An image grab taken from AFP TV on January 17, 2019, shows a Russian army vehicles on patrol just west of Manbij, in northern Syria.

Turkish-backed forces pressing an offensive into northern Syria are likely to pull back in the coming weeks on request from Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Moscow builds a new regional order based on the principle of national sovereignty.

Putin is in “continuous contact” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the “ultimate goal of restoring full territorial integrity” in Syria, TASS quoted Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia as telling reporters.

“We understand Turkish national security concerns, but we believe that the operation that they are conducting should be proportionate to the aims that they declared,” Nebenzia said earlier, during a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council.

Erdogan’s stated goal is a 30 kilometer, or 18 mile, deep “safe zone” stretching from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border where he can resettle some two million Syrian refugees, who have become a domestic political liability.

But Russian forces have backed Syrian government troops in deploying into key border towns over the past 24 hours, effectively limiting the scope of the Turkish operation. Those include Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), Manbij, Tal Tamr, the former ISIS capital of Raqqa further south and the strategic Tabqa dam.

Turkish-backed Syrian forces have thus been compelled to channel their energies onto smaller border villages and the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn – the former they seized partial control over, and the latter which they fully surrounded by Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Erdogan on Wednesday emphasized his goal was to eliminate PKK-affiliated Kurdish forces from the corridor along his southern border, paving the way for a deal in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces resume full control.

“Turkey respects Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity,” the Turkish leader said in a statement.

“Once a legitimate government that represents all groups is formed in this country, we will leave the administration of the areas we have made secure to them,” he added.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters continue operations against PKK-aligned Kurdish forces on October 17, 2019, in Ras Al Ayn, Syria. Photo: Hisam el Homsi/Anadolu

Over in a month

While Ankara may not explicitly state its preference for Assad, its ultimate goal of thwarting the emergence of a Kurdish statelet on its border will carry the day, analysts say.

Erdogan will most likely sign onto a plan in which the Kurdish-led forces of northern Syria are disarmed, forced out of the country, or subsumed into the Syrian armed forces.

“That Syria will agree to. Damascus don’t want an armed Kurdish group either,” security analyst Kamal Alam told Asia Times.

Kurdish guerrilla forces, abandoned by their American partners of the past five years, are in little position to resist a protracted bombardment by Turkey and have already struck an “emergency” military accord with the Syrian state in order to prevent Turkish annexation.

The Turkish operation “will most likely be completed within a month. The ‘exodus’ of Kurds from the buffer zone is the expected outcome,” a source close to the Russian Ministry of Defense told Russia’s business daily Vedomosti on October 11.

Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 with the aim of preventing the toppling of the Syrian government by armed opposition factions backed by Turkey.

Since then, Ankara has shifted its priorities from opposing Assad to cleaving apart and eliminating a string of cantons administered by PKK-aligned Kurds along its southern border.

In 2017, Turkey joined Russia and rival Iran in participating in the Astana Process, a rival peace track for Syria that has overshadowed UN negotiations and led to a gradual understanding of zones of influence between the three powers.

Presidents Putin and Erdogan are scheduled to meet October 22 in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, where they are likely to hammer out a blueprint for the future of northern Syria.

“Erdogan is completely beholden to Russia now. He has no friends in the West or even NATO when it comes to the current operations. Barring Pakistan, Qatar and Azerbaijan, the whole world condemned him. So Russia is his only card. He will do what Russia ask him to do with regards to how deep he goes,” said Alam.

Erdogan earlier this week said that offers were “pouring in” for alternative fighter jets to the American F-35, suggesting that Ankara will not try to salvage military cooperation with its NATO ally but rather shift to the Russian axis.

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