How Turkey and Russia Carved Up Northern Syria

The pact cements Ankara’s annexation of a significant chunk of formerly Kurdish-held land.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a joint press conference following their talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Oct. 22. SERGEI CHIRIKOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

During a six-hour meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin effectively carved up northeastern Syria between themselves, after the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops paved the way for a bloody Turkish incursion across the border. The United States was not present at the meeting.

Just hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump announced in a White House address that Erdogan had agreed to halt his offensive and make the tentative cease-fire agreement that Vice President Mike Pence brokered last week permanent. But in terms of impact on the ground in northern Syria, Trump’s statement was merely a footnote to the Turkey-Russia pact.

In his comments, Trump seemed to wash his hands of not just Syria but all of America’s wars in the Middle East. “Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” he said.

Putin and Erdogan appear to be agreeing not to fight but merely to take control. The 10-point memorandum signed by the two leaders on Oct. 22 essentially divides up the region, where the Syrian Kurds had built a fragile but peaceful democracy over the past four years as they fought and ultimately defeated the Islamic State’s physical caliphate.

What’s in the agreement?

Starting at noon on Oct. 23, fighters with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which makes up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), must begin withdrawing from the Syrian-Turkish border. At that time, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border on either side of the Turkish incursion to facilitate the removal of YPG fighters and their weapons.

The YPG will have 150 hours, or just under a week, to retreat roughly 20 miles from a 260-mile stretch of the border, from just north of Manbij in the west to the Iraqi border in the east. After the withdrawal is complete, joint Russian-Turkish military patrols will begin along a 6-mile-deep stretch of border to the west and east of the Turkish incursion.

The agreement also cements Turkish gains made in the incursion, which the Turks have dubbed “Operation Peace Spring.” This effectively cedes a rectangular piece of formerly Kurdish-held land about 75 miles wide and 20 miles deep to Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

What does this mean for the Kurds?

Analysts say the agreement is death knell for Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria. Buoyed by U.S. military backing, the Syrian Kurds had built a fragile democracy comprising self-governing subregions, called Rojava, which up until two weeks ago accounted for about a third of Syria.

It also likely means the violence will continue throughout northern Syria. Turkish-backed proxies, primarily composed of defectors from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army who have links to violent extremist groups, have terrorized the historically Kurdish population of the region and are reported to have committed atrocities including executing prisoners, looting villages, and freeing Islamic State prisoners, as well as allegedly using white phosphorus to target civilians. It’s unlikely that this activity will stop now that Turkey and its proxies have international approval to control the area.

Scores of Kurdish fighters and civilians have already died in Turkey’s two-week incursion, and hundreds of thousands of residents have fled their homes. More will likely be displaced, as Erdogan has vowed to resettle 2-3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, including Arabs, to traditionally Kurdish land.

A win for Turkey…

With the Sochi agreement, Erdogan got everything he could have hoped for—and more. The Turkish president has long been pushing for a 20-mile “safe zone” along the Syrian border as a buffer from the perceived terrorist threat from the YPG, which Ankara views as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, U.S. and Turkish troops had begun implementing a “security mechanism” along the border, conducting joint patrols and facilitating the removal of YPG forces from the area.

The agreement struck in Sochi is basically a significantly expanded version of the security mechanism but with Russian troops in place of U.S. forces.

…and Russia, Assad, and the Islamic State.

Turkey is just one of several players in the region that now have dramatically increased influence in northern Syria. The agreement cements Putin’s status as the main power broker in the region. Meanwhile, Assad’s army entered northeastern Syria for the first time in years.

With the United States’ abrupt withdrawal, the Kurds essentially had no choice but to go to the regime and Moscow on their knees asking for protection from the Turkish incursion. This puts them in a much weaker position to negotiate a settlement granting them any amount of autonomy in northeastern Syria. Assad—and his Russian and Iranian backers—will likely push to assert more control in the region, essentially returning it to the status quo before the civil war began.

The Turkish incursion has also given Islamic State militants a chance to escape and regroup and opened the door for other violent extremist organizations to exert influence. The Turkish-backed proxies now controlling a large chunk of northeastern Syria have ties to the former Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, and other groups.

“The only people who benefit from more violence and more chaos are America’s adversaries: Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, the terror-sponsoring dictatorship in Iran, and Islamist extremists in the area and around the world, as shown by the deal that Erdogan struck yesterday with Putin,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a hearing on Wednesday not-so-subtly titled “The Betrayal of Our Syrian Kurdish Partners: How Will American Foreign Policy and Leadership Recover?”

 The American response

Trump announced on Wednesday that he would lift sanctions on Turkey after securing a commitment from Ankara that the cease-fire brokered last week would become permanent. The U.S. sanctions targeted senior Turkish government officials but appeared to have little effect on Ankara, with Erdogan moving forward with his country’s offensive against Syrian Kurds anyway.

Trump said he was open to reimposing the sanctions but did not make clear the circumstances under which he would do so. “The sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we’re not happy with,” Trump said.

A cease-fire negotiated last week by Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to have tamped down fighting in northern Syria somewhat, but Kurdish fighters there accused Turkish forces of widespread violations of the U.S.-brokered deal. On Wednesday, Trump claimed the deal had held, despite significant evidence to the contrary.

Trump appears determined to move forward with his diplomatic initiative with Ankara in spite of Turkey’s apparent willingness to violate its pledges to halt fighting. Trump acknowledged this reality on Wednesday. “The word ‘permanent’ in that part of the world [is] somewhat questionable,” Trump said.

By removing sanctions on Turkey, Trump has eliminated one of the few remaining sources of leverage that he had retained over Ankara. Though he had vowed to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, he said a small number would remain in Syria to protect oil fields there. Trump said he’d be deciding what to do about the oil “in the future.”

What about Congress?

Members of the U.S. Congress across the aisle remain livid at Turkey for rolling into northern Syria—and some at the Trump administration for giving a tacit green light to the operation.

The White House still faces a possible confrontation with Congress over the issue of Turkish sanctions. A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Trump’s primary defender in the Senate, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, has introduced a package of measures that would impose wide-ranging financial restrictions on Turkish government officials and the country’s military.

The future of that legislation remains unclear, but Trump’s moves in Syria have created significant opposition within his own party, at a moment of immense political weakness for the president as he faces down an impeachment inquiry.

“I am worried that a full withdrawal will create space for ISIS to regroup, grow, and gain more strength,” McCaul said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “What kind of signal does it send to the international community that the United States will turn our back on allies who suffered so much? We cannot achieve our goals on the world stage if we undermine our credibility.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Tag: Syria