The recent deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives Turkey de facto control of the territory it already has invaded in Syria, despite previous Russian statements that Turkey’s invasion violates the country’s territorial integrity. Turkey also gets an opportunity to resettle some of its more than 3.5 million unwanted Syrian refugees back on Syrian territory.
But Bashar Al Assad, who has called Erdogan a “thief” for his incursion, gets something too: His border guards get to patrol the rest of the Syrian-Turkish border, which the Kurds earlier prevented them from doing.
The Kurds aren’t forgotten, either. While the deal requires them to pull back their armed forces 30km from the Turkish border, Russia and Turkey will jointly patrol only a 10km-wide strip. As long as they can coexist with the Al Assad regime, Russia won’t help Al Assad crush them, and the Kurds will have bought safety from further Turkish attacks and keep most of the territory currently under their control.
Russian military police will take part in the various patrols, but that doesn’t represent a major change. These forces have been present in Syria all along, guarding the Russian naval and air force bases, helping Al Assad maintain order in recaptured territories and providing security for various humanitarian corridors and convoys.
Erdogan knows Russia can be a nasty adversary if something happens to those forces. After the Turkish air force downed a Russian warplane over northern Syria in 2015, Moscow imposed painful economic sanctions on Turkey and disregarded its interests in waging the Syria campaign until Erdogan apologised in 2016. Yet there’s a clear limit to Russia’s determination to protect its belligerents.
If the Putin-Erdogan arrangement fails for any reason, Russia won’t sustain any serious damage. Putin’s Russia is not spending trillions of dollars in Syria as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s keeping boots on the ground to a minimum, and it’s not seeking to expand its permanent presence beyond the two military bases already established in Syria. Putin expects Europe to shoulder the substantial economic burden of rebuilding Syria, not least so it can send back refugees.
On Wednesday, Putin gathered dozens of African leaders at his southern residence in Sochi for an unprecedented summit.
“We see how a number of western states resort to pressure, intimidation and blackmail with regards to sovereign African nations,” Putin said ahead of this week’s summit. “In this way, they are trying to claw back their lost influence and dominance in former colonies. We aim to defend common economic interests with our African partners.”
The US and European nations can do much more for developing nations (and for broken ones like Syria) than Russia can; it’s just that they can’t operate on the same basis as Putin does — or try to do so and fail.
Recall what the US has done in northern Syria. First, as it sought to defeat the terrorist Daesh without putting too many boots on the ground, it backed Kurdish forces hostile to a formal US ally within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Turkey. When Turkey understandably balked, former US president Barack Obama’s defence secretary Ash Carter accused it of having “blurred the lines between ally and adversary”, though, from the Turkish point off view, it had been the US that had done so. Then, President Donald Trump turned around and abandoned the Kurds by pulling the small US contingent out of northern Syria and thus letting Turkish armed forces invade. At the same time, Trump wrote an insulting letter to Erdogan telling him not to be “a tough guy” and “a fool”.
On the other hand, western politicians who reject transactional politics often struggle to stay consistent or establish workable coordination mechanisms. For example, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently made the eminently sensible suggestion that an international safe zone be established on the Turkish-Syrian border — but even politicians representing other parties in the German coalition government were surprised by the sudden initiative that hadn’t been discussed with them, much less with Germany’s foreign allies and partners. Putin has been able to move much faster.
In an increasingly unbalanced world, Putin’s set of principles can help anchor a difficult situation. But it can’t be the basis for a global order any reasonable leader should seek to establish. The West needs a convincing alternative to Putin’s emerging international offering. It can only be military and economic assistance conditional on clear, specific rules rather than historic loyalties.
Leonid Bershidsky is the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.