Beware a Russian ‘October Surprise’ in Syria
In the wake of U.S. foreign policy success through the Israel peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, America’s enemies may try to upend Washington’s foreign policy in another part of the Middle East. Iran and Russia could set their sights on Syria, hoping to exploit President Donald Trump’s desire to end foreign wars. The White House could judge that, after the peace deals with Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, now is the time to bring the troops home from the war on ISIS and pull the plug on America’s involvement in Syria. Moscow is hoping for such an October surprise scenario.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made a surprise visit to Syria in early September. It came in the wake of a joint condemnation of the U.S. by Iran, Turkey and Russia on August 26. The timing was not a coincidence. The next day Russian armored vehicles collided with a U.S. patrol in eastern Syria, injuring American personnel. Russia wants the U.S. out of Syria and it’s ready to take a gamble that President Trump will order a withdrawal before the elections.
With the Pentagon consolidating troops in Iraq and drawing down U.S. forces to fewer than 3,000, the Syrian operation looks more tenuous than ever. U.S. forces in Syria use Iraq as a lifeline. When Trump initially ordered the U.S. withdrawal of forces from Syria in 2018 he said that Americans would remain in Iraq to keep a watch on ISIS and Iran. We now know that this mission is being challenged daily by Iranian-backed rocket attacks on the U.S. embassy and on convoys that supply U.S. forces. There is also a new U.S. commander for anti-ISIS operations, brought in this month.
Russia seeks to leverage the Iranian threats in Iraq to pressure the U.S., all while pushing on the Syrian front. This strategy in a sense creates a two-front push against the U.S. in the region and forces Washington to choose. Trump has said that the U.S. doesn’t want to stay in conflicts in faraway places. Moscow thinks a bit of pushing and the American domino will fall.
In Syria, Russia’s game is multipronged. I spoke to Col. Myles Caggins, the U.S. spokesperson for the anti-ISIS campaign, who recently left his position. He flew by helicopter to Syria in early September to bid farewell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s partners on the ground. Caggins pointed out that Russia has combined spectacle with harassment in Syria. Last October, as the U.S. left Kobani, the Russians carried out a helicopter assault to show off their conquest of a former U.S. base. They prodded pro-regime locals to shoot at U.S. forces. Whenever U.S. patrols are on the road they conduct Mad Max-style “road wars” to intercept and harass. They now send helicopters to kick up dirt and fly low over U.S. patrols.
Not everything Moscow does in Syria is successful. Locals have been pushing back against the Russian war, protesting attempts by the Russians to build a new base. That may be why Lavrov was sent to push the diplomatic front and shore up Moscow’s role in Damascus. Russia is also working with Turkey. It is selling the S-400 air defense system and locals fear that the two countries could collaborate to try to force the U.S. out and remove the SDF from areas it controls. Moscow is also helping the Iranian regime by frustrating Washington’s attempts to extend an arms embargo. In October Iran will get to import and export arms.
For decades Russian president Vladimir Putin has been nursing grievances over Russia’s humiliation in the Balkans in the 1990s when the U.S. led NATO to push Serbia out of Kosovo. At the time, Moscow sent soldiers to Pristina airport in Kosovo ahead of NATO in an incident that became emblematic of Russia’s post-Cold War decline and U.S. hegemony. Now, thirty years later, Putin judges that the time is ripe to pry the U.S. out of places like Syria.
Russia will work carefully, with Iran or Turkey, to remove the U.S. presence, combined with diplomatic attempts to isolate Washington and provoke tensions on the ground. U.S. patrols have to deal with hundreds of miles of desert to secure oil fields currently in Syria. ISIS cells are waiting to pounce, while pro-regime villages in Syria can be activated to protest. Tribes along the Euphrates, angry at the SDF, have been protesting. Iranian proxies, lurking near the Iraqi border, want revenge for the killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Iraq is so worried about overflow of problems from Syria that its prime minister is trying to seal the border with Syria.
Would Trump, seeing pressure in Iraq and Syria, decide to leave Syria? He already decided three times, in the spring of 2018, in December 2018 and in October 2019. October 2020 may be the final straw. This would be a mistake for U.S. strategy. America must decide to leave at a time of its choosing and not let Iran, Russia or others fill the vacuum left behind.