October 25, 2019
IntelBrief: Russia and Turkey Reach a Deal on Syria
Earlier in the week, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, where the two leaders negotiated the contours of a post-American Syria. Now that American troops have withdrawn in earnest, Moscow and Ankara have seemingly come to terms on an agreement to jointly patrol an area approximately twenty miles deep into northern Syria. Russian troops are already patrolling in Kobani. Kurdish militants have begun to clear out, following air and artillery strikes by the Turkish military and an offensive by Turkish-backed rebels. The talks between Putin and Erdogan also likely focused on what to do about the situation in Syria’s Idlib province, where Turkish-backed rebel fighters and jihadists linked to al-Qaeda remain holed up.
Recent developments in Syria have been widely cited as a victory for Russia. And while true, Putin has indeed outmaneuvered his rivals in a bid to increase his influence in Syria, there are also downsides for Russia, which has the responsibility and added pressure of managing the endgame of a volatile civil war. The so-called Islamic State has gained momentum, the Kurdish issue remains an open question, and Turkey’s objectives may overlap with Russia’s in some areas, but there are also areas of disagreement. Moreover, operating in such close quarters could increase the chances for miscommunication, as occurred with the bombing of a Turkish convoy in late August of this year. Finally, if Iran continues to seek to use Syrian territory as a base from which to provoke Israel, the Israelis have made it clear that they will not hesitate to launch strikes against Iran, Hezbollah, or any other entities it deems a threat, no matter where these forces operate.
Putin hailed the deal as a ‘momentous agreement for Syria.’ That Moscow, with its relentless bombing of Syrian civilians and support for the ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad, can be hailed as moderating force in this conflict, is a major propaganda coup for the Russians. Meanwhile, after years of fighting the Islamic State, U.S. troops were pelted with rocks and potatoes by Kurdish civilians as the forces withdrew from areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. A tweet by President Trump that U.S. troops would remain in Syria to protect oil installations further sullied America’s image in what has been framed as a hasty and impulsive decision to withdraw, a move guaranteed to further reduce Washington’s influence in the region. By abandoning the Kurds, the U.S. also suffered a major blow to its image, with Russian propaganda describing the United States as an erratic ally and unreliable partner.
Russia has touted its role as a mediator, urging all parties involved to remain focused on the Astana process, with a meeting of the constitutional committee scheduled for late October. The endgame for Russia is to use the recent deal with Erdogan as momentum to consolidate gains in Syria and cement the future of Moscow’s client, the Assad regime. Turkey will be more inclined to accede to Russian pressure for Ankara to assume a less hostile posture toward Assad if Turkey is able to send back Syrian refugees, while at the same time eluding U.S. economic sanctions and achieving its overarching objective of weakening the Kurds.
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