As US President Donald Trump hailed the agreement his administration negotiated with the Turks for northern Syria as “a great day for civilization,” the Turks quickly dumped cold water over the White House’s euphoria, refusing to even call the deal a ceasefire.
Only a few hours later, airstrikes and artillery fire could be felt in northern Syria as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces accused Ankara and its proxies of severe ceasefire violations.
The mood both in Washington and in the Middle East is that the ceasefire is not the real deal. It expires on Tuesday, October 22, the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recip Tayyip Erdogan will meet in Sochi to discuss the future of Syria. It seems pretty clear: that’s when the world will find out that the real deal will be for the future of this volatile region.
Putin’s leadership role
It’s also clear that the future will, to a large extent, be determined by the Russian President. With Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, America’s main allies in the fight against ISIS, and his de facto green lighting of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, the White House maneuvered itself out of the Syria equation. For better or worse, Putin now owns the military and political mess unfolding there.
But unlike the Trump administration’s hectic efforts at last-minute diplomacy to try to end the bloodshed it helped unleash, Putin at least seemed like a man with a plan.
Russia immediately started negotiations with the Kurds and Moscow’s main ally, the Assad government, quickly reaching a deal to allow the Syrian military into Kurdish-held areas where Damascus has not had a presence for years in order to stave off the Turkish-led offensive. Moscow also quickly deployed its own military as a buffer to keep the Turks and their forces apart from the Kurds and Syrian government troops.
The move caused a good deal of chest thumping among Putin’s military: “When the Russian flag appears, combat stops – neither Turks nor Kurds want to harm us, so fighting stops thanks to our work,” a Russian army officer, Safar Safarov, was quoted as saying by Tass state news agency, as the country’s military police units began patrolling Manbij.
Russia’s high-risk game
With Russia’s new role as the undisputed lead nation also come grave risks. The situation in northeastern Syria is more than volatile. The Turks have made clear they will not allow a Kurdish military presence near their border. But Ankara’s ground force consists largely of Syrian rebel groups, many of them hardline Islamists whom the Kurds fear could unleash a campaign of ethnic cleansing against minorities in this diverse region.
To add to all this, Syrian government forces and the rebels allied with Ankara also have an ax to grind with one another after all the atrocities committed during the devastating eight-year civil war.
Moscow seems to understand the dangerous situation it has been propelled into with its new leadership role.
“We tried to draw attention for many years to the explosive policies of the USA and the coalition, headed for the collapse of Syria and the creation of quasi-state formations on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, pushing Kurds to separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes,” Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday as he addressed heads of security services.
The Kremlin is gravely concerned that Russians who fought with ISIS and other rebels groups could return to their homeland and cause instability there. From the moment Turkey launched its offensive in Northern Syria the Kremlin voiced extreme doubts about Turkey’s ability to keep a lid on the thousands of ISIS prisoners and their relatives that the Kurds had been guarding.
“There are areas in northern Syria where ISIS militants are concentrated and until recently, they were guarded by the Kurdish military. The Turkish army entered these areas and the Kurds left… Now [ISIS fighters] can simply run away and I am not sure that the Turkish army can – and how fast – get this under control,” Putin said last week at The Commonwealth of Independent States forum in Ashgabat.
Russia faced a sustained insurgency in Chechnya in the 1990s and prosecuted a bloody war there for several years. The last thing Vladimir Putin wants is for former Russian ISIS members to go back to the Caucasus region, possibly leading to the return of instability. At that same forum in Turkmenistan, Putin warned other leaders of the region to brace for the situation. “We are talking about hundreds of militants there, thousands when it comes to CIS countries. This is a real threat to us. How and where will they head?” Putin said.
“We need to understand this and mobilize the resources of our special services to cut short this emerging new threat,” Putin added.
All Syrian roads lead to Moscow
But despite all the dangers facing Putin’s high-stakes Syria gambit the Russian leader still seems to be in a position to possibly prevent the situation from blowing up even more than it already has.
Russia has a devastating track record in the Syrian conflict. Human rights groups have accused Moscow of committing war crimes in its campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US says Moscow has systematically bombed civilian infrastructure, especially hospitals, and aided Assad in covering up alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian military. Russian vehemently denies all these allegations.
And despite many US and European officials lamenting Moscow’s alleged lies and deception, pretty much all the countries and parties involved in the Syrian crisis seem to agree that Moscow is more reliable than Washington in this crisis.
NATO ally Turkey has been working with the Russians for years, despite the fact they back opposing factions in the Syrian civil war. Even arch-enemies Israel and Iran seem to agree that the road to making sure their interests are met runs through Moscow.
And when the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces – which were backed by the US and lost nearly 11,000 fighters in the war against ISIS – found out they’d been dumped by Trump and left to be invaded by Erdogan’s proxy force, they too went straight to the Russians because guess what: Moscow has been working with and talking to the SDF for years as well.
So it was never going to be the Trump White House that could try and broker a solution to the messy situation in northeastern Syria. If there will be deal it will be reached next Tuesday in Sochi by Putin and Erdogan – on their terms.