Checkpoint Asia

Russia Forces Turkey Into a Syria Agreement the US Wouldn’t

Moscow rises up to the occasion where Trump dropped the ball

The key points of the Putin-Erdogan Sochi agreement:

  1. Turkey gets to keep the little territory its offensive has taken so far
  2. Turks will patrol Syria’s border areas but only up to the depth of 10km and only as part of joint Russian-Turkish patrols
  3. The Kurdish YPG militia will retreat 32 kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border

That Turkey would for now get to keep what it has already conquered was always a given. The Russians aren’t interested in a war with them, the Syrians are not strong enough to evict them on their own, and Erdogan isn’t going to lose face by giving up voluntarily what has been paid for with the lives of some of his soldiers and mercenaries.

The more important part is that Russia has now forced Erdogan to abandon his ambition of an occupation zone 32 kilometers deep and 444 kilometers wide. Turkey gains nothing remotely similar to that. It can participate in joint patrols with Russia (ie no permanent presence) up to the depth of 10 kilometers, which is only slightly more than the 5 kilometers it was allowed to penetrate into Syria in “hot pursuit” of PKK under the 1998 Adana Agreement with Damascus.

The point that makes or breaks all of this is that the YPG has to withdraw 32 kilometers from the border. That means Kurdish fighters are required to leave around one half of their communities behind and count on the Russians and the Syrian government to protect them for them. It’s a big ask but seeing they aren’t able to stop Turkey on their own I don’t see that they have a choice.

Also once Trump five days ago signed under the Turkish demand for a 32 kilometer withdrawal of the US-backed YPG, Putin — who was never their backer, but of the Syrian government — could have scarcely done less. The difference is that Putin, unlike Trump, did not agree that the Kurdish withdrawal be followed by a Turkish-Islamist takeover.

In reality the Russian-Turkish deal is very similar to what the Pentagon was working on with the Turks before Trump — directly after a phone call with Erdogan — ordered the US military out and invited the Turks in.

One other complicating factor for the success of the deal is that the Kremlin is saying if the YPG does not retreat then Russians will not militarily stand in the way of renewed Turkish offensive. However Assad has publicly said (as he has to) that Damascus will back and fight alongside any group willing to stand up to Turkey’s land grab (albeit this was said prior to the deal in Sochi and perhaps as pressure on Erdogan to make a deal with Putin.) Theoretically the YPG could put off the withdrawal and force Assad to make good on his vow and try to rebuff the Turkish offensive alongside the Syrian army, but it would be a foolish thing to do since a Russian great power guarantee at this point offers more security than the joint force of depleted Syrian-Kurdish arms.

Damascus does not like either the Turkish invasion or the Turkish-Russian deal, however, if the Turkish invasion got rid of the Americans, and Moscow’s diplomatic intervention contains the Turks, then that is a small price to pay for on the whole a radically improved outlook for reintegrating the north-east under the Syrian state.

Another very interesting issue if Russia can deliver on the agreed YPG withdrawal from the border, is what are the implications for the Astana Agreement on Idlib? Recall that under that deal Turkey agreed Al-Qaeda (HTS) would withdraw 15 kilometers from the contact line with the Syrian army but this never happened. If the Russians secure a YGP withdrawal in the northeast, but Turkey still does not secure a HTS withdrawal in Idlib, will Putin then finally give Assad the green light for a general offensive on the Islamist formations there?

Turkey’s recent gains in blue