President Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw forces from Syria presented a rare and unmistakable victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with the Trump administration has been anything but predictable.
With the departure of U.S. troops, Moscow would become the undisputed international power broker in the war-torn country and win an opportunity to consolidate a countrywide victory for its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The frenzied and disorganized nature of the U.S. withdrawal announcement — in leaked remarks to the news media followed by a terse tweet and a slapdash soft-focus video shot on the White House lawn — also bolstered Putin’s efforts to undermine Washington’s network of alliances.
In comments Thursday, the Russian president hailed the U.S. decision as “correct,” agreeing with Trump that the Islamic State had been largely defeated.
“On this, Donald is right. I agree with him,” Putin said Thursday.
Trump stunned U.S. allies by ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces and contradicted U.S. diplomats and military officers who as recently as last week said the United States would remain in Syria to finish off the Islamic State.
For Putin, who himself has been dismayed by the Trump administration’s frenetic application of sanctions against Moscow and one-off military strikes in Syria, the chaos of the president’s governing style landed decisively in his favor.
“The Kremlin is of two minds when it comes to Trump: It hates the unpredictability and lack of coordination coming out of this White House but totally loves the chaos Trump is unleashing,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anything that damages America’s alliances and image of a steadfast, reliable partner is a net win for Moscow.”
Trump’s broadsides against allies and lack of interest in building international consensus ahead of major policy changes have injected a level of doubt into the country’s alliances that were largely unseen in the postwar era.
Many of the United States’ most important allies, from Europe to Asia, were reassured by the presence of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has publicly made strengthening American alliances a central platform of his tenure at the Pentagon.
But the sudden decision this week about a withdrawal from Syria left the Pentagon chief with little time or rationale to reassure allies. His announcement Thursday that he would resign is likely to raise concerns about the Trump administration’s commitment to allies’ security and interests as the president seeks to find a replacement for Mattis.
In Germany, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Trump’s decision was a surprise.
“There is a risk that the consequences of this decision will harm the fight against IS and endanger the achievements that have been made,” Maas said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State.
France said it would keep its contingent of about 1,000 troops in Syria for now because the Islamic State had not been fully defeated, raising the prospect of further divisions in the U.S.-organized alliance that is fighting the extremist group.
“Daesh had not been cleared off the map, nor, for that matter, have its roots been cleared. The last pockets of this terrorist organization must be beaten in a definitive manner by military means,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly tweeted, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Britain, the most active partner in the fight against the Islamic State, did not break publicly with Washington, but its officials were blindsided by the announcement.
British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson contradicted Trump’s contention that the battle against the Islamic State had been won, saying in a tweet on Thursday that “much hard work still lies ahead to ensure we win the war.”
Trump has defended the move, tapping into widespread public disenchantment with years of costly and protracted American military operations in the Middle East and South Asia that have not delivered victories, even though few dispute the success and progress of the campaign against the Islamic State.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight.”
Critics accused Trump of ignoring the threat a reconstituted Islamic State poses to the United States and its allies in the event of a hasty and chaotic U.S. withdrawal.
The cacophony among U.S. allies, analysts said, is likely to please Putin, who has long sought to chip away at Western unity. But in the short term, the Kremlin stands to gain the most on the ground in Syria, where Russia has long been seeking to consolidate gains for Assad.
The confusion between the United States and its closest allies backs the message that Putin has been sending to Russia’s partners in the Middle East: that Russia is an ally that can be trusted and one that will fight until the end.
Russia has stuck by Assad despite mounting international pressure and multiple rounds of sanctions, seeing the Syrian government as a loyal client in the Middle East and preferring a strongman ally to a country in disarray.
Russia helped turn the tide in Syria’s civil war after intervening in 2015 with airstrikes to back Assad. It was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia had engaged on a large scale in a war outside the former Soviet borders.
For Putin, analysts say, the significance was manifold. Propping up Assad was a message to the West that leaders cannot be deposed by outside force — an attempt that Putin is believed to fear the West is trying to orchestrate in Russia. The military campaign was also a way for Russia to reestablish influence in the Middle East, show off its reconstituted military might and help brand itself a resurgent great power.
“Russia has become the major power broker in the Middle East,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University. “It’s the only major power that talks to the Shia states, the Sunni states, Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Kurds. The only difference between now and the Soviet days is that Russia approaches issues non-ideologically.”
The Russian military presence in Syria includes a naval base in Tartus and an air base in Hmeimim. Russia plans to forge ahead in talks with Turkey and Iran to find a political settlement for the conflict, a prospect Moscow sees as more likely and favorable now that the United States may be out of the picture.
Putin on Thursday seemed to try to avoid taking too much of a victory lap, describing a U.S. withdrawal as the “right” decision if it actually happens. Russia says the U.S. deployment to Syria has always been illegal because it lacked a mandate from the Assad government or the United Nations.
The Russian president lauded Trump for his analysis that the Islamic State has been defeated, though analysts and U.S. military commanders say the militant group remains a deadly force. ISIS, Putin said, had already been dealt “serious blows.”
The disruption in the U.S. alliance over the withdrawal decision touches on a long-term goal of Putin’s.
In a 2007 speech in Munich, Putin famously decried a unipolar world led by the United States as unfair and called a geopolitical arena with one master pernicious for nations within its system.
Since then, the Russian leader has sought to reestablish Moscow as a global power and undermine faith in democratic ideals and alliances that have given Washington its military and economic might since the Cold War.
“One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Putin said in 2007. “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.”