Russia gloats as US leaves Syria – but frets about keeping the peace

Why We Wrote This

Is the Kremlin ready to play peacemaker in Syria? It has insisted for the past few years that the U.S. needed to play a role, but now sole responsibility falls to Russia.

Baderkhan Ahmad/AP
Syrian government forces carry a national flag as they man a checkpoint near the northern town of Tal Tamr, Syria, Oct. 22, 2019.

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The American withdrawal of troops from Syria and subsequent Russian-Turkish deal that determines the future of Syria’s Kurds have set a tone of jubilation in Moscow. Russian TV has been a virtual festival of military imagery in recent days. But Russian experts warn that the bigger picture is far more complicated than this immediate moment appears.

Tuesday’s six-hour summit meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi was remarkable, analysts say, for how much ground Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appear to have covered to mutual satisfaction. It puts Moscow in the catbird seat as the key arbiter of a future Syrian peace settlement.

But it also intensifies Russian responsibility if things go wrong. As Damascus grows impatient to complete its victory after almost eight years of civil war, it will be up to Russia to prevent the Syrian army from clashing with the Turks.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “is a difficult partner,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Sure, he’s dependent on Russia, but he increasingly feels himself to be the big winner in this situation. Mediating with him is not going to be an easy job for Moscow.”

Judged solely by the tone of the country’s media, it seems like Russia is euphoric over the abrupt U.S. troop withdrawal from northeast Syria.

The impromptu drawdown enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to sit down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and hammer out an old-fashioned big-power deal that determines the future of Syria’s Kurds and might, possibly, set the stage for a lasting peace in the war-ravaged region.

That has set a tone of jubilation in Moscow. Russian TV has been a virtual festival of imagery in recent days, showing Russian mercenaries occupying a former U.S. military base in northeast Syria, U.S. planes bombing their own former ammunition dump, and angry Kurds pelting departing U.S. troops with potatoes.

“You can understand the Russian media,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute for the Middle East. “The idea of ‘Yankee go home’ is a very popular, staple tradition in this country. And, indeed, it looks like the fewer Americans there are in Syria, the better it is for us.”

Most Russian experts agree with that. But they also warn that the bigger picture is far more complicated than this immediate moment appears, and the landscape is filled with potential obstacles for Russian policy as the Kremlin picks up responsibility for keeping the peace in the region.

In the catbird seat

Tuesday’s six-hour summit meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi was remarkable, analysts say, for how much ground Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdoğan appear to have covered to mutual satisfaction. Also noteworthy, they add, is the list of interested parties who did not get a seat at that table: not just the U.S., but also Iran, the Syrian government, and the Kurds.

The deal enables Mr. Erdoğan to declare victory and stop the two-week-old Turkish invasion of Syria that precipitated the crisis. The U.S.-trained Kurdish YPG forces will be required to pull back over 20 miles from the Turkish border, along a 275 mile corridor, which will henceforth be patrolled jointly by Russia and Turkey. It puts Moscow in the catbird seat as the key arbiter of a future Syrian peace settlement, but also intensifies Russian responsibility if things go wrong.

Presidential Press Service/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shake hands after a joint news conference Oct. 22, 2019, in Sochi, Russia, hours before a five-day cease-fire between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria was set to expire.

“Of course we need to pause for a deep breath,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Russia has done a major security deal with a leading member of NATO. It certainly looks like Putin got what he wanted, a landmark agreement that was worked out and approved in Sochi, not in Brussels or Washington. But it only came after the U.S. abandoned the field. So Russia looks like a soccer team that scores when the opposing goalkeeper is absent. For his own reasons, Donald Trump made it easy. But from now, the complications will begin to pile up.”

The text of the joint Russian-Turkish memorandum pays homage to Syria’s territorial integrity, but effectively carves out a large hunk of Syrian land – there is another in Syria’s northwest corner of Idlib – that will remain outside the control of the Damascus government for an indeterminate period to come. Not only will Kurdish forces be banned from the “safe zone,” but it is feared that the Turks will move to resettle in the new enclave some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, potentially changing its demographics forever. The zone may also become a permanent Turkish dependency, and an obstacle to any future efforts by Damascus to reunite the country.

“Russia has been forced to make this concession to Turkey, and it’s a major one,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “The very idea of a ‘safe zone’ is anathema to Russia, and it will accumulate problems in future. But there was no choice. They avoided war, and each gets something it wanted.

“There appears to be this strange symbiosis between Russia and Turkey. On one hand, there is deep and abiding mistrust between them. Yet there is a growing feeling that they need each other.”

Praise for Trump?

Surprisingly, many in Moscow disagree with those U.S. experts who assess the whole episode as an unmitigated disaster for U.S. credibility and another Trump misstep on foreign policy. In fact, some Russian analysts enthusiastically praise President Donald Trump, seeing the U.S. pullout from northeast Syria as a masterstroke that lightens the American load while shifting the responsibility for forging peace in Syria onto other players.

“Trump has made a very smart move,” says Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser and director of the independent Institute of Political Studies in Moscow. “The Kurds cease to be his burden, he fulfills an oft-repeated election promise to get the U.S. out of Syria, and he paves the way for better relations with America’s important ally, Turkey. The furor in the U.S. media will die down, Trump will look good to all those Americans who are sick and tired of all these endless Middle Eastern wars whose purpose they can’t understand, and Syria will be someone else’s problem from now on.”

And the problems coming down the pipeline are immense.

Russia has been urging Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to complete a sweeping constitutional reform, to be followed by Syrian presidential elections in 2021. Although Moscow will be insisting that the Kurds be granted some degree of autonomy under the new constitution, recent events have conspired to reduce Kurdish bargaining power and make them more dependent on Damascus.

“As Russia sees it, there must be national reconciliation in Syria. That cannot be accomplished without major concessions to the Kurds,” says Mr. Strokan. “But Assad may not be willing to forgive the Kurds for their previous disloyalty. They find themselves in a vulnerable position right now, and there are no guarantees.”

Moreover, as Damascus grows impatient to complete its victory after almost eight years of civil war, it will be up to Russia to prevent the Syrian army from clashing with the Turks in the new Kurdish enclave, or in the Turkish-backed rebel stronghold of Idlib.

“Assad is a difficult partner,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “Sure, he’s dependent on Russia, but he increasingly feels himself to be the big winner in this situation. Mediating with him is not going to be an easy job for Moscow. It will be interesting.”

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