US Withdrawal from Syria: Shifting Great Power Positions

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The Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led administrations in northeast Syria resulted in Russia to emerge as the real power broker. Once the US was out of the equation in Syria following President Trump's decision to pull out, Moscow acted fast
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     Executive Summary The Turkish oensive against Kurdish - led administraons in northeast Syria resulted in Russia to emerge as the real power broker. Once the US was out of the equaon in Syria following President Trump's decision to pull out, Moscow acted fast not only to secure an agreement between the Syrian Kurds and the regime but also between the Syrian regime and Turkey. Kurds coming to terms with the Assad government will be a massive boost to the regime's outlook. Despite the widespread cricism of the Turkish invasion of Syria, by several European leaders, US Senators, policymakers, the media and the celebries, the reac-ons yet produced lile in the form of severe concrete sancons. But Turkey is facing pressure to stop its oensive not only from the West but also from Russia and Iran. With the potenal de-mise of the Kurdish - led decentralisaon project in Syria, Turkey would benet highly in strategic polical terms. However, this could increase medium level security risks in Turkey as the PKK - linked members of the Syrian Kurds could choose to cross bor-ders to focus on their armed campaign against the Turkish gov-ernment, their ulmate enemy.   CHACR Global Analysis Programme Briefing In epth About the Author Guney Yildiz Guney Yildiz is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for Inter- national and Security Affairs (SWP) and a researcher and journalist based in London with a focus on Turkey, Syria and the Kurds in the Middle East. He had advised members of the Foreign Af-  fairs Select Committee of the UK Parlia- ment, as a Specialist Adviser on Turkey. He is pursuing a PhD in Cambridge on  political mobilisation by armed non-state actors in the Middle East. As a journal- ist with the BBC News, he broke numer- ous top UK and international stories that have been picked up by other domestic and international broadcasters. Note:  The views expressed in this In Depth briefing are those of the author, and not of the CHACR or wider British Army .  The aim of the briefing is to provide a neutral platform for external researchers and experts to offer their views on critical issues. This document cannot be repro-duced or used in part or whole without the permission of the CHACR. CIRCULATION: PUBLIC ISSUE 18 OCTOBER 2019 To remove your name from our mailing list, or to receive monthly emails and occasional briefing papers from the Global Analysis Programme,  please email: ArmyStrat  - CHACR  - 0Mailbox@mod.uk Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research Robertson House, Slim Road, Camberley GU15 4NP Telephone: 01276 412708 Mil: 94261 2708    Facsimile 01276 412708 Mil 94261 2708 Image Source:  Shifting Great Power Positions in Syria    Page 2 I N  D EPTH   President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria, although o the cu, is not in-consistent with Western policy. While the United States and Europe supported the Kurdish - led Syrian Democrac Forces (SDF) militarily against the Islamic State, they never contem-plated giving them polical recognion. The Western bloc didn't push for Kurdish parcipa-on in the UN - led Geneva Process for a polical selement. And the UN - backed commiee for redraing the Syrian constuon does not include any representave from the SDF. This almost complete internaonal consensus on denying any say to the SDF in the future polical selement in Syria is in line with President Trump's so - called "o  - script moment" that followed a phone conversaon with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 6th of October, 2019. The decision is, therefore, an outcome of the broader failure in the West in devising a coherent policy to sustain the US presence in Syria in the face of opposion from Turkey.   Within a few days, the decision paved the way for an all - out Turkish aack on territories populated by the Kurds and Arabs, causing displacement of up to 200 thousand people and killing hundreds, including many civilians. Ulising its air supremacy, outnumbering and out-gunning the Kurdish ghters as well as acvang sleeper cells, Ankara took control of majori-ty - Arab town Tal Abyad within a few days. The Kurdish majority town Ras al - Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish) held o unl Turkey agreed to a ceasere nine days aer the oensive, under a US - brokered deal on the 17th of October. US and Russian Mediation Efforts President Donald Trump said he hopes he can "mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds" aer Turkey started its long - planned military oensive against formerly US - backed SDF. By this me, with the US troops started leaving Syria and Ankara adamant about seizing the window of opportunity to grab as much land as possible in Syria, the possibility of a po-lical selement in the short term between Turkey and the Syrian - Kurdish representaves was a remote possibility. Throughout the years of US - engagement with the Kurdish led SDF in Syria, there was minimal, if any, appete to mediate between the two actors. The deal that was brokered by US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who