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Russia Is the Only Winner in Syria
With Washington’s policy in chaos and Erdogan moving into Putin’s orbit, Moscow has come out on top.
ANKARA, Turkey—The current Syria crisis has a number of losers and one big winner: Russia. While President Donald Trump came under fire at home and abroad for abruptly pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, Turkey invaded, resulting in the deaths of at least 250 Kurds and displacing 300,000. Russia, on the other hand, has leveraged its influence with Ankara and Damascus to emerge as kingmaker.
On Oct. 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement to expel the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from northern Syria. Russian and Turkish troops will jointly patrol a strip of Syria near the border. Under a previous agreement, the Kurds will also join the Syrian army’s 5th Corps, which includes foreign volunteers and is controlled by Russia.
Then, in a reversal of policy, the Trump administration announced it would send some 500 U.S. troops to protect Syria’s oil fields from future Islamic State attacks. In reality, Trump seeks to use control of the oil as leverage against the Syrian government. Damascus and Moscow denounced the move as a violation of international law since the oil fields are in Syrian territory.
“What Washington is doing now—the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control—is, quite simply, international state banditry,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.
On the other hand, the Turkish government is pleased with the redeployment of U.S. troops because, if carried out, it will quickly remove the SDF from northern Syria, the stated goal of Erdogan’s invasion. But what if the SDF refuses to cooperate? “Russia will be the guarantor,” said Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s MEF University. “Russia’s role is crucial.”
Russia also issued a threat. If the Kurds don’t move, Russian troops will pull back, and Turkish forces will “maul” the Kurds, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned.
Turkey has long clashed with the United States on a number of foreign-policy issues, including the Iraq War, Iran, Israel, and the Kurds. But after the Arab Spring uprising in Syria, Ankara and Washington shared a common goal: backing armed rebels determined to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The rebels failed to gain popular support and went into decline, particularly after the 2015 Russian military intervention in support of Assad. When it became clear that Assad would remain in power, Erdogan shifted course and participated in the Russian-sponsored peace talks in Kazakhstan.
Relations frayed further when many Turks became convinced of U.S. complicity in a 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan. The Turkish government accuses Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader living in exile in the United States, of planning the coup. Add to the mix that the United States has lost every recent war in the region: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Erdogan calculated that while U.S. power was weakening, Russia could offer a counterweight.
Russia’s resurgence in the region comes as Turkey, long a NATO member and Western ally, is realigning—and appears to be tilting toward Russia. Turkey purchased and recently took delivery of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which caused outrage in Washington. The first part of a new Russia-Turkey natural gas pipeline is complete, and Russia plans to build four nuclear power plants in Turkey.
Russia, like the United States, pursues its own economic and military interests in the Middle East. Both powers promote highly profitable sales by their respective arms manufacturers. Both seek to control oil prices, with Russia selling to countries such as Turkey and Israel, while the United States is buying from Gulf countries. And both are apparently willing to throw Kurds under the bus when necessary to ally with the powerful and geostrategically important government in Ankara.
Russia’s most recent role as a key power broker began with an Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Erdogan. When informed of Turkey’s plan to invade, instead of expressing angry indignation, Trump agreed to pull 50 U.S. troops back from the Turkish-Syrian border. That effectively provided a green light for the invasion.
On Oct. 9, Turkish and Syrian mercenary troops stormed across the border and besieged several predominantly Kurdish cities. Erdogan had publicly announced plans to move 2 million Syrian Arab refugees living in Turkey to a “safe zone” carved out of northern Syria. Turkish-trained extremist militias may have already committed war crimes, beating and killing captured prisoners, according to Amnesty International and other observers.
“There will be ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people from Syria,” Mazloum Abdi, the military leader of the SDF, told the New York Times. Then, in a surprise move, the SDF made a quick deal with Moscow and Damascus. Syria’s army and Russian troops quickly deployed north.
The SDF calculated that their presence would deter further Turkish incursion. The SDF hopes that Damascus will negotiate a political settlement allowing for Kurdish autonomy within the Syrian state, although historically Assad has refused such demands.
The Russian army boasted of its critical role. “When the Russian flag appears, combat stops—neither Turks nor Kurds want to harm us, so fighting stops thanks to our work,” a Russian officer told the Tass news agency. That was a role once played by the United States. But U.S. power has slowly dwindled in the region.
On Oct. 28, U.S. special operations forces attacked a compound in northwestern Syria, resulting in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While it represents a tactical victory, his death is unlikely to change power dynamics in the region. Trump has managed to destroy U.S. credibility, anger allies, and embolden enemies—all without actually bringing U.S. soldiers home as promised in his 2016 presidential campaign.
Russia, on the other hand, has played its cards well. Today Russia provides a significant portion of Turkey’s energy needs and sends 6-7 million tourists a year to Turkey. In addition to the sale of advanced missiles, Turkey is considering purchase of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-57 and Su-35 fighter jets.
Washington strongly objects to Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons. NATO’s munitions systems are highly coordinated among member nations and subject to strict secrecy. The Trump administration argues that Russian military advisors stationed in Turkey to operate the S-400 system could gather intelligence about NATO equipment. Of course, U.S. spies would have access to the S-400, too.
Nevertheless, when Turkey took delivery of the S-400, the United States canceled plans to sell Ankara F-35 advanced fighter jets. Turkey’s invasion of Syria has further complicated relations with Washington and widened the path for Moscow’s influence.
“Vladimir Putin is a major player,” Kibaroglu said. “What’s wrong with being on good terms with such a guy?” However, this newly minted Russia-Turkey alliance remains controversial within Turkey.
Bad U.S. policies don’t justify building an alliance with Russia, said Faruk Logoglu, who served as the Turkish ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2005 and is a former parliamentary leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party. Buying Russian missiles was a terrible idea, he told Foreign Policy. “Russia is our archenemy. The purchase raises questions of Turkey’s commitment to NATO.”
He admits that Russia has navigated the troubled waters of Syria with great skill, however. But it’s not clear what role it will play in the months ahead. Arranging a cease-fire is only the first step. Finding a political solution among the fiercely competing armed groups in Syria is another matter. “The great reckoning for all actors will come in the day after, if and when the Turkish operation militarily comes to an end,” Logoglu said.
Erdogan’s supporters argue that Turkey’s tilt toward Russia represents a hedge against future foreign-policy conflicts with the United States. Kibaroglu notes that Erdogan still has good personal relations with both Trump and Putin. “The same day he talks on the phone with Trump, he shakes hands with Putin. This is the new world,” he said.
Today’s Russia is not the old Soviet Union, he added. “We’re not living in a world of ideological confrontation,” Kibaroglu argued. “That’s been over for 20 years already. Today, Turkey pursues its interests.”