The Triumph of the Autocrats What the Syrian Debacle Means for the Middle East and Europe

Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from northern Syria, a trio of autocrats is dividing the country up between them. But with Putin, Erdogan and Assad now having the say in the region, dangers are on the horizon for Europe. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Ugur Can/ AP/ dpa/ pa

When a global power withdraws, it apparently doesn't leave a whole lot behind: some sand-colored tents with camouflage nets in the desert, three red-and-white radio masts, a few toilets, some ice chests and oil barrels, and a diesel engine that's still running. That's what the former United States military base looks like near the city of Manbij in northern Syria.

The Americans are gone. And it didn't take long for a new master to arrive. The Russians arrived the day after the Americans left the base.

It's Tuesday of this week and armored vehicles with Russian flags flapping in the wind are rolling toward Manbij. One of the first to enter the abandoned U.S. base is Oleg Blochin, a stocky, bearded man wearing a black baseball cap.

Blochin isn't a soldier, he's a reporter for the pro-Kremlin Russian wire service Anna News. In a video he uploaded to his Facebook page, he looks like a cheerful tourist who has accidently stumbled into a war. He is apparently embedded with a unit of Russian mercenaries tasked by President Vladimir Putin with preventing Turkish troops from becoming established here. Blochin is, if you will, the advance team.

In the video, you can see him, camera in hand, walking past a black trash bin full of cola cans. He moves toward the entrance of a tent and steps inside. There's a can of chicken breast on the shelf. His foot strikes something on the ground -- a football. Other videos recorded at the military base show a Gameboy near a few boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts and a package of Pringles. There's a plate on a table that's still half full of food.

"Now we're going to the American soldiers' quarters," says Blochin. As his camera pans, several cots with blankets still on them come into view, making it look as though the Americans had just left to go out on patrol. "The air conditioning is still on," Blochin says. "It's hot outside, cool inside."

The Americans didn't have much time to leave the camp. A Pentagon spokesman told Newsweek magazine that they tried to take as much equipment as possible, but the rest had to be left behind. Any "sensitive equipment" that couldn't be moved was destroyed, the spokesman said.

Rarely has a single act in global politics triggered such a rapid chain of events as the U.S. pullout from Syria last week. Only hours after the Americans began leaving, Turkish soldiers marched into the northeast of the civil war-torn country. This prompted the Kurdish YPG militia, which had previously controlled the region jointly with the Americans, to call for help from Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his most important patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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This marks the beginning of what is likely to be the last, decisive round after eight years of this brutal civil war. And even if the situation on the ground seems chaotic, the Turkish military has thus far limited its operations to the 100-kilometer stretch between the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Meanwhile, Syrian soldiers have taken up positions in many places along the Turkish-Syrian border, flanked by Russia. And it would be extremely dangerous for the Turks to attack them.

Such is the current situation in Syria: The Americans have pulled out, the Turks have gone in, the Kurds have fled and the Russians are trying to slow the Turks' advance. And the dictator in Damascus must be pleased, because it has now become even more likely that, with Moscow's backing, the man responsible for what is perhaps the greatest mass murder of the 21st century will soon have all of Syria back under his control. What does this portend for Syria, the Kurds and Europe? Will the Islamic State (IS) terror militia take advantage of the chaos to regroup?

Initially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that he intended to continue with his offensive, no matter the cost -- until the last Kurdish fighter was driven out of the border area. It even looked as if Erdogan was prepared to risk a split with NATO over the invasion. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to "destroy" the Turkish economy if Turkish soldiers pushed deeper into Syria.

Following a meeting with Erdogan on Thursday evening in Ankara, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made the surprise announcement that Washington and Turkey had agreed on a cease-fire, with Turkey now pledging to give the YPG 120 hours to vacate the border area. This is likely to temporarily ease tensions in Turkish-American relations, but it is unlikely to change the situation on the ground much, given that the Kurds probably won't completely withdraw from the area. But that didn't stop Trump from touting the cease-fire deal as an "incredible outcome" that would save the lives of "millions of people."

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Dozens of civilians have been killed in the latest battles, and around 100,000 have lost homes and are now fleeing the violence. Might Europe be facing a new refugee crisis if, as Erdogan has threatened to do several times in the past, Turkey retracts on its deal with the EU and allows Syrian refugees in Turkey to continue their journey onward to Europe?

One thing is already becoming increasingly clear: A changing of the guard is taking place in Syria. The West has surrendered. The Europeans and the Americans have repeatedly condemned the atrocities in Syria, but they have done little to prevent them. Meanwhile, the despots -- Assad, Erdogan and Putin -- are emerging as the victors. And the consequences will be felt far beyond the Middle East.

The End of a Global Power

The disaster all began with a phone call between Trump and Erdogan on Sunday, October 6. Afterward, the White House sent out a skimpy, six-sentence press release stating that Turkey would march into northern Syria and U.S. troops would withdraw from the area and not be part of the operation. In other words: The West was pulling out and leaving Erdogan to do whatever he wants.

There are competing versions of what took place during that phone call. Trump's critics claim the U.S. president was hoodwinked by Erdogan because the Turkish president presented the invasion as being inevitable, leaving Trump with no alternative, according to this interpretation, but to accept it.

Another version of events is that Trump's advisers had asked him to implore the Turkish president not to invade and to threaten massive sanctions if his troops did march into Syria. But that Trump did nothing, or very little, of the sort.

Instead, say critics, the president deviated from the script and surprised his advisers by pledging to Erdogan he would withdraw American soldiers from the border area. Up to that point, the U.S. units had served as a protective buffer between the Kurdish militia and Turkey.

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Shortly after the call, a frenzy broke out in Washington. Trump's announcement surprised and horrified European allies, including France and Germany. Members of the Republican Party even denounced the 180-degree about-face as a "betrayal" of the Kurds. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump's most loyal backers, warned that the Syria decision was "a disaster in the making." Later, he would be even blunter. "The worst thing any Commander in Chief can do is to give land back to the enemy that was taken through blood and sacrifice," he tweeted. And: "I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making, and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking."

The agitation among Trump's closest allies is reflective of the enormous impact of his decision. Trump has touched on one of the paradoxes of American foreign policy: On the one hand, Washington exploited the Kurds for several years as helpers in the fight against the IS terrorist militia in Syria, backing them with money, weapons and military assistance and taking for granted the deaths of 11,000 Kurdish fighters in battles against the Islamists. On the other, the U.S. was seeking to deepen relations with NATO partner Turkey and cozy up to Erdogan, even though Ankara considers YPG to be a terrorist group.

Trump hasn't shown any indication that he thinks there was anything wrong with his decision. He boasted about the withdrawal of the U.S. troops the same morning of his phone conversation with Erdogan. "The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago," he tweeted. Islamic State has been defeated, and "it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars."

'America First' Indeed

The Syrian decision is an example of just how domestically driven Trump's foreign policy is. "America First" was a key promise of his 2016 election campaign and, to the cheers of his fans, he has condemned the deployment of the U.S. military and ridiculed the foreign and security policies of his predecessors in the White House as "stupid" and "expensive." Trump played on the feeling, widespread among many Americans, that military deployments abroad don't do much more than cost human lives and a lot of money.

It is becoming clear that he plans to deploy that strategy again during his re-election campaign. And it may turn out to be relatively easy for him to peddle the withdrawal from Syria to his supporters as a success. But the decision also shows what Trump is capable of now that there is virtually no one in the White House or in his administration to oppose his isolationist bent.

Trump had already ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria once before. Even then, last December, his argument was that IS had been defeated, making the ongoing U.S. presence there superfluous. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest and Trump postponed the pullout -- at least for the time being.

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A sense of bitterness permeated Mattis' resignation letter, which also offered a scathing critique of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. In it, Mattis wrote that the president has "the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours." In other words: If Trump wanted to plunge the Middle East into chaos, then he was the wrong man.

Internally, it is said that Mattis repeatedly warned against abandoning the Kurds in northern Syria, and in his letter, the general explicitly reminded the president of the importance of alliances for America. "One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships." He continued that the U.S. "cannot protect our interests" without "maintaining strong alliances and showing respect for those allies."

The general's anger and the negative headlines his resignation created for the president apparently had some impact on Trump. John Bolton, who was still the president's national security adviser at the time, succeeded in dissuading Trump from his Syria decision. Bolton warned Trump strongly that an American withdrawal from Syria could result in the resurgence of Islamic State.

With Bolton now gone, Trump has surrounded himself with like-minded ideologues and sycophants in both the White House and Pentagon. Although they should know better, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien have shown little interest in trying to rein in their stubborn boss.

The result is that there is only one force on the Republican side that is still seeking to contain Trump: GOP foreign policy experts in Congress. They are people like Lindsey Graham, but also Representative Liz Cheney, the influential daughter of Dick Cheney, who served as vice president during the administration of George W. Bush. Since Trump announced his decision to pull out, she and other Republicans have been protesting the president's move almost daily. "Withdrawing U.S. forces from northern Syria is a catastrophic mistake," Cheney said, expressing her anger in a statement. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution rebuking Trump for his decision to pull American troops out of Syria by a majority of 354 to 60. A total of 129 Republicans voted against their own president.

It appears that Trump underestimated the headwinds he would face within his own party. His reaction -- a mixture of defiance and knee-jerkisms -- has only served to make his foreign policy appear more erratic and a once-proud world power even more ridiculous. In a fit of rage, he called on Erdogan to cease fighting in Syria and announced he would slap fresh sanctions on the country, including an increase of punitive tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 percent. At the same time, though, he has sought to justify his decision to withdraw by distancing himself from the Kurds.

Speaking from the Oval Office on Wednesday, Trump said the Kurds are perfectly capable of defending themselves. "They know how to fight." Besides, he said, the Kurds are "no angels." He then repeated himself: "As I said, they are not angels."

It all seemed to come to a climax with the bizarre letter Trump sent to Erdogan last week, three days after his decision to pull out. The letter is only a few lines long and it is written in the Twitter-friendly vernacular that has become Trump's hallmark. "Let's work out a good deal!" the president writes to Erdogan. Don't be a fool," he writes, before closing it with: "I will call you later."

For Trump, the Syrian crisis may be less threatening than the Ukrainian scandal, but general doubts about his sanity continue to grow.

Even the Wall Street Journal, owned by media czar and Trump loyalist Rupert Murdoch, fired a clear warning shot at the president. Trump should be careful, the paper's editorial board wrote in an op-ed. More and more Republicans "are questioning his judgement as Commander in Chief." It adds: "With impeachment looming, he can't afford to alienate more friends."

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