Russia’s Gains in Syria Could Be a Blessing in Disguise

The Trump Administration’s decision to directly or indirectly facilitate the Turkish incursion into Syria left a vacuum in the area stretching along the Turkish-Syrian border, one that was partially filled by Moscow and Ankara. Once again, Russia has appeared to be the power broker in Syria with US influence continuing to wane; however, it remains to be seen how Russia might or might not benefit from these transformative changes in the Syrian conflict.

After his October 6 call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Donald Trump ordered US forces in Syria to stand down, clearing the way for the Turkish incursion on October 9. This forced the hand of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and left them with no choice but to surrender control to Ankara along the Syrian border stretching from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ayn. In the second call with Erdoğan on October 14, Trump began to shift his approach as certain information was reportedly brought to his attention: the strategic benefits of having US forces secure access to oil fields in Kurdish-controlled areas in Deir Ezzor and Hasaka provinces. This paved the way for the preliminary agreement announcing a 120-hour ceasefire in northeastern Syria, which was reached during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara on October 17. The deal gave Erdoğan what he had long hoped for. Meanwhile, the SDF scrambled to invite Russia and the Syrian regime to take over border areas to prevent Turkey from expanding its control along the border. Erdoğan travelled to Sochi on October 22 and  signed an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that ended the Turkish operation and completed the missing links in the Erdoğan-Pence deal. However, because Trump showed a weak hand in Syria, the plan to keep a residual force around oil fields will not change the new realities on the ground.

How Russia Filled in the US Vacuum in Syria

This swift Russian move in brokering a Damascus-SDF deal managed to limit Turkey’s incursion along the border by allowing the Syrian regime to enter areas it had lost since 2012, including Manbij, Kobane, Raqqa, Tal Tamr, and Tabqa. While both Trump and Pence warned Turkey not to enter Kobane, it was ultimately Russia that protected this symbolic city that had witnessed the first US-Kurdish cooperation against the so-called Islamic State (IS). The only remaining border area under US and Kurdish control is between Hasaka and Qamishli.

This swift Russian move in brokering a Damascus-SDF deal managed to limit Turkey’s incursion along the border by allowing the Syrian regime to enter areas it had lost since 2012.

The Syrian regime forces have now encircled areas under Kurdish control northwest of Raqqa city and southwest of Qamishli, serving as a buffer with the Turkish forces and their allied Syrian opposition army. This quick fix was meant to prevent a Turkish incursion into Syria, which is a common interest between the Syrian regime and the SDF. However, both sides will still have to continue discussing a whole range of issues regarding the extent of autonomy; obviously, however, the Kurds’ leverage has weakened in this context and they will most probably look to Russia to help them secure their interests.

Moscow seized the opportunity to enhance Assad’s ability to reclaim control over all Syrian territory and to portray Moscow as a reliable power that can protect its allies. Moreover, Russia has replaced the United States as the mediator between Turkish and Kurdish forces while it continues to work on deconfliction between Turkish and Syrian regime forces as well as between the Syrian regime and the SDF. These Russian inroads in northeastern Syria led countries like France to offer cooperation with Moscow and to talk about common interests in defeating the Islamic State.

Russian and Turkish forces began joint patrols using drones and armored vehicles, covering an area 87 kilometers long and 10 kilometers deep on the Syrian-Turkish border around the Derbasiyah crossing, which became the gateway for Turkish-Russian military talks to ensure that the ceasefire holds in northeastern Syria. However, past experience has proven that it is difficult to defuse tensions when forming de-escalation zones, with Idlib as a primary example where Moscow and Ankara continue to manage their differences. Putin said in Sochi that “only if Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is respected can a long-lasting and solid stabilization in Syria be achieved. It is important that our Turkish partners share this approach. The Turks will have to defend peace and calm on the border together with the Syrians. This can only be done in the atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation.”

The difficulties and violations of the ceasefire are already occurring in northeast Syria. The joint Russian-Turkish patrol in Kobane was delayed twice as both sides failed to agree on the logistics. However, unlike in Idlib, there are no elements that Russia considers to be terrorists; in fact, it operates on the assumption that the Syrian National Army is under full Turkish control. An explosion in Tal Abyad, which recently came under Turkish authority, left at least 13 people dead. Moreover, the Syrian regime forces clashed with Turkish and armed opposition groups near Ras al-Ayn.

Turkish forces and their affiliated Syrian groups have been expanding the length of the safe zone beyond the agreed area in the Russian-Turkish agreement west of Ayn Issa. Moscow seems tacitly to approve this Turkish expansion as the Syrian regime has deployed its troops on the defense line of Kobane, which clears the way for Turkey to fight its own battle with the SDF and potentially advance to the outskirts of Kobane. Turkey seems to be linking the border areas from Tal Tamr to Ayn Issa, which is around 145 kilometers on the M4 Highway, flanked by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on both sides. Despite the violations, these arrangements that were established last month largely stand in northeastern Syria.

