While the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib was mired in conflict, the northeastern region was relatively calmer. But with the Turkish attack on Kurds and Trump’s backpedaling of re-deploying the troops for securing oil fields have made the region a new flashpoint of geopolitical tensions. Amidst the entire unfolding crisis, Russia, a major power broker in Syria, has shaped the dynamics of the conflict in the whole northern region.

Mona Thakkar

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted man and the leader of the terrorist organisation ISIS was killed by the US special operation forces in the northwestern province of Syria’s Idlib. This would not undo the damage caused by Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US troops that precipitated Turkish offensive against the Kurds and allowed the ISIS fighters to exploit the chaos. In order to defend themselves from the Turks, the Syrian Kurds diverted their resources and efforts from guarding ISIS camps and prisons. This mayhem led to the escape of as many as 750 ISIS affiliates and gave them an opportunity to regroup. The death of Baghdadi will not be the final death knell of ISIS. Instead, the organisation will capitalise on the leader’s death for recruiting young fighters and boosting the morale of the ISIS supporters around the world to launch attacks to avenge his death.

Another important event shaping the future of the Syrian conflict was the summit held in Sochi, between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the leaders have decided to recarve the Syrian northeastern region. The meeting began before the expiration of the US-led truce between the Kurdish and Turkish forces in Syria. The truce was the result of the extreme pressure on Trump as he impulsively decided to pull out the US troops paving the way for Turkish attacks on Kurds. 

Russia’s influence is signified by the fact that after the US-led truce ended, President Erdogan went to Russia to discuss the future of the northeastern territory. Under the Sochi agreement, Turkey and Russia sliced the territory where the Syrian Kurds had maintained autonomy over the past four years fighting ISIS. As per the talks, Russia has agreed to oversee the withdrawal of the Kurdish fighters to the depth of 20 miles (30 km) from the buffer zone and also from Manbij, Tal Rifat and Kobane. Further, it has allowed Turkey to put in place its proposed safe zone. This will see Turkish forces and its supported rebel factions to control the 120 km-long and 32 km-deep area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. This deal will not only lead to the withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish YPG but also allow Turkey to re-settle 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts. Turkey views Syrian YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But in the summit, Russia practically accepted the proposal with one condition — the joint patrolling by Turkey, Russian and Syrian troops allowing Assad forces to control the rest of the border. Further, Russian and Assad’s troops have set foot in the strategic cities of Manbij and Kobane to oversee the Syrian Kurdish YPG withdrawal. 

Source: Syrian Civil War Map

One thing is clear that with the US moving out of Syria, Turkey in order to solidify its grip in the region will require Russian approval. This underlines how Russia is dictating terms on the ground. The meeting in Sochi highlighted Russia’s core strategy of exploiting the discord between the western powers to cultivate ties with Turkey. While Russia acknowledged Turkey’s security threats from Kurds, the US and European powers slapped sanctions on Turkey for its attack. Also, Putin has smartly made use of the Turkish invasion of Kurds to help Assad re-enter northeastern Syria. As Turkey’s chief concern of erasing Kurds from the Syrian border will be resolved through this deal, it is presumed that Putin will now expect Erdogan to drop his opposition to a full-fledged military offensive in Idlib.

With the deal, Russia has persuaded Turkey to comply with the Adana agreement of 1988. The agreement puts the onus on the Syrian regime to dislodge the PKK Kurds and its proxies, thus pushing the need for security cooperation between the two. Erdogan has long been critical of the Shia-Alawite regime and wanted to oust Assad from power. Critics say that the current developments in Syria are a win-win deal for Putin. But the deal brokered by Putin places a huge responsibility on Russia to maintain the fragile power balance by avoiding clashes between Turkish and Assad forces. Sooner or later, Turkey might capitulate to Russia’s demand of restoring full-fledged diplomatic relations with Assad regime for its own security concerns.

While Russia and the US are amplifying their strategies in Syria, Iran is a silent spectator of the developments unfolding in the region. Iran has refrained from sending its troops and allied militias to northwestern Idlib. However, it will seek to reactivate its local militias in northeastern Syria, specially the Deir–Ezzor province, due to Assad’s return. 

The recent announcement by Trump to deploy 200 special operations troops for securing the oil fields will now change the dynamics of the region. The logistical support for securing the oil fields and tackling adversaries in the region demands large deployment of troops on the ground. Amidst the chaos, Kurds have been treated as pawns by the US, Russia and Assad to achieve their strategic goals. Therefore, in any case, if the US strikes a deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces to secure the oil fields, it is unlikely that it will be able to secure any of its interests in the region.

For now, Trump’s change of mind of brining troops to the Deiz–Ezzor province is not going to give jitters to Russia or decrease its leverage in driving Syria’s policy. Surely the risk of confrontation has been increased after Russia decried the deployment of the US troops for securing oil fields.

Russia has been quite successful in carving out its niche in crisis diplomacy. It has kept its communication channels open to all the parties in Syria and now is even talking to the US’s closest allies in the region — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. Though Putin has the blood on his hands, his ability to de-escalate the crisis will place him at the centre of geopolitics in Syria.

Mona Thakkar is a Research Intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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