By now, those who began the Trump era convinced that the president was Vladimir Putin’s puppet are surely frustrated by the dearth of supporting evidence. Donald Trump has spent his tenure repaying the Russian Federation for its interference in the 2016 election by imposing stiff sanctions on the Kremlin and its associates, arming the regime’s opponents, and degrading the capabilities of its allies. While there are few areas where Washington and Moscow have collaborated, that is not to say that they do not exist. If there is one particularly important arena where the White House has been happy to cede turf to the Russian president, it is in Syria.
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to see the United States extricate itself from its commitments in Northwestern Syria as soon as possible. In early April, the president announced that all U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawing “like very soon”—an announcement that confused his State Department and contradicted the statements of his commanding generals, who had assured the public that the American mission in Syria has only just begun. Cooler heads might have convinced Trump not to create a power vacuum in the heart of the former ISIS caliphate on a whim, but the president seems unpersuaded that either U.S. interests or allies in the region are of much value. If America cannot simply cut ties with its partners in Syria, it seems, it will simply allow those relationships to wither on the vine.
Last week, the administration announced that it would cut off all non-humanitarian aid to groups on the ground in Northern Syria. Some $200 million in recovery funds for the region devastated in the fight against ISIS were frozen in late March, and they are not going to be restored. If the civilian infrastructure devastated in that part of Syria is going to be repaired, it won’t be with American reconstruction funds. Among the organizations that the White House has abandoned is the Syrian Civil Defense, known colloquially as the “White Helmets,” which have attracted positive attention from American lawmakers for their highly-publicized efforts to rescue civilians from collapsed buildings over the course of the seven-year Syrian civil war.
All of this will be welcome news in Moscow. Russia has alleged that the “White Helmets” staged a recent chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Daouma. Moscow-backed mercenaries and Assad regime forces have repeatedly attempted to make inroads in the territory Americans occupy east of the Euphrates, recently resulting in a bloody armed confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian contractors. A U.S. withdrawal from Northern Syria would allow Russia and Iran to flood the zone while allowing Turkey a substantial presence in the North (where it could at finally neutralize America’s Kurdish allies). More troubling still, American withdrawal could provide enough space for Islamist organizations like ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra group to reconstitute themselves. That would serve Assad’s purposes just fine. The existence of brutal Islamist groups creates a favorable contrast with his genocidal but secular regime, and it is a contrast Assad has skillfully deployed to generate Western sympathy for his ruling cabal.
The Trump administration has long sought to enlist Russia’s help in its effort to extricate U.S. troops from that conflict, no matter the costs to U.S. interests. In early 2017, the Trump administration entertained the prospect of ceding its position in Syria as a bargaining chip that, it was thought, might convince Russia to abandon its Iranian allies. It became clear that overture failed when Russian officials began telling regional governments like Israel that Iran’s military presence in Syria was a permanent feature of the landscape.
The Trump administration’s belief that Russia could be convinced to share American aims in Syria did not abate even after the president ordered strikes on Assad regime targets. In July of last year, the Trump administration ended a CIA program that armed and trained anti-Assad regime rebels in the hopes of currying favor with Russia. The president has all but surrendered the post-war planning process to Russia, which began ironing out a power-sharing arrangement with its Turkish and Iranian partners last November.
Despite the souring of Russo-American relations, the Trump White House still appears to cling to the notion that Russian and U.S. interests can align in Syria. In truth, the only alignment is that both Washington and Moscow want to see American soldiers and their Western allies leave. Yet for both the dovish left and the isolationist right, this is the kind of collusion that raises no eyebrows. It is the sacrifice of American influence and allies that generates no calls for Trump’s resignation from the usual suspects on the left. Conservatives, too, are loath to reconcile their conclusion that the “collusion” narrative is hollow with this conspicuous display of deference toward Moscow.
If there is one thing recent history has taught us, it is that Russia is not a reliable steward of U.S. interests. Americans who rediscover their mistrust of Vladimir Putin’s goals only when it suits their partisan interests are invested in a political game. Unfortunately, the stakes are so much higher than that.