The decision of president Trump to withdraw the American military from northern Syria clears the way for Russia to become the referee in Syria and the wider region. The Kremlin has made many friends by opposing regime change and backing the ruling powers. Russia must feel excited that it has finally returned to the world stage as a major recognized force, argues Maxim Trudolyubov, senior fellow at the Kennan Institute.

1280px changing frontlines of the turkish offensive in rojava 2019 Frontlines in northern Syria on 13 October. Green is Turkish, yellow is Kurdish SDF. Map Nat Hooper CC BY-SA 4. 

by Maxim Trudolyubov

Depending on how far Turkey will go into northeastern Syria and how long it will spend there, Russia’s interests in the region might get hurt. But the Kremlin’s position on the military offensive that Turkey is now waging against the Kurdish-led forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. ally, has been generally approving.

Moscow seems to be confident that it will be able to defend its red lines in Syria. Russia and Turkey do not agree on everything but they seem to be willing to allow each other a free hand to act in their respective interests, within certain limits.

In a telephone conversation on Wednesday last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin urged his increasingly close partner President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 'not to damage the overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis.' 'Both sides reaffirmed the importance of ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria,' the Kremlin press service reported, referring to Russia’s and Turkey’s positions.

Russia’s state-run media stress that the Turkish operation has been months in preparation and the incursion is not expected to undermine Russian-led efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. In Moscow’s view, Turkey was good to go and 'provide for its own security' as long as the United States withdrew its backing of the SDF. 

It is important for Moscow, though, that all foreign military forces 'with illegal presence' should eventually leave Syria, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. One interpretation of this is that Moscow is ready to condone Ankara’s operation in the region but is not ready to agree to Turkey’s permanent military presence in Syria, a Russian Middle East expert suggested.

Syrian map is rapidly changing

On October 9 Turkey began an invasion of the northeast border areas, dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring.' President Erdogan stated as his aim to ‘neutralize terror threats against Turkey and establish a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes’. Ankara considers Kurdish-led militias to be terrorists. This includes the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been the key US ally in its fight against Islamic State.

Turkey’s operation started days after the decision by president Trump to withdraw American servicemen.The SDF said it had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the US and that the decision would reverse the defeat of IS. Trump said the move was needed to end the endless war’. 

As the Turkish operation gained momentum, the Kurds turned to the Syrian government for protection against the Turkish invasion. On Sunday October 13 it was announced that they had made a deal in Damascus with the Syrian army to deploy its military along the border and counter the Turkish offensive. The next day Syrian forces moved into the Kurdish-held territory, the first time since 2012 when Assads troops withdrew in order to fight rebels elsewhere in Syria.

The Russian government hopes to avoid clashes between the Turkish forces, which include Arab anti-Assad fighters, and the Syrian army. Russian diplomats are talking with all involved parties in order to reach a settlement.

Sources: BBC, RT, Ria Novosti

Russia’s overarching goal now is to maintain and possibly advance its carefully cultivated role as a preeminent power broker at the world’s most difficult crossroad, the Middle East. So far, Moscow has been successful in attaining recognition of its efforts in the region from players as diverse as Iran, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Most leaders of those countries may not want to sit down for a conversation between themselves, but each of them, separately from the others, is talking to Putin.

turkish commandos near manbij frontline 14 oct 2019Turkish commandos on the way to Manbij, 14 October 2019. Photo by Beshogur CC BY-SA 4.0

 Turkey’s operation may put this ambition to the test as the scale of the hostilities might get out of hand, but Ankara is unlikely to jeopardize its relationship with Moscow, which Erdoğan himself seems to value highly. Despite their major differences (Crimea alone is a big issue) Russia and Turkey do get along rather well. Shipments of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, a major thorn in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, are complete, but complex equipment like a missile defense system requires long-term training and maintenance programs.