travelled to Turkey to meet President Erdogan specically for this issue. The de facto ceasere agreement ended the hoslies between Turkey and the SDF for a curious 120 hours. Almost a week before the limited deal mediated by Washington, another, and an immensely more important agreement was signed, this me brokered by Moscow. Immedi-ately aer the US pull out was conrmed by Pentagon, Russian ocials swily moved to take control of the newly emerging reality. The Turkish oensive forced the Syrian Kurds to quickly come to terms with the Syrian government, a massive boost to the regime's polical and economic outlook. Top Kurdish ocials from Qamishli in Northern Syria told the author of this report that Russian ocials had own to Qamishli on Friday the 11th of October to negoate a deal with the Kurdish leadership of the SDF on behalf of the Syrian regime.    Page 3 I N  D EPTH   Russian ocials promised the Kurds that they will work for a deal in which Kurdish rights will be respected and that they will stop the Turkish oensive if the Kurds agree to cede control of all the border areas with to the Syrian regime. Mazloum Abdi, the Commander in Chief of the SDF, said publicly: "We would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al - Assad. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people." Once persuading the Kurds, Russians then ew the Kurdish and the Syrian government ocials to Russian - operated Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia on Sunday the 13th and had the agreement signed. President Erdogan expressed dismay about the agreement between the Syrian regime and the Kurds, saying that he doesn't "even want to entertain the possibility that such an agreement exists." He stopped short of cricising Russia for brokering the deal. The US, despite doing, what is seen as a big favour to Turkey, couldn't avoid aracng dire cricism from Erdogan. The Turkish President inially told reporters that he wouldn't meet the US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who travelled to Turkey on 17th of October, to ask to discuss the possibility of a ceasere between Turkey and the Kurds. He later changed his posion agreeing to meet both.   The Russian brokered agreement between the SDF and the Syrian regime conrms Syrian army advances into the SDF controlled territory. The agreement doesn't foresee Syrian troops to be deployed to Ras al - Ayn (Serekaniye) and Tal Abyad, where the conict is ongo-ing. The Russians told the Kurds that they would like to keep the SDF's structures and inte-grate into the 5th Corps of the Syrian army. Although the deal is only military rather than polical, a polical agreement is likely to follow. Within hours of US troops vacang their bases in areas such as Manbij, Russian military police took over. President Erdogan con-demned the potenal deal between the Kurds and the Syrian regime but stopped short of cricising Russia for brokering the agreement. The Turkish President, who connued cricis-ing the US for suggesng that Turkey should negoate a ceasere with the Kurds, agreed to travel to Moscow, to discuss the situaon with Russian President Pun. With backing from Moscow, the Syrian troops, albeit weak in force generaon and operaonal and combat discipline, has eecvely ended the possibility of Turkish incursion outside the areas that Turkey already moved in. It is therefore highly likely that Turkey's incursion will be limited to the area currently under aack. Russia will now face the diculty to keep a balance between its client, the Assad Regime and Turkey. Moscow has more scks and carrots against Turkey. The brief, tense period that followed Turkey shoong down of a Russian jet in 2015 demonstrated Ankara that it didn't have many cards against Moscow. It is highly unlikely for the Turkish military to tar-get Syrian army taking control of Syrian borders, especially when Russia backs them. Sources close to the Turkish military told the author of this paper that there is no appete among the military leadership to challenge the agreement between the SDF and Assad by directly confronng the Syrian army – especially when it is backed by Russia. Turkey's main opposion party (CHP), argues that Turkey should restore links with the Syrian regime. A Presidenal Adviser from Syria told us that there is very lile chance for Assad and Erdogan to make up again. She said that "Syrian Turkish relaons wouldn't be normalised as long as Erdogan is in power. However, trade relaons and security arrangements between the two countries, under Russian guarantee could be established before too long."    I N  D EPTH   Page 4 Russia has at least three disnct advantages over the US with regard to its mediaon eorts. First is that Moscow's leverage on its client, the Syrian government under President Bashar al Assad is much stronger than the US's leverage on Turkey. Moscow also mediates at a me the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria is not on the table. Thirdly, Kremlin successfully em-ployed Turkish oensive against the Kurdish - led administraons as strong leverage on the SDF leadership.  Turkey and the West in context of US pull out from Syria Despite the widespread cricism of the Turkish invasion of Syria, by several European leaders, US Senators, policymakers, the media and the celebries, the reacons yet produced lile in the form of severe concrete sancons. The proposed EU sancons are ed to Turkey's drilling in Eastern Mediterranean rather than the Syria oensive. The US sancons fell short of the much talked about crippling sancons that President Trump menoned. Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen, who along with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, leads the eorts for stricter sancons against Turkey objected to the limited sancons announced by Trump. Van Hollen said, "Trump's pathec "sancons" were mostly an aempt to derail congressional mo-mentum for much tougher acon." Suspension of arms sales to Turkey by several European states, likely to have a minimal eect on Turkey as Ankara produces a signicant poron of the weapons themselves thanks to massive investment into Turkish defence industry over the last decade. President Erdogan alluded to the ineecveness of the sancons by saying "We are not worried about any sancons."   The US pull out removed contradicons between Washington's Syria policy and that of Ankara but showed no sign of bringing Turkey on board with broader US or Western policies. It is un-likely that the US's withdrawal from Syria would encourage Turkey to get on board with broader US, European and NATO policies. There is no indicaon that even aer the US ending its support to the Kurdish - led SDF, Turkey will support the sancons against Iran, or will stop buying weapons from Russia that are deemed incompable with NATO defence systems. It is likely that Ankara would connue drilling acvies in disputed naval territories to the West of Cyprus. Turkey's drilling acvies in the eastern Mediterranean, which is one of the most con-tenous issues in Turkish - European relaons, has a broader support base across the Turkish establishment, including Erdogan's crics.    Addressing the root cause: Turkey’s Kurdish Problem The backbone of the SDF is formed by mainly Kurdish People's Protecon Units (YPG), which started operang in Northern Syria at least since 2012. The YPG follows the ideology and broader strategy devised by Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which iniated a campaign of armed conict against the Turkish government in 1984. The two groups maintain close links and Turkey sees the YPG as a strategic threat mostly due to its do-mesc Kurdish problem.    I N  D EPTH   Page 5 Instead of trying to address Turkey's Kurdish problem, by ulising its leverage on both Turkey and the broader Kurdish movement that includes the PKK as well as the YPG, the US tried to prove to Turkey that the PKK and the YPG are two separate enes. Washington oered to help Turkey in its ght against the PKK while at the same me militarily supporng the YPG -  a strategy ulmately failed. A senior US diplomat looks aer the Turkey le told the author of this paper, a few months before the Turkish incursion that the US has no intenon to mediate between the PKK and Turkey. The US was well - posioned to facilitate a new round of talks between Turkey's own Kurdish rebels and the Turkish government. It is interesng that the US didn't make use of its leverage on the PKK through its relaons to the YPG in Syria to at least bring the armed conict in Turkey to a halt in order to create a beer polical environment between Ankara and Washington. Such a move could also have resolved so many strategic problems that the US experiences in its relaons with the Turkish government, as well as in the context of Syria and Iraq. Instead, the US has spent over a year trying to nd temporary xes to a much broader problem.   Conclusion Abandoned by the US abruptly, the Kurds will lose their autonomy and will have to work with Russia and the regime to at least retain their land and to get protecon against Turkey. Iran, on the other hand, also has leverage on the broader Kurdish movement, primarily through their inuence over Iraq. Ankara will sll benet from the demise of the Kurdish - led decentral-isaon project in Syria. The Turkish government regarded the internaonal recognion and visibility accorded to the Kurdish - led authories as much a strategic threat as the military em-powerment of the YPG. In the medium run though, the failure of the Kurds in Syria could end up increasing security risks for Turkey as the PKK - linked cadres of the YPG are likely to move to Iraq to focus on direct armed acvies against the Turkish government, especially aer a full take over of the SDF - controlled region by the Assad government.   The main conclusions that could be drawn are, rstly, that Russia is emerging as a real power broker in the Middle East. For example, a presidenal adviser to Assad told the author of this paper: "Syrian - Turkish relaons won't be normalised as long as Erdogan is in power. However, trade relaons and security arrangements could be established under Russian guarantee be-fore too long." Russian moves in Turkey and Syria are coherent with Moscow's broader strate-gy in the region. Russia is stching itself into the fabric of the Middle East with infrastructure projects and reciprocal investments in half a dozen Arab countries. Secondly, the West cannot have both an exit from "forever wars" and the nal say in who governs where. What we see now is how, when the US withdraws from overseas commitments, regional powers like Russia and Iran are eager to rush into space. Finally, the US's moving away from military interven-onism, and broader disengagement from the Middle East requires more proacve polical engagement by Washington. The US (and Europe) should use its posion wisely to prevent conict between the allies and partners.  
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