Challenges and Opportunities for the Assad Regime

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the Turkish incursion a “flagrant invasion and aggression,” the Syrian regime ultimately had to live with the reality on the ground. On October 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoğlu gave the first nod for Russian intervention, saying that Moscow “promised that the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] or YPG [People’s Protection Units] will not be on the other side of the border. If Russia, accompanied by the Syrian army, removes YPG elements from the region, we will not oppose this.” Moreover, the deal that Moscow brokered between Damascus and the SDF allowed Kurds to retain the local administration of these territories. SDF Commander Mazlum Kobane noted that Trump did not object to an agreement the Kurdish-led forces made with Moscow and Damascus while a senior Kurdish official called it “a military agreement only.”

Assad was not involved in the Putin-Erdoğan agreement of October 22, even though the Russian president called his Syrian counterpart to explain the details of the deal. Assad and the Iranian regime would have preferred to deal with the SDF instead since the latter was a neutral player in the Syrian war; however, the Turkish-backed Syrian armed opposition groups will pose a constant threat for Assad regime forces as they become a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Tabqa, Raqqa, Hasaka, and Qamishli. Hence, any failure or violation in the ceasefire agreement would make the Syrian regime vulnerable to attacks and Damascus would be restrained by Moscow in the extent of its retaliation. Russia seems adamant to prevent any confrontation between the two sides. When, on October 29, the Syrian National Army captured Syrian regime forces near the Derbasiya crossing, Russian forces promptly intervened with Turkey and secured their release. Russia’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said that fighting between Turkish and Syrian regime forces “would simply be unacceptable … and therefore we will not allow it, of course.” There will be Russian-Turkish joint patrols with limited role for the Syrian regime border guards.

A win for Putin is simultaneously a win for Assad, who is rather the enforcer of Russia’s regional arrangements.

Nonetheless, a win for Putin is simultaneously a win for Assad, who is rather the enforcer of Russia’s regional arrangements. It is too soon, however, to declare Assad a winner of the Turkish incursion into Syria, though his regime is indeed benefiting from the US policy chaos by entering areas in northeastern Syria. Kurdish fighters had to give up their self-autonomy precondition to give Damascus this access, since both sides have a common interest in not having Turkey control the border areas. In the long run, the Assad regime cannot subdue the Kurdish fighters as the regime does not have the military and political capacity to do so without receiving a Russian green light—which is unlikely.

Assad won Turkish recognition of his role but, in return, lost key areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. Incidentally, two decades ago relations between Ankara and Damascus improved when the two signed the Adana Agreement in 1998 in which the Syrian regime pledged to stop harboring PKK elements. However, the updated implementation of the agreement today includes pushing YPG elements 30 kilometers away from the Turkish border, as is stipulated in the latest Russian-Turkish agreement, in return for tacit Turkish recognition of the Syrian regime. This allowed for the Russian-brokered direct contacts between Ankara and Damascus, a major shift in Turkish foreign policy.

On the political level, Assad seems intent on benefiting from these changes in northeastern Syria. Soon after these arrangements were in place, Assad said1 that the constitutional meeting that began in Geneva late last month—to negotiate the end of the Syrian conflict—has nothing to do with holding elections in Syria. However, once the Turkish zone is secured, Syrian refugees will return to this area, which will be under full Turkish control; this will pose yet another challenge for the Assad regime. If a political settlement is reached, Russia would want to ask Turkey to give up control of these border crossings to the Syrian government, which might become a contentious issue at some point.

The fallout of the Turkish incursion will not have an immediate impact on the constitutional committee process; but if Turkey emerged with significant gains, this might change the calculations of some in the Syrian opposition. However, since Erdoğan knows how much the Syrian political process is important for Putin at this stage, Ankara will at least give the impression of facilitating this process as long as Moscow continues to understand Turkish interests in Syria.

In return for accommodating Turkish interests in Syria, Putin is expecting Erdoğan to facilitate—or at least not undermine—Russia’s attempts to reach a political settlement of the Syrian conflict.

Indeed, in return for accommodating Turkish interests in Syria, Putin is expecting Erdoğan to facilitate—or at least not undermine—Russia’s attempts to reach a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. This is where it might get tricky between the two allies as Moscow would most likely demand Turkish concessions on both the military and political fronts. The Turkish-held territories will make it much more difficult for Russia to achieve its objectives of retaking all Syrian territory under the Assad regime, most notably in Idlib and in areas along the Syrian-Turkish border. The fate of Idlib will most likely depend on how the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreement will unfold in northeastern Syria. Putin might have won more than Assad in these changes in northeastern Syria, but both will now have to reckon with an emboldened Erdoğan.

1 Source is in Arabic.