Russia, Turkey and Syria: No Obvious Exit

Russia has yet to draw hard and fast conclusions about the consequences of President Erdogan’s invasion of Syria. Once Turkey decided to go in and take over the Kurdish-held region in the north of the country, the United States under President Trump had little choice but to concede or undertake a serious military commitment to defend the Kurds who were convenient allies in the eradication of ISIS: an example of how unintended consequences have a tendency to take over once military intervention at any level and of any kind takes place overseas – the familiar burden of imperial over-extension by default. Moreover, the stand off between Turks and Kurds (backed by the Americans) played to Russian advantage in quick pursuit of an entente with Ankara that could directly threaten the integrity of NATO’s southern flank.

               It is too early to draw any hard and fast conclusions yet. One tentative view from Moscow is that the flight of the United States from the region “has broken the system of security and unspoken diplomatic understandings” that tied Russia, Iran and Syria together. The only consolation that the hardline newspaper  Vzglyad ru can draw from this is that Turkey is the loser (A. Anpilogov, “Turetskaya operatsiya perevernula voennuyu situatsiyu v Sirii”, Vzglyad ru, 19 October 2019.) It draws consolation from the fact that Syrian forces moved in rapidly to seize towns held by the Kurds before the Turks could reach them. So, in that limited sense American withdrawal will have benefited the reunification of the country.

Appearing the same day under the byline “Kreml’ beret kurdov pod zashchitu na svoikh usloviyakh”, the more liberal Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie is less sanguine, however. “Moscow has to choose what is more important – the left bank of the Euphrates or a strip of land north of the M4 motorway,” writes Aleksandr Sharkovskii, its lead editor. He concludes that Russia’s attempt to sustain the territorial integrity of Syria “is nothing more than declaratory.” Damascus “simply does not have the strength and means to hold the northern regions of the country.” Moscow therefore does not possess the means to hold these territories against the Turks or anyone else. One senses behind this a sentiment favouring Russian withdrawal (remember some of the Russian military felt it was a mistake to go into Syria in the first place.)

In other words the “tangle of contradictions” in this region is not likely to be sorted out for some time. By pulling out so abruptly, the White House has thrown the Powers of the region back on themselves, leaving those governments the problem of disentangling themselves from a bundle of problems that predated the appearance of ISIS. Why else would Vzglyad ru find it necessary to dilate on the long history of the Kurdish problem?

A few more history lessons relating to central and southern Asia would also not come amiss.  If President Trump follows his dramatic move by doing the same in Afghanistan, he will throw the Russians into another insoluble dilemma. Opening up vacuums of power in troubled areas of the globe is not a bad idea. It is a complete failure of reason and a complete misunderstanding of history to suppose that a limited military presence in a distant land is the way to resolve age-old conflicts by means of third party intervention. Unforeseen consequences will inevitably win out to the detriment of even the most high-minded outsider.