As the ramifications of President Trump’s announcement of US troop withdrawal from Syria unfolded, Russian efforts were focussed on protecting the framework it had painstakingly built to further its interests in and around Syria. At its core was the Astana process, balancing the divergent interests of Russia, Iran and Turkey, while keeping the Syrian government’s interests adequately protected. It also included the combination of political, economic and military levers with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and Israel to ensure that, even while working at cross-purposes in pursuit of their interests, they did not rock the boat beyond a point.
President Trump’s senior advisors persuaded him that the 30-day deadline he had first announced was not sufficient for an orderly withdrawal of American troops and equipment and securing American interests in Syria. Senior Administration representatives thereafter spelt out various conditions for withdrawal, including protection of Kurdish gains and elimination of Iranian influence. President Trump himself said the US would continue fighting ISIS in Syria and “keep a watch on Iran” with forces stationed in Iraq. His tweet on President Erdogan’s assurance that Turkey would eliminate the remnants of ISIS from Syria drew the reaction from President Erdogan that Turkey would militarily intervene in Northern Syria to ensure that terrorists – both ISIS and the Kurdish militia unit YPG -did not occupy the vacuum created by American withdrawal. President Trump responded with a warning that the US would “devastate Turkey economically”, if it attacked the Kurds. He suggested (echoing an Erdogan proposal of 2013) a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border, extending up to 32 km, to meet Turkey’s security concerns. Turkey’s desire to establish and militarily police this safe zone did not find endorsement from other actors in the region.
Multiple Turkish-American interactions at high political and military levels indicated that the US may be seeking a solution that meets Turkey’s concerns and furthers the US agenda of destroying ISIS and keeping Iranian influence at bay. American strategic analysts supported the idea of Turkey militarily securing the safe zone, with American air cover. This would effectively dismantle the Astana process and bring Turkey firmly back into the NATO camp.
Russia moved to prevent this drastic transformation of the ground situation. As already reported (Review, 12/18), it brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and the Kurds, who chose the lesser evil of inviting the Syrian Army to the border areas surrounding Manbij, even before western troops had moved out. It stated that territory vacated by the western forces should legitimately be occupied by Syrian government forces and that Turkey’s security interests would be fully protected by an accommodation between the Kurdish groups and the Syrian government for an autonomous Kurdish region in a united Syria. It also urged Turkey that its priority should be ridding the Syrian province of Idlib of extremist groups, as agreed between President Putin and President Erdogan in September 2018 (Review, 09/18). Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in a media interaction that 70% of the province was now under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor of Jabhat al Nusra.
A summit meeting in Moscow between President Putin and President Erdogan on January 23 sought to clear the air of any potential misunderstanding of their respective perspectives. The two Presidents expressed unanimity of views on the Syrian political process, supporting the Astana process and calling for early establishment of a Syrian Constitutional Committee on the basis of the Astana trio’s recommendations (President Putin complimented President Erdogan on his valuable contribution in this). They agreed on joint measures, worked out by their Defence Ministries, to eliminate the terrorist threat from Idlib. They agreed that the Syrian government should negotiate with Kurdish representatives to “consolidate” Syrian society, in the interest of Syria and its neighbouring countries. President Erdogan specifically endorsed the Russian approach to the safe zone.
Simultaneously with these efforts, Russian FM Lavrov was in touch with the new UN Special Envoy for Syria and President Putin worked the telephone lines with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron to seek their cooperation in furthering the Syrian political process by early convening of the Constitutional Committee. It was reported that the French and German leaders supported this and also that the French Foreign Minister told FM Lavrov that the “small group” on Syria (US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and the Astana process should find “common denominators”. This is déjà vu. The same countries had earlier pushed the Astana three to finalize an agreed list for the Constitutional Committee, challenging them to do so by end-2018, but when did deliver the list, the UK, French and German representatives requested the then UN Special Envoy not to proceed on it (as per President Putin’s disclosure at his press conference with President Erdogan). As for coordination between the “small group” and the Astana process, President Macron had suggested this to President Putin as far back as in May 2018, but the US had firmly squashed the idea (see Review 5/18 & 8/18).
There may therefore be many more twists in the Syrian scenario. Turkey’s course will be pivotal. For Russia, as it faces increasing pressure from an advancing NATO on its western flank (including in the Black Sea), keeping Turkey onside is a priority, for more than its interests in Syria. The economic stakes have also now become significant for both countries in the present state of their economies: bilateral trade of US$ 26 billion and growing, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant being built by the Russians, the Turkstream project (twin gas pipelines under the Black Sea to carry 15.75 bcm of natural gas each) and 6 million annual Russian tourists in Turkey. The US may continue to look for a withdrawal scenario in which encouragement of Turkey’s regional ambitions can persuade it to return to the NATO fold, work to counter Iranian influence and thwart Russia’s game plan. Meanwhile, Turkey has to weigh its political ambitions, whetted by the Khashoggi murder fallout and US withdrawal from Syria, against the unpredictability of President Trump’s policies and the possible economic and military consequences of acting against Russian interests in the region.
January 30, 2019