Donald Trump made a shameful withdrawal from Syria. But is it really a win for Russia?

Robert Robb, Arizona Republic

One of the criticisms leveled at President Donald Trump’s actions in Syria is that they represent a gain for Russia.

That, however, raises the question: What is Russia gaining that threatens or diminishes U.S. interests?

Let’s begin with the obvious: Trump’s actions in Syria have been a disaster. And his Middle East policy generally is incoherent.

Trump essentially greenlit the Turkish invasion by withdrawing U.S. troops and making a public statement that neither condemned nor condoned it.

He then apparently had a change of sentiment and, among other things, sent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an imbecilic letter threatening to destroy his country’s economy.

Pence's deal: Turkey wins, Kurds lose

The “deal” that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supposedly negotiated can be easily summarized: Turkey wins; the Kurds lose.

What Turkey wanted from the invasion was a safe zone along its Syrian border that the Kurds didn’t control. The “deal” gave Turkey that and gave the Kurds five days to evacuate.

While I don’t think that the United States should have been willing to take up arms against Turkey on behalf of the Kurds, Trump’s public belittling of them as allies is one of the more shameful foreign policy acts of an American president in my lifetime.

The Kurds were frontline fighters against Islamic State. Without them, eradicating the caliphate would have been much bloodier for the United States. If Trump felt that our country’s national interest required abandoning them to Turkey, he shouldn’t have crapped on them on the way out.

There’s a reason the overwhelming majority of House Republicans joined Democrats in passing a resolution in opposition to Trump’s actions in Syria.

Trump isn't getting out of the Middle East

Trump says that his actions there are motivated by a desire to reduce the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. I’m all for that.

But he also has bought into the neoconservative view that U.S. policy in the region should be centered in combating and limiting the influence of Iran, siding with the Sunni powers — particularly Saudi Arabia — in the competition for regional predominance. Some of the troops being withdrawn from Syria are being relocated to Saudi Arabia.

USA TODAY Editorial Board: Syria policy wasn't broke. Why is Donald Trump wrecking it?

That’s getting more involved in the snake pit of Middle East geopolitics.

Which brings us to Russia.

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria does increase the position of Russia. But is that a gain or a headache?

The Kurds have formed an alliance with Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime. Neither wants the Turks in Syria.

Russia has provided life support to Assad. It is trying to wean Turkey from the West, with some success.

Russia can't be friends with everyone

So, how does Russia balance assisting Assad in restoring Syria’s territorial integrity with the desire to woo Turkey? Does Russian strongman Vladimir Putin tell Assad that he has to accept effective Turkish annexation of a hunk of his country? Or does he issue an eviction notice to Erdogan?

And what if the Kurds and the Syrians want to continue the fight against the Turks? Or the Turks want a larger safety zone and are willing to fight for it? If it is a shooting war, what does Russia do?

Russia can no longer pretend to be friends with everyone

Russia has tried to be friendly with everyone in the Middle East, Syria and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and those who want to see it destroyed.

They were the best kind of ally: I fought alongside the Kurds. The United States can't abandon our fierce allies to Turkey.

That was possible so long as the United States was the dominant outside power in the region. Russia could be the understanding shoulder whenever Middle Eastern countries had disagreements or disappointments with the U.S.

That’s not possible to the extent Russia becomes the dominant outside power, as it is in Syria. As second fiddle, you can dance around the edges of the snake pit of Middle East geopolitics. As first chair, you are in the pit. The others in the pit hate each other. And they periodically shoot at each other.

American politics regarding Russia are head-turning. Democrats are far more anti-Russian than they ever were anti-Soviet, even though the Soviet Union posed a much greater threat to U.S. interests than Russia does.

So long as Trump is president, U.S. foreign policy will be erratic, unpredictable and unreliable.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about that. A larger role for Russia in the Middle East isn’t one of them.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @RJRobb

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Trump's Syria policy is a disaster, but this isn't good for Russia