Russia and Turkey enter a new stage in Syria

The U.S. exit from Syria and Turkey’s offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces has granted Russia its most significant opportunity to shape the final outcome of the Syrian civil war.

Moscow was swift to take advantage of the sudden U.S withdrawal by brokering a deal between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and President Bashar Assad to allow Syrian government forces to re-enter the northeast for the first time in years.

But as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is set to meet his Russia counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Tuesday, there is reason to expect an attempt to engage in more horse-trading to avert expanding the conflict.

The back and forth between Turkey and Russia has not been particularly warm. Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, said Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring was “not exactly compatible” with Turkish respect for Syrian sovereignty, while Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, pointedly called it “unacceptable” and insisted Russia never approved the offensive in advance.

After plans were announced for a meeting between the two presidents, further signs emerged that suggest this will be a more difficult encounter. In a speech on Saturday, Erdoğan took a firm stance pledging to press ahead with his plan to set up what he calls a safe zone in Syria.

What this suggests is that Russia can expect Turkey to become a more obstinate partner in light of Peace Spring. This is in part because of the urgency Erdoğan has placed on establishing his safe zone. Moscow allowed the Turks to engage in two separate incursions in 2016 and 2018 in part to see how much Turkey could rupture its relations with the United States. Now with the Americans gone and the SDF seeking Syrian government help, Turkey can be expected to put up increased resistance to Russia.

In a sign of changed circumstances, Moscow is not presented with an easy option in accommodating Turkey’s intentions in Syria, particularly as Ankara’s plans go beyond just pushing Kurdish forces away from its borders.

Russia is also unlikely to want to see the SDF eliminated given the fact it has enabled the Syrian government to return to the north sooner than expected and the group controls the prisons housing thousands of ISIS prisoners. Alienating it would not serve Russia’s goals of restoring Assad’s control over Syria’s borders or creating stability following the U.S departure.

Lavrentiev, Putin’s envoy, also disapproved of Erdoğan’s plan to resettle Syrian Arab refugees from Turkey in the safe zone because it risked destabilising what were otherwise stable areas under the Kurds. This issue is not one Erdoğan will compromise easily with Putin on given the domestic drivers of his decision to relocate Syrian refugees from Turkey.

Despite these difficulties, Putin is unlikely to throw away all the goodwill built between Russia and Turkey in recent years, despite the initial displeasure over Peace Spring.

Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said it was likely Putin would seek a way to compromise with Turkey as long as no fighting occurs between Turkey and Assad’s forces.

“Obviously it will get harder for Russia to maintain its status as a broker if we see serious clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces, but otherwise I think Moscow will be trying to find some deal that allows both Ankara and Damascus to claim victory,” Galeotti said.

What makes Russia different from the United States for Turkey is the regard Moscow appears to pay to Turkish security concerns in Syria. That has fuelled Erdoğan’s perception that he can negotiate fairly with Russia. He has done so successfully a number of times over Idlib province, controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, and Erdoğan was able to veto the Syrian Kurds being included on Putin’s political vehicle, the Syrian Constitutional Committee.

“By being openly pragmatic and not claiming any grand moral cause, the Russians actually look more viable, sensible and reliable in the region than Europe and the United States,” Galeotti said.

Putin will still likely expect Erdoğan to offer assurances that Turkey will not seek to establish an enduring military presence in Syria, nor set up institutions that challenge Syrian government authority as it has done in the northwestern district of Afrin, which Turkish forces seized last year.

Russia could also press Erdoğan to take control of ISIS prisons or allow Russian military police and Syrian government forces to assume custody from the Kurds, who could be allowed to continue their withdrawal south, away from Turkey’s intended safe zone

In the event Erdoğan proves unwilling to offer concrete promises on these fronts, Russia has options within Syria that could be used to pressure Turkey into compromising.

The most obvious of these options is to deploy the Russian Air Force over northeastern Syria and respond to any attacks by Turkish proxies on government troops. Turkey and Russia are likely to try to avoid a major confrontation between their clients lest they get dragged in, but the Turkish presence does not sit well with Assad, who has called it an invasion.

Bringing the issue of Idlib back to the table would also pressure the Turkish side. Idlib remains a weak point for Turkey because of its fear that renewed fighting there between the Syrian government and al Qaeda-linked militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham could drive millions of civilians towards its territory.

Ultimately, Putin will prioritise cementing Russia’s place as the final peacemaker in Syria. Erdoğan will be keen to consolidate and legitimise his position in Syria because of the security domestic political risks involved with Peace Spring.

In the long run, Russia and Turkey’s divergent designs for northern Syria will likely collide again, but for now both countries and their leaders will focus on seeing how they can continue the string of compromises that have kept their cooperation alive.

© Ahval English

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

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