Russia’s presence in Syria has grown since U.S. troops withdrew from the latter’s northeastern border region, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers on Wednesday, but he’s more worried about Moscow’s burgeoning influence elsewhere.
“I’m concerned about Russia in other parts of the Middle East,” Esper said, naming Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and “other places.”
He noted that Russia’s influence in Syria has “expanded in the last month and a half,” but said that concerns him “not as much…because they’ve had a pretty solid footprint there for four or five years.”
Since President Trump ordered an abrupt U.S. pullback from the region in October, Russian forces have moved into Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which U.S. and allied Kurdish forces reclaimed in 2017. In the days following Trump’s order, Russian troops also entered hastily evacuated U.S. bases and began patrolling the Syrian-Turkey border town of Manbij.
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Several Democratic lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee pressed Esper on the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which calls for the United States to prioritize competition with Russia and China over counterterrorism.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., suggested that allowing the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria — and thereby clearing the way for Russia to replace the U.S. presence there — indicates that the administration has “abandoned” efforts to counter Moscow in the Middle East.
“The withdrawal led to Russia occupying American bases,” Garamendi said. “I’m wondering if the Department of Defense has abandoned the National Defense Strategy?”
“We have seriously lost a major element of our position in the region,” he said.
Esper said that he is more worried that Turkey is moving closer to Moscow and away from NATO than he is about expanding Russian influence within Syria.
“My biggest concern with Syria and Turkey is Turkey-Russia — the concern is that Turkey is moving out of the NATO orbit,” Esper said. “I think our challenge is to figure out how we can get them back in closer to the NATO alliance.”
Although Washington brokered an initial provisional ceasefire between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, it was Russia who brokered a far broader deal that is still in place today. After six hours of negotiations in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to “remove” the remaining Syrian Kurdish fighters and equipment within the buffer zone and establish joint Russian-Turkish patrols. (Assad is also backed by Russia.)
The deal offered Erdogan what he has long sought in northeastern Syria: to clear the area of all Kurdish fighters, which he considers terrorists, and a space to resettle Syrian refugees that have created political problems for the Turkish president at home. It also showed how quickly Russia moved to take advantage of the United States’ withdrawal.
Both Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said that they believed the situation on the ground in Northeastern Syria has “stabilized,” although Milley cautioned that “it’s a little early to tell.” Turkish-backed proxy forces that carried out the incursion remain “the wildcard,” Esper said.
The New York Times on Wednesday reported that commanders on the ground in Syria now view attacks from armed groups backed by Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian government as a greater threat than ISIS.
Esper told lawmakers that there are no current plans to further update the U.S. force posture in Syria, set now at roughly 600 troops tasked with the “enduring defeat of ISIS.”
“Right now there’s no disposition plans that I’m tracking,” Esper said.