“Putin is capitalizing on the chaotic retreat of the US and Turkey’s brutality toward the Kurds in order to assert Russia’s leadership,” Syria analyst Joshua Landis observed of a newly published Vladimir Putin interview. “He contrasts how Russia has stood beside its beleaguered ally, Syria, while the US has abandoned both its allies, the Kurds and the Turks,” Landis added.
Putin said in the interview: “Syria must be free from other states’ military presence. And the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic must be completely restored.”
Given this weekend’s rapidly unfolding events, with state actors Turkey and the Syrian Army squaring up on front lines, Russia’s role in all this is probably still the greatest unknown, but what do we know at this point?
Precisely one week since Trump first unveiled a US troop exit from northeast Syria while essentially giving a green light to invading Turkish forces, events are unfolding at blistering speed, possibly toward a major Syrian Army clash with pro-Turkish forces, and no doubt toward a complete and final American withdrawal from Syria altogether.
Currently Syrian Army convoys — including tanks and artillery — have begun deployment to northern Syrian battlefronts at a moment US troops have been confirmed in retreat. Syrian state media affirmed that Damascus is set to “confront a Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory, after what appears to be a major deal struck between Damascus and the main US-backed Syrian Kurdish groups.
Reuters revealed on Sunday that Damascus and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been in direct negotiations, with crucial Russian participation. “The source close to the Syrian government said meetings between the SDF and Damascus had taken place before and after the latest Turkish offensive,” according to the report.
PUTIN: ¨Syria must be free from other states military presence and the and territorial integrity the Syrian Arab Republic must be completely restored. ¨#Syria #Kurds #Turkey #OperationSpringPeace pic.twitter.com/xhYxAM38hN
— ivan (@ivan8848) October 12, 2019
And hours before it was announced Sunday that an initial deal has been reached, resulting in Syrian Army deployment to currently Turkish-besieged northern cities, the SDF’s top commander Mazloum Abdi wrote in a Foreign Policy op-ed:
“We know we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow & Assad if we go down that road. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life.”
Abdi noted that Washington’s betrayal is two-fold: not only did the Pentagon retreat at the most crucial moment, but ordered its Kurdish proxy force to weaken its own defenses (not to mention that Washington had long actively thwarted negotiations with Damascus).
“At Washington’s request, we agreed to withdraw our heavy weapons from the border area with Turkey, destroy our defensive fortifications, and pull back our most seasoned fighters. Turkey would never attack us so long as the U.S. government was true to its word with us” — implying that Washington threw the Kurds to the wolves in a worsened state.
“We are now standing with our chests bare to face the Turkish knives,” the SDF’s top commander concluded. “Syria has two options: a religious sectarian and ethnic bloody war if the United States leaves without reaching a political solution, or a safe and stable future—but only if the United States uses its power and leverage to reach an agreement before it withdraws,” Abdi explained.
“Two questions remain: How can we best protect our people? And is the United States still our ally?” It appears that question has been answered, given the SDF has invited in the Syrian Army.
SDF's Mazloum writing hours before announcement: "We know we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow & Assad if we go down that road. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life" 💔https://t.co/B9uOHI5sZa
— Josie Ensor (@Josiensor) October 13, 2019
Again given how fast all of this has played out, a number of pundits and analysts questioned: are we witnessing a Putin-brokered ‘deal of the century’ unfold?
We explained late last week that there are a number of signs suggesting this is the case, noting that Moscow had begun organizing “reconciliation talks” between Syria and Turkey, in what would truly be an unprecedented development, given President Erdogan’s long-time position that Turkey won’t negotiate with Damascus so long as Assad is in power, after the two cut diplomatic relations in 2012.
But Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov recently confirmed as much saying, “Moscow will ask for start of talks between Damascus and Ankara”.
Putin’s timing for such potential deal-making couldn’t have been better, given that:
- A US ground retreat from the border area means Washington now has little active leverage over the situation (Trump has said he desires regional powers to sort it out).
- Syria’s beleaguered Kurds now see Damascus as the only option for survival (and thus Syria’s ally Russia).
- Turkey is now at odds with all major Western and regional powers over ‘Operation Peace Spring,’ is also hated in international media, and thus will be more sensitive to reputational damage.
- Turkey is now under a human rights and war crimes microscope.
- For many reasons, especially the recent S-400 deal and F-35 hold-up, US-Turkey relations are currently at their lowest point, with threat of new US sanctions on Ankara looming.
- With Washington ceding the driver’s seat, all of the above means Putin alone can “check” Erdogan’s actions.
Just ahead of this weekend’s rapidly developing Syria events, Reuters reported that Putin is positioned to be the only voice with “positive” relations with Turkey, able to “limit” Erdogan’s ambitions inside Syria:
In a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan before the operation against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, made clear he hoped the incursion would be limited in time and scale, the sources said.
“If he [Putin] manages to fix this it would be considered a major political victory,” commented Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, as cited in the report. “Putin could argue that the Americans failed to sort this out but we managed it, which implies our approach to the conflict is more efficient than our geopolitical opponents,” he added.
And one senior former Russian diplomat confirmed to Reuters further that, “If Turkey limits its operation to a 30-mile security zone inside Syria and conducts a quick operation, Russia is likely to tolerate it.”
And even CNN now reluctantly admits that:
Russia is already by far the strongest foreign power operating in Syria, and President Vladimir Putin has allied himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, throwing the full weight of the Russian military behind the Syrian Army.
Now, a planned Turkish operation to “clear” Kurdish forces from the Northeastern Syrian border zone could give Putin a chance to expand Russian influence — to the alarm of US hawks.
Likely, the outcome to the current escalation unfolding in northeast Syria will also determine the outcome to final and still festering Idlib problem — an issue which presents further opportunity for Putin and Erdogan to find common ground.
Meanwhile, the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi perhaps put it best in saying, “Assad appears to be coming in to fight on the sides of the Kurds against Erdogan. The heads of Washington pundits, who love to reduce geopolitical fights into battles between good and evil, will explode…”