Turkey, Russia reach accord on north Syria—and Trump applauds

The agreement meets Ankara’s demand for a 30-kilometer buffer zone along almost the entirety of its border with Syria.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Following a six-hour-long meeting in the Russian resort city of Sochi on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded an agreement on the future of northern Syria, which Turkish officials hailed as “historic.”

The agreement meets Ankara’s demand for a 30-kilometer buffer zone along almost the entirety of its border with Syria. It is unclear, however, as CNN noted, if that applies only to the area east of the Euphrates River, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, exercised control, or to the entirety of Turkey’s border with Syria.

Whatever its dimensions, Ankara intends to repopulate the border zone with large numbers of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, and in Tuesday’s agreement, Moscow appears to have acquiesced.

Conversely, Russia, and its ally in Damascus, have gained Turkey’s support for Syria’s territorial integrity, as well as a reaffirmation of its commitment to the “Astana Mechanism”—Russian orchestrated diplomacy to fashion Syria’s future, which, most likely, will involve Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule.

The agreement raises new questions about the viability of the latest US plan for northeastern Syria. On Monday, US officials began to suggest that rather than withdrawing all US forces from that area, it might keep a few hundred troops there to maintain control over the oil fields.

Read More: US mulls changes to Syrian withdrawal, amid continued uncertainty

Yet it is the fixed position of Russia and Syria that all foreign forces which have come into Syria without an invitation from the government must leave. Indeed, speaking to reporters after the agreement was announced, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu “effectively declared that it was time for the Americans to leave Syria,” CNN reported.

One might expect a senior US official to oppose anything that increases Russian power in a strategic part of the world. Indeed, Sen. Mitch McConnell, (R, Kentucky), Senate Majority Leader, introduced a resolution on Tuesday, condemning the White House’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, warning it “creates a vacuum our adversaries will certainly fill,” and Russia “will gain more leverage” in the region.

Yet President Donald Trump saw it quite differently. Tweeting on Tuesday evening, Trump hailed the Turkish-Russian agreement as “good news.”

Tuesday’s 10-point accord allows Turkey to keep the land it seized in the assault into Syria, which it calls “Operation Peace Spring.”

The agreement also calls for moving the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s military leadership, 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border in two other areas: the territory to the east and the territory to the west of the land taken by Turkey in “Operation Peace Spring.”

In sum, the YPG is to withdraw along the entirety of the area it holds south to the M-4 highway, the major road in northern Syria, which runs from Syria’s border with Iraq to the west.

That task is to be accomplished within 150 hours, after which there are to be joint Russian-Turkish patrols in a border strip to a depth of 10 kilometers.

Left unstated is the answer to the question: Who will control the strip of Syrian territory between the 10 kilometer line, where there will be joint Russian-Turkish patrols, and the 30 kilometer line, behind which the YPG is withdrawing?

The implication seems to be that Syrian forces will move into that space. Indeed, that is the view of Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, now living in Washington DC.

“100 percent, Syria will move in,” Barabandi told Kurdistan 24.

The agreement is certainly a serious setback for the YPG, but it is not a complete disaster. Most likely, Russia saw an advantage in providing something for the Kurdish group.

The YPG most feared that the Turkish army, along with its militia force, consisting of Syrian Arabs, many of them Islamic extremists, scarcely distinguishable from the Islamic State, would take over Kurdish areas.

But Turkey will acquire no additional territory, beyond what it now controls, as a result of its military assault.

In the 10 kilometer strip along the Turkish-Syrian border, Russian military police will patrol alongside Turkish forces, while the Syrian regime will move into the area south of that.

The agreement also leaves the YPG in control of the territory south of the M-4 highway, at least for now. Of course, there are questions as to how long that will last, and the YPG may find itself obliged to allow Syrian forces into that territory too.

Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, doubts very much that the US will be able to keep forces in Syria, no matter what Trump ultimately decides.

“Russia’s deal with Turkey is a major threat” to a continued US military presence, Heras told Kurdistan 24. “The Russians are trying to box the US military out of northeast Syrian air space, by placing Russian military units on the border in joint patrols with Turkey.”

“Russia is making a statement,” Heras continued, that if the US plans to stay in Syria, Moscow “will do its utmost to make it impossible for the US to hold a forward operating presence in Deir al-Zor or anywhere else in eastern Syria.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany