The tense situation in the Middle East ahead of a planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria came into the spotlight this week when the leaders of Russia and Turkey met in Moscow. There, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed plans to help bring stability to a country that has been plagued by nearly eight years of war.
"If such plans are implemented, it will mark a positive move that would help stabilize the situation," the Russian news outlet First Channel quoted Putin as saying during a press conference held after his meeting with the Turkish president.
On December 19, U.S. President Donald Trump shocked the world – including American defense officials – when he announced he is ordering the withdrawal of the 2,000 troops the U.S. has stationed in Syria.
"They're all coming back and they're coming back now,” he said at the time, via a video posted to Twitter, claiming the American-led coalition in Syria, “have won against ISIS.”
But his abrupt announcement was met with sharp rebuke. His defense secretary James Mattis announced his resignation the next day. Brett McGurk, Trump’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, sped up his departure from the administration which had been planned for February.
By December 31, Trump announced he was slowing down plans to pull all troops out right away.
"We're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting Isis [Islamic State] remnants," he tweeted.
Meanwhile, Trump's decision to pull American ground forces out from the war-ravaged country has sparked fears that a power vacuum will emerge in Syria. Some experts believe a withdrawal could allow Turkish troops to make moves against Kurdish fighters who have helped the American-led coalition fight ISIS. Ankara sees them as terrorists, who have been waging a Kurdish separatist movement for decades.
"It is of critical importance that a power vacuum that can be abused by terror groups does not emerge during the process of the U.S. withdrawal," RIA Novosti quoted Erdogan as saying on January 23 following his meeting with Putin in Moscow. "I have stated that our only aim is our duty to clear (the region) of terror organizations such as the PYD and the YPG, and especially of Daesh.”
The fate of Kurdish fighters was not glossed over by Erdogan and Trump, who spoke by phone shortly before Christmas. According to reports, the Turkish president pledged to work to prevent a power vacuum in Syria after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Although Russia and Turkey have very different desired outcomes in Syria – Russia supports Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and Turkey would like to see Assad removed – their interests sometimes converge and they have agreed to work together.
"Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability," Erdogan said after what was a three-hour meeting with Putin. “With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more."