Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018. Photo: George Ourfalian / AFP

The Syrian army is advancing into Kurdish-controlled territory in the country’s north to fend off a Turkish military incursion, following an agreement by Kurdish-led militia and the Assad regime late on Sunday after mediation by Russia.

After news of US disengagement, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan seized the opportunity to fill the vacuum and is defying his NATO partners to storm into Syria. The resultant welter of developments offers Vladimir Putin and Russia, a relative geopolitical newcomer in the region, the opportunity to flex its muscles.

With boots on the ground in Syria and strong diplomatic links across the region, Moscow appears well-placed to win friends and influence people in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran.

Kurds’ stark choice

After US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull troops from Syria, Turkey launched a major military operation last Thursday aimed at creating a 30 kilometer-wide safe zone in northern Syria by clearing it of Kurdish militants, considered by Ankara a threat to its national security.

Ankara plans to use the area to resettle over two million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force played a key role in battles against Islamic State in Syria’s northeast, with the US supporting their semi-autonomous enclave as a way to limit Russian and Iranian influence and to pressure the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Suddenly deprived of US backing, the Kurds were forced to turn to Assad and his Russian backers to counter the Turkish onslaught. As a result, Assad and his allies look set to take advantage of the situation to retake large swathes of territory in northern Syria.

Russia rising

War-weary Western governments, scarred from their embroilments in Iraq and Afghanistan, were reluctant to engage in Syria as that country descended into chaos amid an uprising against Assad. That left a gap that Russia was able to fill.

Moscow’s influence in the Middle East has been rising since it launched military action in Syria in support of its ally, President Bashar Al-Assad, in 2015. In Russia’s first series of operations beyond the former Soviet sphere of influence, Moscow provided vital and effective support – logistics, planning, air assets and special forces – to Damascus as it fought to win back Syrian territory.

A repeat scenario – Western reluctance versus Russian enthusiasm – seems to be playing out right now. Most analysts agree that the US withdrawal and the Turkish incursion have tilted the geopolitical chessboard further in Moscow’s favor.

Deprived of US backing, the highly vulnerable Kurds have been forced to turn to the Moscow-led coalition for help to survive potentially brutal treatment by the Turks.

That pivot will come at a price. To pay for Assad’s protection, the Kurds will most likely be forced to give up their autonomous zone – around 30% of Syrian territory – to come under Syria’s central government.

According to Kirill Zharov, a Turkey-focused columnist for Russia’s Tass news agency, Ankara’s move likely followed an unofficial agreement with Moscow that recognized the mutual benefits of cooperation.

“While Ankara will get a 30-kilometer-wide buffer zone … Moscow and Damascus can effortlessly take back control of the de-facto autonomous northern Syria”, Zharov told Asia Times.

Western alliance in disarray

Moreover, the Turkish incursion has destabilized Western alliances in Moscow’s favor.

In an outcome that likely to have hands being rubbed together with glee behind closed Kremlin doors, tensions are rising within NATO, as its members condemn Turkey for launching the incursion.

Washington – clearly unnerved by the highly aggressive Turkish move which Trump gave a green light to – has reportedly begun instituting sanctions against Ankara.

That situation could push Turkey further toward Russia, a concern reinforced by Ankara’s purchase of a sophisticated Russian air-defense system.

Yet with Turkey holding NATO’s southern flank, and also controlling the Bosphorus – a critical maritime corridor that enables Russian vessels’ transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean – NATO has little choice but to treat Erdogan with kid gloves.

Mourners attend the funeral of five Syrian Democratic Forces’ fighters killed in battles against Turkey-led forces in the flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain near the border, on October 14, 2019 in the Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

Looming risks, steep challenges

Even so, this promising situation is not devoid of challenges for Russia.

The Turkish invasion could lead to the escape of thousands of ISIS fighters held in Kurdish detention camps. Besides the obvious security threat they represent, a mass terrorist breakout would significantly undermine Russia’s achievements in Syria, particularly given its self-proclaimed victory.

“That scenario would make Russia’s victory over the Islamic State meaningless,” said Vadim Makarenko, head of the Moscow State Linguistic University’s regional studies department.

Moscow’s central concern at present is establishing a dialogue between an embattled Damascus and Ankara after the latter’s major blitzkrieg into Syrian territory.

The mechanism proposed by the Kremlin – with Iranian support – is implementation of the Adana Agreement, a 21-year-old pact. That would require the Syrian government to stop harboring anti-Turkish Kurdish secessionists on its territory and to allow a joint Syrian-Turkish contingent to oversee their common border.

A premise for any negotiations to start, however, is preventing any clashes between charging Turkish forces and the Syrian army. Any direct clashes could drag Moscow into a conflict on the side of Assad’s forces against a foe that is, while currently in Europe’s political doghouse, still a member of NATO.

“We wouldn’t even like to think about that scenario,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted, when asked about the possibility of Russia being sucked into combat against Turkey.

As a buffer against that risk, Peskov assured Russians that Moscow’s and Ankara’s militaries are in constant communication to pre-empt any such clash which could escalate and create even greater security concerns.

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