Russia’s Play for the Middle East

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S1: Tuesday the city of Sochi on the Black Sea. The presidents of Russia and Turkey. They walk into a room and pose for the camera. Did you get a chance to look at the pictures out of Sochi of Vladimir Putin. Negotiating this peace deal between Turkey and Syria.

S2: Yes the two men looked pretty happy but it was six hours of negotiations to hammer out what was going to happen in northeast Syria.

S3: Deb Amos is an international correspondent for NPR. She’s a partner in the Middle East for years.

S2: You know they came up with this 10 point plan that was pretty extraordinary. But I think the message of the pictures is that Putin is the kingmaker in the region.

S4: Vladimir Putin looked really relaxed. He did. He was like leaning on his chair in a certain way and Erdogan looked a little stiff.

S5: Well he had some tough negotiations to carry out there. I think he got what he wanted. But Putin was completely in control of that meeting.

S3: This meeting felt like watching a global power shift in real time. Weeks earlier it had been one world leader Donald Trump who kicked off the Middle Eastern conflict authorizing a hasty U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria.

S6: Stunning video this morning showing Kurdish civilians in northern Syria pelting a U.S. convoy with rotten vegetables says they accuse U.S. troops of abandoning protesters with signs blocked the convoys.

S7: One red thanks for U.S. people. But Trump betrayed us.

S3: Now it’s taken a meeting with another world leader Vladimir Putin to figure out what happens next. Who patrols which towns what refugees go where.

S1: Make no mistake about it. In the Middle East this is seen as a strategic defeat for the United States and one self inflicted. I mean you’ve covered the Middle East for how long now 30 years. I mean if I told you a decade ago two decades ago Russia would be the power broker in the Middle East would you believe me.

S2: No but Putin himself is playing a much bigger role in the region and he’s played every move very well. Let’s remember when the Russians arrived to prop up the Syrian government President Obama at the time said oh this will be Russia’s Vietnam. They will be mired in this one they can’t afford it. And it’s not turned out that way. He’s played his cards very well.

S8: Today on the show how Russia got here after the U.S. got out and what it tells us about Trump’s imperfect isolationism. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S3: What’s happening now in Syria and Turkey. A lot of it you can trace back to the Arab Spring a series of Middle Eastern uprisings that started nearly a decade ago in Syria. These protests evolved into civil war chaos as Vladimir Putin watched the violence spread. He saw a way to get a foothold into a region where Russia’s always nurtured ties.

S2: What the Russians saw is a replay of what happened in Iraq. They were worried that the Syrian army was about to collapse and it was pretty close. Why did that matter to them. Because it would implode the country. And the Russians have had a long relationship with Syria. Most of the officer corps speaks Russian. The older ones went to school in military schools in Moscow. They married Russians. The 100000 Russians lived in Syria. And so they were worried that they had another Iraq. This was also at a time where there was this resurgent ISIS. There were Russians Chechens who were part of that movement. And so for them they saw it as a security threat. And so when Russia arrives the Syrian army can pay attention to what they should be paying attention to. And that is securing Damascus securing the capital. And so they essentially were a guarantor that ISIS would not take over Damascus. It was pretty fraught in in those years. ISIS was very strong then.

S1: Were you surprised that Vladimir Putin sided with Bashar al-Assad.

S2: The surprise was not that he would side with Assad. The surprise is how heavy they came in. I think the analysis was they wouldn’t stay long but they have stuck it out. They confounded Obama’s analysis which was you know this would be too expensive. They couldn’t afford it and they would stay and see if they could stabilize and they would somehow be forced out.

S9: But they weren’t. And so the Russians have played a very longer game I think than anybody gave them credit for.

S10: And for them it is now paid off but as Russia bolstered Syria refugees streamed out of the country many of them landing in Turkey.

S3: So this week when leaders met to divvy up control of the region they had to decide what to do with all these people.

S2: Turkey now has somewhere around 4 million Syrians. And the Turkish public opinion has decidedly turned against them. I was talking to a Kurdish academic yesterday and he said you know for the first time in Turkey there are now a group that Turks hate more than the Kurds. And that’s the Syrian refugees. Second there was an election in Istanbul for a new mayor. And if you remember there were two rounds of that election because an opposition candidate won. And so Erdogan challenged that election they had a second election the guy won the second time. He has been running on a campaign to get the Syrian refugees out of Istanbul basically because he wants to win election. It sounds like well he wanted to win an election but also he’s in an opposition party that never agreed with Erdogan’s position of opening the border to all of these people. And everyone is very aware that you know public opinion is turning against him on this issue. So part of the reason for coming into this what they call a buffer zone in northern Syria is for a place to put some of these people to send them back to Syria. He’s been threatening the Europeans that there’s going to be another exodus of refugees if they don’t back what he’s doing in northern Syria. But yeah he’s basically said I’m going to send all these people to Europe. Yes he does say that now you know the Germans have given him you know more than a billion dollars to make sure that they don’t. So I don’t know if that is an idle threat but he feels more that domestic pressure to be able to say to his people OK don’t worry I’ve got a place for these people to go. We are going to open up this corridor we are going to send them back. Now at the same time the Turks have been given citizenship to some Syrians somewhere north of 60000. But it’s a phone call that you get. Hello Doctor Syria Hello. Businessmen Syria. Would you like to be a Turkish citizen. There have been some people who have gotten citizenship but for the most part I think that Erdogan really needs an escape valve. He needs to relieve that pressure and he hopes it remains to be seen. He hopes he can repopulate those towns in northern Syria with those refugees.

S3: So on Russia’s side you’ve got a national leader interested in flexing his foreign policy muscle on the Turkish side. You’ve got a domestic political problem a country weary of playing host to refugees. And then there are the refugees themselves Syrians who fled civil war and the horrors of the Assad regime.

S2: I think all Syrians now are worried that they are going to be forced to move back into this area that will be patrolled by Syrians by Russians. It’s not clear when the regime will take back control and these are people who are supporters of the of the revolt. And there will be some punishment for that if the regime takes over the areas where they are forced to go back to over time. It sounds like a detention camp. It could be. It could well be you know we know by reporting that many refugees who have come back have been detained have been disappeared.

S5: There’s a new verb that I hear among NGO is called people who’ve been gulags that they are called in by the security services and their families never see them again. And so that is on people’s mind about what’s in store for them if they are forced to go back to northern Syria.

S1: As I hear you talk it just feels like there’s all of this pressure building up in conflicting directions. You have Turkey who is gradually becoming more and more full with Syrian refugees and feeling that pressure wanting to push them over the border. But then of course we already have people there the Kurds who have set up their own place to be. And it sets us up for this conflict we’re in now where everyone is having to move.

S2: Yes. And there’s tens of thousands of people who were living in this area who are now heading east. They’re on their way to Iraqi Kurdistan something like 80000 children are part of those caravans. I was told yesterday it’s about one hundred and fifty dollars ahead which is a fortune for people but they’re paying it to get out of the way. You see that all of the NGOs all of the aid agencies are you know I get e-mails appeal appeal appeal appeal appeal we need your money now because of this giant caravan that’s moving into Iraqi Kurdistan. And they’ll be tent camps to take care of these people. I mean it’s kind of crazy if you think about it. So these people are going east and Erdogan intends to move a bunch of people south. And it’s it’s this you know demographic population shift in northern Syria.

S3: All this movement it’s worth remembering it’s happening because the United States suddenly shrunk its footprint in northern Syria. For years America had been there to combat ISIS and support the people fighting the Assad regime. But after one phone call with the president of Turkey Trump announced that would change American forces would be pulled out in social media posts.

S11: Russian reporters make a special point to highlight the signs of a hasty American withdrawal discarded footballs and empty sleeping quarters. Astonishing astonishing pictures at another base. It’s a Harry Potter book in hand drawn signs supporting the troops.

S12: This is how fast the withdrawal happened. It was within hours. It’s like OK guys we are all getting out of here. This is not how the U.S. military behaves. They plan. They work it out. They look at security. They decide how they’re going to drive out. They had to go back and bomb ammunition dumps because they couldn’t pack it in time. That’s how quickly they had to leave. And the other pictures that were shocking is you saw American vehicles going one way and Syrian army vehicles going the other. These are supposedly enemies but they all had their places to be and they were going there and they had no time to sort of look across the road and go Wait a minute or are we against those guys are we for those guys.

S2: It was extraordinary. And the symbolism of those images was so strong.

S1: I wonder if you look at what we’re seeing now as a certain realignment of American principles abroad more broadly how do you characterize it.

S12: I mean I think you might be able to describe President Trump as a very traditional isolationist. He has said since he campaigned that he wanted to bring the troops home. He has been talking about taking troops out of Syria for months. Let’s remember that his Defense Secretary Mabus quit over this the last time he threatened to do it. He pulled back last time but he finally decided he was going to do it and he did. This is a campaign promise for him.

S1: I wonder too about the motivations I just don’t understand. Like President Trump keeps talking about. We’ve secured the oil we’ve secured the oil and therefore a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil and this region that the Kurds have been occupying there. It is oil rich and it makes me feel like there’s something I’m not getting here in terms of getting involved and not being involved in this region.

