Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a deal in Sochi which requires Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Syria’s border with Turkey, or face annihilation at the hands of the Turkish military.
This is, in essence, an expanded version of the “deal” Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo struck with Erdogan in Ankara last week.
Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s forces will now “oversee” a YPG pullback from the entire border. The Kurds will be forced to retreat at least 19 miles into Syria, under Putin’s agreement with Erdogan, who had been hoping to marshal support for extending his long-sought “buffer” zone west of where this month’s incursion was concentrated. In order to do that, he needed Putin’s blessing. He now he appears to have it.
Assad’s forces will conduct border patrols starting Wednesday. Less than a week from now, Turkish and Russian forces will together occupy a strip of territory in the northeast where US troops formerly resided with America’s YPG allies.
Erdogan and Putin agreed to a “joint monitoring and verification mechanism”, and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov made it clear that if the YPG refuses to abide by the agreement (which they were not consulted on), Russian MPs and Syrian border guards will not assist them. “Kurdish formations would then fall under the weight of the Turkish army”, Peskov said.
Russia took the opportunity to rub it in. According to Ifax, Moscow and Ankara are now in discussions for Erdogan to take delivery of more Russian-made S-400 missile systems. Erdogan’s brazen decision to ignore US demands that he not acquire the technology stunned Congress, and while Turkey was expelled from the F-35 program for the move, questions remain about whether the Trump White House is committed to keeping the pressure on. Trump has repeatedly blamed Barack Obama for Erdogan’s decision to acquire the Russian systems.
The Turkish defense ministry has ended – for now – its cross-border offensive after the US told Erdogan that the YPG had completely evacuated from the area, in line with Ankara’s demands. “At this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area”, Turkey said, shortly after the deal with Putin was done.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu acknowledged Wednesday that Turkey will need to cooperate at some level with Damascus in order to prevent skirmishes between the Turkish military and Assad’s border patrols.
As noted here on Tuesday, after Assad’s troops pushed north in the wake of the US withdrawal, Erdogan’s vision of a “safe zone” along the entire border would be subject to Kremlin approval and likely would not take the form of permanent Turkish military presence deep into Syria.
That appears to have been a reasonably accurate assessment, although Turkish troops will be allowed to effectively administer territory seized this month for the time being.
Irrespective of whether Russia and Assad will, for now, fall back in the event YPG fighters refuse to leave and come under fire from the Turkish military, over the longer-haul, Erdogan likely won’t be able to set up a long line of border outposts in Syrian territory.
As Yury Barmin, a Middle East specialist at Moscow Policy Group, told Reuters, “This also means de facto recognition of Assad by Erdogan”.
The Kremlin’s Peskov mocked Trump. “The Americans prefer[ed] to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks”, he said.