Russia cares much less about ISIS and is wedded to its alliance with Iran. If Trump walks away, Iranian influence soars and the jihadis will come back.
However, if Trump wants an example of how to deal with Putin, he can also look to Syria. On Feb. 7, Russian mercenaries attacked U.S. troops and U.S.-led Kurdish and Sunni forces near the town of Deir al-Zour. U.S. forces hit back strongly, with 300 Russian mercenaries wounded or killed. No such Russian attack has happened since.
Clearly, the Kremlin was probing. The oligarch who controls the mercenaries – Yevgeny Prigozhin – is the same man who runs the famous troll factory in St. Petersburg; U.S. intelligence believes he was in close touch with the Kremlin before the attack.
Putin respects strength. He is testing, and taking note when Trump refuses to stand up for NATO ally Britain. He observes when the president salivates over a proposed meeting.
If Trump meets Putin and doesn't stand firm, the Russian leader will extract concessions that the president never realizes he is making, while pocketing gains. Syria is an example of the chess game that Putin is playing, and he is playing it well.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.