Putin and Erdogan’s Deal for Syria Can’t Last
Since neither leader can enforce the terms, the country’s war will wear on.
It has been a busy two weeks of deal-making over Syria, culminating in a triumphant summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi last Tuesday. But will the new Turkish-Russian agreement last? After eight years of bloody war in Syria, Moscow and Ankara are celebrating their 10-point deal as the beginning of the end. But the deal will only hold if the other participants in Syria’s civil war agree to act according to Putin and Erdogan’s plan.
So what have Russia and Turkey actually agreed to? From the 10 points of their official deal, several conclusions stand out. First, Turkey agreed to halt its invasion into Syrian territory, and it will seize less Syrian territory than the 20-mile-deep “safe zone” that it originally declared it would establish in Kurdish-held territory. Second, Russia will work with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces to push the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) back from the Turkish-Syrian border, thereby addressing some of Turkey’s security concerns. Third, Russia and Turkey will conduct joint military patrols within Syrian territory along a substantial chunk of the border. If the deal is implemented as designed, it will strengthen Syrian government control and diminish the power of the YPG, Turkey’s main concern.
It is unclear, though, whether the deal will hold. Turkey and Russia may be committed, but it is unlikely that the other combatants will abide by the deal. Start with the Kurds. A key facet of the Putin-Erdogan negotiations was that “all YPG elements and their weapons will be removed” from certain areas and that “both sides will take necessary measures to prevent infiltrations of terrorist elements.” Surely, the YPG, which makes up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces, has no choice but to comply in the short term. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw pulled the rug out from under YPG leaders, and they in turn have retreated away from part of the border.
If the force is disbanded, someone will have to do the disbanding. Russia, even after it deploys its troops for the promised “joint patrols,” will not have the forces needed for a sustained campaign against the YPG. Nor does Russia have much interest in reducing the Kurds’ fighting power. Perhaps Assad has the capability of pressuring the YPG to disarm. But he is unlikely to be willing. It would make little sense to use scarce resources putting down Ankara’s primary rival at a time when Turkey and Syria are still at odds over many other issues.
Ankara is therefore wrong to think that the Syrian Kurdish question is closed. True, the joint patrols envisaged by the Putin-Erdogan accord could keep YPG units away from the border. But as Turkey well knows, holding territory with an organized army is not the only way that Kurdish militias can wage war. Ankara’s decades-long struggle against the YPG-affiliated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has mostly been a conflict of guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks. The PKK regularly launches bomb attacks in Turkey, and Ankara responds with raids on PKK hideouts in the mountains of northern Iraq. Even if Turkey, Russia, and Syria succeed in suppressing the YPG’s organized units in Syria, the Kurdish groups are less likely to surrender than adopt the PKK’s guerrilla tactics. If Kurdish militias keep fighting, Turkey will return to threats of force to secure its interests.
The YPG is not, of course, the only party affected by the Putin-Erdogan deal. Assad’s assent is also crucial if the deal is to hold. Ankara is optimistic that Russia will force the Syrian government to agree to its terms, on the grounds that Assad is a Russian client. Moscow, however, increasingly grumbles that the Syrian government is a difficult partner to work with. Assad has already received the greatest gift Russia can offer: saving his regime. Yet that work is done. Russia is now trying to collect on its debt by pressuring Assad to compromise with his rivals. But today Damascus has less need of Russian help than at any point since the war began, since the opposition is in tatters. To be sure, Assad has no hope of retaining control over all his territory without the Kremlin’s support. But he could retain most of it, including the biggest cities, even if Russia left tomorrow. Russia’s leverage over Syria—and its ability to squeeze compromises out of Assad—is therefore declining.
There is an obvious contradiction in a deal to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity negotiated by two external powers without the involvement of Syria’s government. When Ankara says it supports territorial integrity, it means that it wants Syria to be de jure unified—but for Turkey to have a de facto sphere of influence along the Syrian border and the right to guarantee that Kurdish fighters do not use this territory as a staging ground for attacks on Turkey. The Putin-Erdogan deal referenced the 1998 Syria-Turkey Adana agreement, through which the Syrian government promised not to harbor PKK fighters. Turkey secured the 1998 deal only by threatening to invade Syria. That is a very specific definition of supporting Syria’s “territorial integrity.”
For now, Assad will welcome the Putin-Erdogan agreement for preventing a broader Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. But the Syrian regime is unlikely to give up its push to retake the Idlib region in northwestern Syria, which is currently held by a mix of militias. Turkey sees Idlib as part of its sphere of influence and worries that a Syrian assault on the region will send a wave of refugees fleeing into Turkey. But with a cease-fire in place in Syria’s northeast, Assad now has every incentive to ramp up pressure on Idlib.
It is possible, of course, that a combination of deft Russian diplomacy and other parties’ exhaustion could encourage concessions from all sides. But the past eight years of conflict suggest the opposite. Assad thinks he is winning. Turkey thinks its threats have won concessions. The YPG is on the back foot but is unlikely to give up. All sides think they can improve their position with further fighting. Trump’s withdrawal may have changed the balance of power in Syria, but the Putin-Erdogan deal that resulted is unlikely to end the war.