Is it OK to say thank God for Russia?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 20, 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting in Ankara, September 16.

A good friend? Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting in Ankara, September 16. (Reuters)

Longer-term, Russia’s return to relevance on the world stage will create other testing issues.

Is this the time to give limited thanks that Russian President Vladimir Putin made Russia relevant again? That’s a controversial question but it’s pertinent now that Russia and Turkey are the only active international armies in northern Syria.

Never mind the 120-hour “ceasefire” negotiated with Turkey by the Americans. US President Donald Trump may call it a “great day for civilisation” but it is a very temporary pause, the terms are unclear and half of those in the area — the Syrian government and Russia — are not part of the US deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

More to the point, Turkey and the Kurds understand the agreement very differently. Ankara sees the ceasefire as a chance for the Kurds to clear out of its self-declared “safe zone” in Syria; the Kurds say they will only cease fighting in two areas.

When Erdogan goes to Russia October 22, that’s when the real deal will be struck.

Until October 15, all talk was about a looming humanitarian disaster in northern Syria. It had been six days since Turkey’s move into Kurdish-controlled territory after Trump green-lighted the action during a phone call with Erdogan and disparate estimates were being tossed around of the desperation on the ground.

More than 150,000 civilians were said to be fleeing Turkish air strikes. Aid agencies warned that the Kurdish-governed, hitherto relatively safe, reasonably autonomous part of Syria was roiled by violence and uncertainty, as well as incipient medicine, food and water shortages. On October 18, the Times in London, reported that white phosphorus, a banned chemical, may have used on Kurdish civilians.

More to the point, even before Turkey began its incursion on October 9, with the promise of liberating the area of “terrorists” and creating a safe zone within which to relocate Syrian refugees from Turkey, there were fears of a bloodbath. Military officials who had served in the region and analysts who had studied it forecast a massacre. The Syrian Kurds, everyone agreed, faced an existential crisis, having been abandoned by Trump’s America to a determined Turkish Army.

Then the Russians moved in. The Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement that its military police was patrolling “the north-western borders of Manbij district along the line of contact of the Syrian Arab Republic military and the Turkish military.” A spokesman for the US-led coalition said on Twitter that its forces had left the formerly Kurdish-held town of Manbij. “Coalition forces are executing a deliberate withdrawal from north-east Syria,” US Army Colonel Myles B. Caggins wrote. “We are out of Manbij.”

The takeaways were obvious. Russia and Turkey were soon to be the only international armies in the area. Considering the Turks’ stated intentions towards the Kurds, it seemed right and proper to be at least somewhat glad that the Russians were around as well.

With the abrupt departure of the United States — admittedly a small contingent of 1,000, just half of what it was in December — the only sense of some sort of supervisory presence came from Russia. Cue its special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, who offered assurance that Russia and Turkey were in contact to prevent clashes between Syrian government troops and Turkish-led forces.

That message — of vigilant oversight — was also stressed by the Kremlin. It provided information about a phone conversation between Putin and Erdogan, during which the Russian president pointed out the importance of “avoiding conflict between subdivisions of the Turkish Army and Syrian government forces.” The Russians also said they were facilitating talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the Kurdish militia.

What’s in prospect was clear even before recent events. The United States’ uneasy shouldering of responsibility in the 8-year-old conflict in Syria has decisively shifted to Russia and Trump is sanguine about the turn of events. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China or Napoleon Bonaparte,” Trump tweeted.

It couldn’t be Bonaparte and it isn’t China but Russia stands as the only good friend or at least interlocutor in the region — for the Syrian Kurds, for Moscow’s long-time protege Assad, of course, and perchance for Turkey, too.

This may mean a major advance in Putin’s attempts to restore Assad’s control over all of Syria, especially the oil-rich north-east, said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert.

There is also the chance of a potential, if controversial, solution to Moscow’s attempt to draw a post-conflict road map for Syria. The Kurds’ alliance with the United States prevented negotiations with Damascus. Now, that process has begun and the Kurds can be included in the stalled Russian process aimed at drawing up a new Syrian constitution.

It’s not clear any of this will work. Russia may find the additional responsibility for the larger conflict onerous or even ruinous. Trump may have intuitively got it right when he predicted that Syria may prove to be another Afghanistan for Russia. The former Soviet Union is now called Russia because it “lost so much money in Afghanistan,” he said.

Longer term, Russia’s return to relevance on the world stage will create other testing issues. That said, right now, it’s rather better it has risen again than not.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly