Russia strives to assert primacy, rein in Turkish ambitions in Syria

The withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops raises the question of which power will take over once the United States leaves.

ISTANBUL - Russia seems determined to assert its position as the strongest political and military player in Syria while local and international powers scramble to fill the expected vacuum after the planned US withdrawal from the country.

With the US and Kurdish allies controlling approximately 25% of north-eastern Syria, the withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops raises the question of which power will take over once the United States leaves.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers of his ruling party that he raised the possible creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria in a phone call with US President Donald Trump. Erdogan spoke of a “safe area along the Turkish border in Syria, to be set up by us” and said Trump had spoken of a zone with a depth of 30km.

Turkey sees the plan as a way to push Kurdish militants back from the border. A buffer zone would give Turkey a strong position in any negotiations about post-war Syria.

Russia is leaving no doubts, however, as to who should have primacy in Syria. The January 23 meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to highlight Moscow’s strong reservations about Turkey’s manoeuvres.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the Kremlin expected the Syrian government to take over territory in eastern Syria following the US withdrawal. He asserted it was necessary to fully restore Syria’s sovereignty, adding that Turkey’s plan to create a buffer zone should be seen in that context.

By sending military police to the area west of Manbij in northern Syria, Moscow made it clear that Russia does not intend to give Turkey a free hand in the region, said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian-Turkish relations.

The deployment demonstrated “that Russia opts [for] its own presence to avert Turkish demands for a military advancement,” Has said via e-mail.

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said Erdogan felt emboldened by the US withdrawal plan and was trying to determine whether Russia or the United States would be a better partner to implement the project.

“Moscow is trying to lure Ankara by offering a Syrian regime-controlled safe zone that takes into consideration Turkish interests but Erdogan seems more interested in a deal with Trump, which seems unlikely in the foreseeable future,” Macaron said in an e-mail message.

As a result, Erdogan’s plan could lead to nothing, he added. “Establishing a safe zone in northern Syria remains improbable as the devil is in the details of implementing it,” Macaron said.

Other important players voiced reservations about a Turkey-controlled buffer zone. The government in Damascus vowed “to defend its people and the sanctity of its land against any kind of aggression or occupation, including the Turkish occupation of Syrian lands,” said a Foreign Ministry source quoted by the state news agency SANA.

Ankara has been pressing for a “safe zone” in Syria for years. Turkey regards the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia and a US partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), as a terrorist organisation. The YPG has created an autonomous region along the Syrian border to Turkey that Erdogan says is a threat to Turkish national security.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the YPG’s political mother organisation, also rejected Erdogan’s plan. “A safe area under the auspices of Turkey in northern Syria is tantamount to a declaration of genocide against the Kurdish people,” the PYD said on Twitter.

Ankara’s calculations have been further complicated by a suicide attack, claimed by ISIS, in which as many as 20 people, including four US service personnel, were killed. The attack in Manbij could slow the US withdrawal because it demonstrated that ISIS has not been defeated, despite Trump’s statement to the contrary.

Turkey’s hand has been weakened by developments in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, where al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham tightened its grip despite a pledge by Turkey to expel extremists from there.

“For now, Moscow is still keeping its position of eliminating the terror groups in the region by the help of Turkish army and its proxies,” Has said. “However, this attitude may shift to supporting a regime offensive in Idlib if a serious disagreement appears between Turkey and Russia on the issue of Turkish Army’s advancement in north-eastern Syria.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.