Putin’s Intricate Syrian Balancing Act

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 148

(Source: AFP)

For several years, the United States has fought the Islamic State in Syria without large troop deployments or any significant casualties by maintaining a close alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the local, secular, anti-Islamist army of the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava. At the same time, Washington continued to maintain a close though uneasy alliance with fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Turkey, which considered the Rojava an enemy and the SDF a terrorist organization allegedly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK—recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey the European Union and the US—has for decades been running a violent campaign to achieve autonomy and possible future independence for Turkey’s over 20-million-strong Kurdish population, predominant in southeastern Turkish provinces bordering Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. On October 6, US President Donald Trump, during a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, decisively ended Washington’s double alliance arrangement with the Kurds and the Turks by effectively green-lighting a Turkish invasion of Rojava and removing US Special Forces from northeastern Syria (see EDM, October 17).

Erdoğan announced an intent to cleanse the SDF from the entire Turkish/Syrian border zone—480 kilometers wide and some 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep. In this zone, Ankara is planning to resettle most of the over three million refugees who fled to Turkey to escape the Syrian civil war since 2011. Turkey has announced it will build schools, hospitals and housing in this “secure zone,” protected by Turkish-armed and -supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters (some of them hardened Islamists), out of reach of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. Millions of mostly Arab refugees who never previously lived in northeastern Syria could drastically change the local ethnic balance, creating a border settlement belt that permanently eliminates any future possibility of creating a Kurdish national state in the Middle East including Syrian, Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish-majority lands.

As the US withdraws from this area and steps back from its entwined military-political issues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved in. In Sochi, on October 22, after over six hours of intense wrangling, Putin and Erdoğan clinched a temporary territorial compromise: SDF forces shall be withdrawn from the entire 20-mile border region, as previously agreed between Erdoğan and US Vice President Michael Pence, but Turkey will keep under full control only part of this zone, which it had already mostly occupied since it invaded Rojava on October 9, in Operation Peace Spring. That zone will be a 120-kilometer-long and 32-kilometer-wide belt between Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east, as stipulated in a ten-point joint Russo-Turkish memorandum. The rest of the border zone, some 10 kilometers deep, will be secured by a string of 15 Syrian government [al-Assad] border posts and joint Turkish/Russian military patrols to ensure the absence of SDF fighters or any other “terrorists” and keep the peace. The predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli in the east will not be patrolled by Turks (Kremlin.ru, October 22).

Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad are predominantly Arab, with Kurdish and other (Armenian, Assyrian) minorities. The Turks chose them as entry points of their invasion. As the SDF withdrew, Russians found themselves in the position to guarantee that the ethnic balance in Kobani, Qamishli and other Kurdish areas is not drastically changed. Al-Assad’s forces will also be entering the area, and some former SDF fighters may take up the Syrian flag as cover. But because of the token force of Russian Military Police (MP) there, Erdoğan will refrain from using his air force and heavy artillery. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that the Kurds must comply or Russian and al-Assad forces will withdraw, “throwing the Kurds under the Turkish steamroller.” Peskov added, “The Americans were, for several years, close allies of the Kurds; but now the US abandoned and betrayed them” (Izvestia, October 23).

The Kurds have quickly adapted to the changing military/political environment. It was announced in Moscow that, on October 23, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the top commander of the SDF, had a video conference call with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s top military commander—the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov. Shoigu announced that the Russian Military Police and Syrian forces loyal to al-Assad will guarantee the safety of the local civilian population. Abdi, in turn, reportedly thanked Moscow and Putin for “saving the Kurdish people” and securing a ceasefire. The Russian MP and al-Assad forces are “deploying in different regions,” according to Abdi, and the SDF is actively facilitating this deployment (Militarynews.ru, October 23). The Russian military is in the process of deploying an additional MP battalion, with armored vehicles, to Syria to patrol the Turkish border zone (Militarynews.ru, October 24).

Since 2015, Russia has deployed to Syria Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) air assets and Special Forces but no significant ground units; instead, Moscow depended on pro-Iranian and pro-al-Assad militias to provide infantry forces. But this arrangement did not always work out well. Tehran and Damascus have often had their own distinct agendas that may not correlate with those of Moscow; and discipline/cohesion with militias can be tricky to ensure. Contract/mercenary Russian ground units of the so-called Wagner Group private military company (PMC) were deployed to complement local militias, but these are costly and their numbers limited. Now, after the Sochi accord, it seems Moscow may inherit the US-trained and -equipped, battle-hardened SDF militia that Washington has withdrawn its support from. Russia has traditionally had close connections with the Kurds. For some years, Rojava has been allowed to maintain a diplomatic representation in the Russian capital. As long as Moscow manages to secure the predominately Kurdish-dominated areas of Rojava, the Russian military may rely on SDF (i.e., Kurdish People’s Protection Units—YPG) loyalty, including the possible sharing of the oil and natural gas wealth in presently Kurdish-controlled lands. These hydrocarbon reserves could become a strategically important source of revenue for the al-Assad regime; and the Russians may be able to secure a cut if Trump removes the last several hundred US soldiers still controlling the oil wells in northeastern Syria.