After U.S. withdrawal, new equilibrium in Syria depends on Russia

The uneasy stalemate in the Syrian conflict was upended when U.S. President Donald Trump relinquished his country’s stake in the conflict and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then launched Operation Peace Spring into Kurdish controlled territory on Oct. 9.

With the withdrawal of U.S. forces and their capacity as a deterrent, Russia now stands best positioned to broker a new status quo. Erdoğan will meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Tuesday to discuss the conflict.

The Syria Study Group (SSG), mandated by the U.S. Congress, concluded in its final report last month that Russia had successfully intervened in the war to preserve the government of President Bashar Assad at a low cost and enhanced its prestige in the broader Middle East, but “it has yet to translate Assad’s military gains into the political victory Moscow seemingly seeks.”

“The United States, through non-military tools, but while sustaining a very small presence in northeastern Syria had an opportunity to make life very difficult for Russia,” Melissa Dalton, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a member of the SSG, said on CSIS’s Truth of the Matter podcast.

“That leverage is now gone,” she said, “since we removed our forces and have not shown interest in exercising other tools of national power to pressure Russia on the Syria file.”

Vice President Mike Pence flew to Turkey last week to negotiate a five-day ceasefire that will end on Tuesday, but lacking leverage, Washington also acquiesced to Erdoğan’s demands to establish Turkish control of a “safe zone” in Syria free of armed-groups it labels terrorists, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that make up the core of the formerly U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“Turkey invaded and gets to control what it has taken by force,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, about the agreement negotiated by Pence. “The U.S. has left this part of Syria.”

The invasion of northeastern Syria has benefited Erdoğan politically at home at a time when opposition parties and internal dissent were chipping away at his support. Domestic politics helped drive Erdoğan’s aggressive diplomacy vis-à-vis the United States and will continue to guide his negotiations with Russia.

Although main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leaders have publicly criticised Operation Peace Spring, they did support the parliamentary motion extending military operations in Syria, damaging the party’s ability to reach out to Kurdish voters it needs to challenge Erdoğan.

“It is clear Erdoğan found a weak spot in [the CHP’s] inability … to overcome its identity red lines on the Kurdish issue,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

The CHP and other opposition parties have strong ties to Turkish nationalism and many of their voters oppose the Kurdish struggle for autonomy.

While the SDF denies that it will withdraw entirely, Hintz said the U.S. agreement could give Erdoğan what he wants “without a protracted invasion that could have lost support as Turkish troop and civilian casualties mount, particularly given Turkey's collaboration with the less rigorously disciplined forces now loosely gathered under the new umbrella of the Syrian National Army and allegedly responsible for atrocities against Kurds.”

Empowered by Washington’s diminished stake in the war, Russia is stepping up efforts to shape events in its favour. Facing the Turkish invasion without U.S. protection, the SDF hastily realigned with Assad’s Russian-backed government, giving Putin more coherent influence over the various Syrian factions in the war.

On Oct. 15, Putin and Erdoğan also discussed the need to avoid conflict between Turkish and Syrian forces in a phone conversation after Russian troops began patrolling front lines between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Syrian government troops that rapidly redeployed to the strategic town of Manbij when U.S. forces evacuated.

Dalton said she was “very doubtful of [Russia’s] ability to actually constructively bring this crisis to an end,” as they have regularly spurned past opportunities to contribute to peacemaking. The removal of chemical weapons they brokered was incomplete; they forestalled the UN-backed Geneva peace process; and they have impeded attempts at the UN Security Council to address the Assad government’s atrocities.

Russia may not intend to be an impartial broker, and yet “it is clear Putin has Erdoğan’s ear,” Hintz said, “and has much more leverage to draw upon than other actors in the region.”

Putting that leverage to use, Stein said, Moscow will demand that Ankara halts its operation when Putin meets Erdoğan on Tuesday. But he expects Russia “will bend a bit to Ankara and will say it will take steps to remove the YPG from places where the regime has moved into Kurdish controlled cities and territory.”

One certainty, Dalton said, is that “[Russia] is not interested in building an inclusive new social political compact in Syria.” This may make it easier to reach an agreement between Russia and Turkey that satisfies Russia’s interest in preserving the Assad government and Turkey’s interest in neutralising the YPG, but does not bode well for a remedy to the tragedies visited upon millions of displaced Syrians.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.