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Putin emerges as the Tsar of Syria following US military withdrawal and Turkey’s onslaught against the Kurds

31 October, 2019

Nova Daban – Research Assistant

Huge military and geopolitical events have taken place in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s policy shift on 6 October, when the White House released a statement announcing the withdrawal of US military troops following a phone call with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan had earlier made clear his intentions to conduct a military offensive (dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’) against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US ally in the fight against ISIS – an operation that Trump showed no interest in getting involved with. The consequence of this was a violent invasion of Kurdish-held northeast Syria (known as Rojava) by Turkey and its radical Islamist proxy groups called the ‘Syrian National Army’. The United Nations has claimed that close to 180,000 people have been displaced since, 80,000 of them being children, although the Syria Observatory for Human Rights puts the number of displaced at 300,000. Turkey’s onslaught against the SDF received international condemnation, namely from the EU, Israel and the Arab League. The US House of Representatives vote also condemned Trump’s withdrawal, 354-60, well above a supermajority. Following eight days of a Turkish assault from 9-17 October, which left ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kurds (including Yezidis) and Assyrian Christians particularly vulnerable, a five day ceasefire agreement was reached between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the SDF complying. Following the expiration of the ceasefire, Erdogan and the Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal on 22 October, again with the SDF complying, which allowed the introduction of Russian troops into Kurdish controlled-areas and the removal of the SDF from the border along with Turkey, strengthening Russia’s hand in Syria and the region.

The decision by the White House to withdraw military stations shocked commanders from the SDF, who only as recently as this month destroyed their defence fortifications along the border on the request of the United States to implement a multilateral security mechanism (or “Safe Zone”) across the border. After losing 11,000 fighters in the conflict against ISIS, including in Arab areas, they were abandoned at a moment’s notice. Getting out of “endless wars” in the Middle East was cited by the US government as the reason behind the move, but this has in effect only caused more conflict. The actions of Trump were condemned not only by those opposing his administration, but by those seen as part of his wider circle, such as Lindsey Graham, who reached a bipartisan agreement in the US Senate that includes sanctions against Turkey. Trump would eventually impose these sanctions, but they were lifted again after Ankara’s deal with Russia. Brett McGurk, who served as the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition against ISIS from 2015 until December of last year, also heavily criticised Trump’s decision, claiming he was “Not a Commander-in-Chief”. Despite Erdogan threatening to send 3.6m refugees to Europe, nine countries in the EU; Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK have all – along with Canada – announced they were halting or restricting arms export licence approvals for Turkey.

Erdogan, emboldened by Trump’s decision, began his onslaught against the SDF, in the name of fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels and creating a “Safe Zone”. His plans to move Syrian Arab refugees into this zone was condemned as a form of ethnic cleansing by the Kurds. The actions of Turkey and it’s radical Islamist proxies alongside the border with Syria have even led to the cold-blooded murders of a number of Kurdish civilians. The most brazen was that of a female politician, Hevrin Khalaf, executed on video by her captors. The Pentagon has also claimed that Turkey “appears to be committing war crimes”, and said that US special forces were targeted. A number of other videos on social media have emerged of radical Islamists, who were mostly previously members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, abusing the corpses of dead Kurdish fighters, both male and female. Other war crimes such as the use of White Phosphorous and Napalm were also reported, with Kurdish civilians and fighters being mainly targeted. Mohammed Hamid, a 13-year-old Syrian Kurd from Ras al-Ayn (Serê Kaniyê), also suffered burns due to a chemical weapon attack, and was flown to France for treatment from the neighbouring Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Turkey’s airstrikes also allowed the release of extremists with links to ISIS, with nearly 800 escaping Ain al-Issa camp. Jeff Jeffrey, who now serves as the US Special Envoy to Syria, confirmed that over 100 ISIS fighters are missing from prisons following Turkey’s offensive. This instilled fear among the local population, namely the Kurds who are viewed by ISIS as infidels despite being majority Muslim, and religious minorities such as Yezidis and Assyrian Christians, who rightly believe that ISIS intends to annihilate them from their homeland.

Following days of sustained Turkish bombardment in northeast Syria, the SDF brokered an agreement with the Syrian regime, which saw the re-entry of state forces across the border to repel Turkey’s onslaught. This was a last resort following Trump’s military withdrawal. Furthermore, in an additional blow to US influence in Syria, Turkey’s recent agreement with Russia sees the latter take the role of the US in implementing a “Safe Zone” in the northeast of Syria. Turkey has also claimed it has halted its offensive against the SDF following this agreement, although the SDF claims Turkey is still violating the ceasefire. Recent developments have also meant that the SDF now seek Russian assurances as the new power broker, as proven with a recent video meeting between SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi and Russia’s Defence Minister. Fundamentally, the US has been weakened in Syria with Russia immeasurably strengthened. The events in Syria have seen a NATO member and a NATO ally at each other’s throats, with NATO adversary Russia benefiting from US non-interference, and now becoming the go-to country for political and military settlements. Germany has recently suggested a UN-sponsored safe zone in northeast Syria to NATO, but it is unclear whether this suggestion can be implemented. With the Russian-backed Syrian regime effectively winning the war against the opposition and Russia now calling the shots between Turkey and the SDF, it is fair to say that Putin is emerging as the metaphorical Tsar of Syria. Trump’s decisions, which have hurt US interests in Syria and has shown how the US is capable of abandoning an ally in the hour of need, has begun to raise questions of whether he put his personal financial interests in Turkey ahead of national interests – or indeed, if there is any logical reasoning behind his decision making process at all.

Since then, Trump has reversed part of his military withdrawal from Syria – although US officials confirmed they were only able to persuade him by talking about “securing the oilfields” in Deir ez-Zor. This, however, does not change the issues regarding the border between Turkey and Syrian Kurds as Deir ez-Zor is deep in the Arab heartland in eastern Syria. Interestingly enough, two days later, the US in collaboration with the SDF (and other partners) were able to successfully launch an operation that led to the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Idlib, an area controlled by radical Islamists on Turkey’s doorstep. The SDF’s Head of Public Relations Office, Redur Khalil, later confirmed that Turkey’s military offensive delayed the operation by one month, further proving the disastrous decision made by Trump in the first place to withdraw the US military from Kurdish-held northeast Syria. While many have highlighted that al-Baghdadi’s death will not mark the end of ISIS, it seems unlikely that this obvious fact will trigger a White House policy reversal, leaving Russia as the key regional powerbroker.

Image: Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Source: Kremlin.ru via CC BY 4.0)

About Nova Daban

Nova Daban will soon complete his MA in Global Diplomacy: Middle East and North Africa from SOAS, University of London and has an undergraduate degree in Politics and International Relations. He previously worked in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and has interned at Quilliam International, where he has contributed to the online journal. Nova’s research interests include the Middle East as a whole, with special focus on Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the greater Kurdistan region. He also has a focus on Islamism and religious radicalisation (namely in Britain and the Middle East), British current affairs, culture war, identity politics, conflict resolution, extremism and international security.