Putin Is the New King of Syria جوناثين سباير/بوتين هو الملك الجديد في سوريا Jonathan Spyer/WSJ/October 17/2019
The U.S. withdrawal makes Russia the new arbiter of everyone’s interests, including Israel’s.
By giving Turkey a green light to invade northern Syria, the U.S. upended the balance of power in the Middle East with a single stroke. Russia is the biggest winner.
The Turkish attack, launched in conjunction with Sunni Arab Islamist groups in Syria’s north, had the predictable effect of causing Washington’s erstwhile Kurdish allies to request Bashar Assad’s assistance. Some 150,000 Kurdish civilians had already fled their homes to escape the advance of the Turkish military and its Islamist proxies.
Mr. Assad has already deployed his forces in Tal Tamr, Manbij, Tabqa and Kobani—towns formerly under the exclusive control of Kurdish forces. Details have begun to leak from the proposed deal cementing the surrender of the Syrian Kurds to Mr. Assad. The Turkish offensive continues but has made little progress. The U.S. is still extricating its forces and moving them to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Vladimir Putin is now the indispensable strategic arbiter in Syria. None of the remaining pieces on the broken chessboard can move without Mr. Putin’s hand. The Assad regime owes its survival to Moscow’s air intervention in September 2015. This reporter and others who have spent time in Damascus note the impunity with which Russian security and other personnel conduct themselves. They are effectively beyond the reach of the local authorities.
Moscow has co-opted important commanders within the Syrian security forces. The powerful and prominent Col. Soheil Hassan, commander of the Tiger Forces, is chief among them. Other than Mr. Assad himself, Col. Hassan was the only Syrian commander invited to meet with President Putin when he visited the Russian air base at Khmeimim in late 2017 to celebrate that year’s dramatic victories against Islamic State.
Russia also has its own forces embedded in the Syrian Arab Army, notably in the Fifth Assault Corps. Danny Makki, a British-Syrian analyst with contacts in the Syrian government, reported on Monday that the detail of the Assad-Kurdish agreement includes a provision for “the abolishment of the SDF”—the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces—“with all the current Kurdish forces and military groups joining the 5th Corps (Assault Legion) under Russian control.”
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what this means. The SDF consists of some 100,000 seasoned fighters. Until this week it was the sole armed force able to operate east of the Euphrates. Since late 2015, when U.S. Special Forces helped to midwife the alliance, the SDF’s constituent parts—the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as Assyrian Christian forces and Arab tribal militias—have fought under a single banner. In the victorious campaign to retake territory from Islamic State, the SDF has been the decisive actor and the U.S. ground partner of choice. Suddenly this powerful army appears to be coming under Russian control.
The Kurds still operate their civilian administration east of the Euphrates. Their forlorn hope is to salvage and maintain as much as they can of the autonomy they have painstakingly built since 2012. Baathist regimes—Mr. Assad’s as well as Saddam Hussein’s —are noted for unforgiving attitudes toward ethnic separatist projects, and especially those of the Kurds. But the ruling Kurdish party in eastern Syria maintains an office in Moscow. Such hopes as remain will depend on Russia. No one else is available.
Turkey will also depend on Russia to maintain its project in northern Syria. It isn’t clear if there was prior Russian knowledge of the Turkish operation. But by triggering America’s departure and then the rush of the Kurds to embrace Mr. Assad, Turkey’s action delivered two long-sought gifts to Moscow.
As the de facto arbiter, however, Russia now faces a tricky task. It must stand firm against a too-ambitious Turkish project that could trigger chaos and even an Assad-Turkish war east of the Euphrates. At the same time, Moscow aims to permit Turkey sufficient gains to speed its drift away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and toward alignment with Russia.
To accomplish this, the Russians must first intimidate and then partly accommodate the Turks. Moscow has managed this delicate maneuver west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It will now try to do so on the east side as the Americans head for the exit.
Then there’s Israel—and Iran. With the Americans leaving (except for a residual presence in al-Tanf), de facto U.S. control of the skies of eastern Syria will also end. The SDF is asking for a Russian no-fly zone over eastern Syria to protect the Kurds from the Turkish air force.
If Israel wishes to continue its clandestine war against Iranian weapons transfers and infrastructure-building in Syria, it will be able to do so only with Russian permission, in an arena in which Moscow’s hand is now profoundly stronger. Expect a busy shuttle route to Moscow for whoever emerges as Israel’s prime minister.
Mr. Assad, the Kurds, Turkey and Israel all now depend on Moscow’s approval to advance their interests in Syria. This outcome has been sealed by this week’s sudden windfall, all without the firing of a single Russian bullet. All roads to Syria now run through Moscow. Mr. Putin could hardly ask for more.