In Depth

What will happen to Syria?

It may look like chaos, but is the situation in northern Syria being carefully manipulated by Moscow?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to hastily withdraw all US troops from Syria, much attention has been heaped upon the subsequent assault on Kurdish positions by Turkish armed forces and Washington’s withering diplomatic standing in the Middle East.

But by upending the balance of power in Syria, Trump appears to have left the door open for an old foe to take full advantage of the power vacuum that appears to be forming: Russia.

With Turkey squaring off against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has stepped in as the de facto mediator, brokering deals and encouraging negotiations between belligerents.

The Times reports that Putin, as a close ally of both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad, will “oversee the carving up of northern Syria” by flexing his considerable influence over Turkey and Syria and shutting the US out of future talks.

Indeed, Erdogan has refused to meet Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, who will arrive in Ankara today to ask for a ceasefire from Turkey, but will travel to Moscow to meet Putin before the end of the month, according to reports.

To Trump, the idea of Russia becoming the key player in the Middle East is of little consequence. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there,” he told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Russia’s plans for the region. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

But for Syrians, the implications are enormous. Recent developments have “cemented Moscow’s central role in shaping the country’s future”, Reuters reports, and Syrians who oppose Assad’s authoritarian rule may suffer greatly as Russia’s intervention with air power in 2015 “helped turn the tide of Syria’s civil war in Assad’s favour”.

But what do experts believe will happen to Syria and - in particular - its Kurdish population?

What is happening now?

For two weeks, Turkey has taken advantage of US troop withdrawal to wage a highly controversial war against Kurdish positions in northern Syria.

Al Jazeera reports that Turkey views Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists linked to violent separatists in Turkish territory, and Ankara claims the operation is “aimed at pushing back Kurdish-led forces from the border area and creating a ‘safe zone’ for the return of Syrian refugees”.

Critics of Turkey’s decision to attack the Kurds claim it amounts to an assault on an innocent ethnic group, with some going so far as to call it a genocide.

However, in perhaps the most surprising development of the conflict, the Kurdish-led SDF has formed an alliance with its traditional enemy, the Assad government, which has since deployed troops to the border region to protect the SDF against Turkish military action.

What is Russia doing?

Moscow is asserting itself as the key player by stepping up to fill the vacuum left in northern Syria by the US. Russian military police units this week began patrolling the contact line between Syrian and Turkish forces, while Assad’s troops - backed by Russia - gained full control of the town of Manbij.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that this is part of a larger strategy to exert influence on the region. The paper says that the SDF’s constituent parts - the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as Assyrian Christian forces and Arab tribal militias - have fought under a single banner and has been a crucial ally for the US in taking ground back from Islamic State. Now, the WSJ says, “this powerful army appears to be coming under Russian control”.

Furthermore, an excessive reliance on Russia by the belligerents of the conflict - all of whom have been weakened by nearly a decade of war - will help Putin “set the tempo for northern Syria, particularly east of the Euphrates”, a pro-Assad source told Reuters. 

This is the only territory in Syria that the Kurds have autonomy over, but the WSJ notes that the ruling Kurdish party in the region maintains an office in Moscow, and thus “such hopes as remain” to maintain Kurdish autonomy “will depend on Russia”.

Russia and Turkey appear to be looking to sign a deal that will divide the Turkish-Syrian border into new control zones and prevent each of their local allies - the Syrian government for Turkey and anti-Assad insurgents for Russia - from escalating the conflict further.

“I think there will be real friction but I do think the Russians will be able to manage it. There is a deal to be made,” said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

What will happen next?

The Independent paints a bleak picture of the Kurds’ future. According to the paper, Russian troops entering Syria will “take over vacant but pristine American military bases” in order to “make sure that Turkish and Syrian government troops don’t start fighting”, indicating that Russia’s self-described peace-keeping mission “is not entirely altruistic”.

The paper also suggests that the “defection of Turkey from Nato to a closer relationship, if not a formal alliance with Russia, seems almost complete”. Putin, as a major thorn in the side of Nato, appears to be attempting to pry Erdogan away from the bloc.

CNN notes that Russia also seems to be courting Saudi Arabia, with Putin receiving a warm welcome this week during his first visit to the kingdom in over a decade. The broadcaster says the trip is a follow-up to Saudi’s King Salman visiting Moscow in 2017 to “broaden the key oil producers’ relationship”.

If Russia can wean Saudi Arabia off its reliance on US diplomatic and military might and pull it towards Moscow, Putin could effectively pull the strings for the entire Middle East.

Russia already has a close relationship with the major Shia regimes in the region - the Syrian government and its closest ally, Iran - and forming simultaneous diplomatic ties with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Turkey could prove hugely beneficial to Moscow.

Can anything stop Putin?

There is one major issue for Putin that may scupper his plans to dominate the Middle East: Russians. According to Deutsche Welle, Putin’s “own fellow citizens are growing tired of his foreign policy adventures”, and “as real disposable incomes continue to fall for a fifth consecutive year, 55% of them want the Syrian operation to end as soon as possible”.

The broadcaster suggests that Putin is preparing for an uncertain political transition when his fourth presidential term expires in 2024, and says that “to declare victory and leave Syria sounds like a better idea than juggling several ‘alliances of convenience’” in the Middle East.

“But will Assad survive without Russian support? What will happen to Russia’s naval bases if the region plunges into war? Having easily involved himself in the Middle East four years ago, Putin may find it much more complicated to extricate himself and keep his gains intact,” it says.

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