S2: I’m going to tell you that I have been scratching my head about that too and I see a lot of Syrian analysts going What are they talking about. However I was thinking that when President Trump criticized how Iraq was handled he often said that we should have just taken the oil. It didn’t make any sense when he said it but it’s something in his head about taking the oil. And it’s important to him. You can’t just take the oil though right now you know you can’t you can’t just take your health but there is oil in that part of the country for the moment. The Kurds have been in control of it. There are some hints and talks that perhaps the Kurds with some American troops will secure those oil fields. But I I don’t think there’s been enough detail for us to know what that means. I think the other thing that has been interesting is to watch how the Iraqis are viewing all of this. The Americans said goodbye we’re getting out of Syria and they drove into Iraq and the Iraqis said But wait wait you just can’t come here you kind of have to ask us. The administration talked about they would move into Iraq and that’s where they would watch ISIS. But the Iraqis have said no you really need to be out of here in about four weeks. So let’s watch what happens in Baghdad and to see how that agreement goes to see what happens with those troops. Americans who have driven into Iraqi Kurdistan.

S1: Well that points to something else which is that what happened in the past few weeks is in a draw down even if the stated idea is fewer troops in the Middle East it’s not fewer troops in the Middle East. They’re just moving around and they’re achieving different goals.

S2: That is right. In fact there will be a contingent of U.S. troops that go to Saudi Arabia. And the idea there is to glower at the Iranians from Saudi soil. The American administration appears to be looking much more at Iran than anything further west at the moment.

S1: Is there any way that this is a good thing. Many people on the left and the right have complained about American empire and the fact that we’re getting too involved in other people’s conflicts. You’ve covered this region for a long time. I wonder if you see that argument at all.

S2: I see that there is a giant debate now about it. And I think that those who argue that this disengagement with the Kurds was inevitable. I think the complaints are in how it was done. You know foreign policy by tweet is destabilising. You know there was no consultation there was no principals meeting. There was no consultation with the Pentagon it was just a phone call tweet done out that is very unusual for the United States military. That is not how they usually operate although the president is going to say that at all is going well I’m not sure that most civilians on the ground would agree with that assessment.

S3: So why does Vladimir Putin want to be a part of this mess.

S2: Because he gets to be a player and a very powerful and important player in the Middle East. And this is a new role for him. He is reveling in it because what he demonstrates to all of the players in the Middle East is if I tell you I’m going to do something I do it. I don’t make promises I cannot keep. And that’s not what the Americans are doing are they. You know the Russians have been touting this. America betrays the Kurds narrative and that’s been coming out of Moscow and that’s part of their drive to say we’re the ones you can trust where the guys who you bring us in You’re our ally and we will make sure it goes well. Now that doesn’t bode well for the civilians on the ground right now.

S9: It’s a bit chaotic for them but for Putin he becomes a kingmaker in the Middle East.

S13: And that’s what he wants to be Davis.

S10: Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Deb Amos is an international correspondent for National Public Radio. She’s also a professor of journalism at Princeton.

S4: All right. That’s the show. What next is hosted by me Mary Harris and produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone Daniel Hewett and Maurice silvers. We’re going to talk to you tomorrow for another impeachment news roundup. But small change that’s going to be available in the afternoon. Why. Afternoon. What is happening. We’ve got news the what next family is getting a little bigger.

S3: To explain all this. I’ve got my friend Lizzie O’Leary in the studio. Hey Lizzie. Hi Mary.

S14: So Lizzie is going to be in your feed tomorrow. She’s got me hosting a whole new version of the show it’s called What Next TBD. She’s here to tell me all about it.

S15: Whoa. Show Pony show. Yes. Hi I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And what we’re doing with what next TBD is thinking about a future that is TBD and all of the forces that shape how we’re going to live in this way that is to be determined. Money power technology a lot of the unseen stuff so I’ll give you an example on our first episode. We have someone who used to work inside of Facebook looking at political ads talking about something that Mark Zuckerberg got raked over the coals for this week. She’s a former CIA officer and she’s going to tell us about that experience and then sort of whether the flaws in the system can be fixed at all.

S3: From what I love about this which is that we spend so much time on the show talking about politics and talking about what’s happening in Washington impeachment and I feel like there’s this whole other power structure. People talk about like the Facebook and the Amazons of the world as basically being like their own little countries with other interests that are different than the rest of us maybe. And this is going to be a cool Chance for us to just talk about that and hopefully dig into that.

S15: I mean I think look if impeachment weren’t taking up everybody’s political oxygen Congress was going to spend some time this month going after the big tech companies. You really haven’t heard about that at all. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.

S14: It’s just happening quietly. OK cool. So every week every Friday in your feed what next TBD. For a little while. We’ll keep those impeachment shows going.

S16: Your impeachment roundups but that’ll be in the afternoon. Lizzie will be here tomorrow morning. I can’t wait to see what you’ve been up to. Thank you.