By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay
Amid a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the Turkish-Syrian border, and tensions between the Turkish military and US-allied Syrian-Kurdish fighters, Moscow’s role is a matter of debate. Russia, a major player in Syria, supports President Bashar Assad’s regime, while Turkey supports rebels opposed to him.
Although the Kremlin says Turkey has the right to defend itself, its spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated on Monday that Syria’s territorial integrity should be preserved and that all foreign troops “with an illegal presence” must leave the country.
If US troops fully withdraw from northeast Syria, Russia will likely support attempts by the Assad regime to regain control of parts of the region that are not seized by Turkey.
Some experts say Turkey’s threatened military operation against Syrian Kurds may pave the way for a Russian-brokered deal between Damascus, Turkey and the Kurds.
“President Vladimir Putin clearly expressed several times that Russia understands Turkish security concerns in northeast Syria, thus Moscow isn’t against Ankara’s plans to create a buffer zone,” Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.
Khlebnikov said Moscow might expect that this situation could make Syrian Kurds more amenable to talks with Damascus. He added that the situation in northeast Syria should be viewed together with the issue of Idlib province in the northwest.
Russia and Turkey are co-guarantors of the “de-escalation zone” in Idlib, where the withdrawal of extremist organizations has still not been fully achieved.
“It seems there’s a certain agreement between Putin and (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan that envisages a sort of swap: Damascus and Russia get a bigger part of Idlib … in exchange for not objecting to a Turkish operation in northeast Syria,” Khlebnikov said. “This way, Russian-Turkish cooperation on Syria isn’t threatened.”
Khlebnikov added that Russia can be a broker between Syrian Kurds and Damascus, and between Damascus and Ankara.
“However, it isn’t clear whether US forces will be completely pulled out of the country. With the US staying in Syria, any further development of the situation will be blocked,” he said.
Erdogan and US President Donald Trump are set to meet on Nov. 13 to discuss Syria, among other issues.
Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russian-Turkish relations, said Moscow prefers that US troops completely withdraw and that the Assad regime takes over northeast Syria.
“However, it seems unrealistic in the short term, despite Trump’s efforts and recent announcement about bringing American soldiers in Syria back home,” Has told Arab News.
He added that turning a blind eye to a Turkish offensive in northeast Syria might play into the Kremlin’s hands. “Firstly, it may deepen the US-Turkish security crisis after Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems,” he said. “If the rift between Washington and Ankara broadens, Moscow may realistically aim to increase Turkey’s dependence on Russia in military-technical cooperation by selling its Su-type warplanes or other kinds of arms.”
Secondly, Has said, Turkey’s involvement in northeast Syria may push the Kurds to reach a deal with Damascus. “If this happens, Russia will have to play the role of broker between the Kurds and the Assad regime,” he added.
“Thirdly, Moscow’s long-term aim of Damascus seizing Idlib may be achieved more easily since Turkey could transfer the armed opposition and radical jihadist groups from there to northeast Syria.”
But Russia’s hands-off approach to a possible Turkish incursion may change if the situation risks escalating beyond its control, Has said.