The Turkish troops who poured into Syria to battle Kurdish fighters abandoned by the U.S. may have inadvertently handed Russian President Vladimir Putin a strategic victory in the Middle East.
Less than a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the intervention, Russia has maneuvered to get Syrian government forces into territory held by the Kurds for seven years during the war with U.S. support, until President Donald Trump ordered a troop withdrawal. It’s a major step in Putin’s efforts to restore Syrian President Bashar Assad’s control over all of the country after Russia’s military intervention tipped the war in his favor.
“Putin has forced his allies and rivals to accept that he has essentially become the architect of the political and military balances in the Syrian conflict,” Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North East research at Eurasia Group, said by email. “Attempting to manage conflicting Israeli, Iranian, Saudi and Turkish interests in Syria is far from an easy mission but Putin’s power and prestige in the region has grown.”
The U.S. sought to regain the initiative Monday by demanding “an immediate cease-fire” from Erdogan and imposing sanctions that fell short of what some lawmakers in Congress were seeking. That came a day after the Kurdish-led authority in northeast Syria had announced that it had struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow for the Syrian army to protect the northern border with Turkey after the U.S. decision to pull out its remaining 1,000 troops in the area.
While Assad’s forces are no match for NATO member Turkey’s military, which has already penetrated 18 miles (30 kilometers) into Syria, their push toward the Turkish border signals Russia’s intention to curtail the scope of Erdogan’s ambitions.
It also gives the Kremlin undisputed leadership in shaping Syria’s future, bolstering Putin’s image in the Middle East, where he’s already forged a partnership with Iran, created an oil alliance with Saudi Arabia and built close ties with Egypt’s strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Putin has also wooed Erdogan, who defied U.S. opposition to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 air-defense system, and they have coordinated efforts to try to resolve the Syrian war despite tensions over the Kurds.
The Russian leader arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday after traveling from Saudi Arabia, where he made his first visit since 2007, reinforcing the Kremlin’s efforts to exploit waning U.S. influence in the Middle East under Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.
Russian officials said they’re working to balance the often-conflicting interests of Moscow’s partners in Syria. “We’re holding contacts to establish a way forward in line with international law and respecting the interests of all sides involved in this process,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Trump on Monday held phone talks with Kurdish military commander Mazloum Abdi and Erdogan in the presence of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has pushed for “crippling” sanctions on Turkey. The U.S. president assured Abdi he would do “everything possible” to stop the Turkish incursion, Graham said on Twitter.
The Kurds face “painful compromises” in working with Moscow and Assad, Abdi said in an op-ed in Foreign Policy on Sunday. “But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life.”
Russia wants Erdogan to comply with a 2006 security accord that allows for Turkish operations against Syrian Kurdish YPG militia near the border “but does not allow for a long-term presence,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “This is about establishing territorial limits on the Turkish operation, and for the Kurds it’s about establishing a no-fly zone for Turkish planes.”
The Kremlin and Damascus appear to be counting on the Kurds to ensure control of the territory and limit any revival of Islamist terrorism there. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the autonomous administration remains responsible for political leadership and internal security, while the deployment of Assad’s forces was limited to halting the Turkish advance.
Ankara says the offensive, which has provoked a wave of international condemnation. is necessary to push back Kurdish fighters it describes as terrorists linked to separatists inside Turkey.
But Putin on Friday warned that the operation risked triggering a resurgent threat from Islamic State, with thousands of jihadists detained by the Kurds potentially able to escape. “This is a real threat to all of us,” he told regional counterparts in Turkmenistan. The Kurds said Sunday that nearly 800 inmates affiliated with Islamic State had escaped from a detention center after Turkish shelling.
Putin stepped up his message at the weekend, calling for all forces “deployed illegitimately” in Syria to leave. “Right now, we are discussing this openly with all our partners, including Iran and Turkey,” Putin said in an interview with Arabic-language channels released Sunday.
The Turkish attack and U.S. pullback presented a perfect opportunity to achieve Russian goals in Syria and restore central control over the oil-rich northeast, according to Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert.
“Russia has always wanted the government to recover control of as much territory as possible,” she said.