The Kurds have already reached out to Russia for help to secure a deal with the Syrian government to fill the vacuum that will be left by the departure of U.S. troops, in the hope of averting a threatened Turkish attack, according to senior Kurdish officials.
These recent developments are set to reinforce Russia’s position as the dominant player in Syria. As if to underscore Moscow’s importance, Russian troops launched patrols over the past two days on the outskirts of Manbij, one of the most contested towns under U.S. control.
On Tuesday, just as U.S. national security adviser John Bolton was leaving Ankara after Erdogan declined to meet him, Russian and Kurdish websites posted videos of Russian military vehicles rumbling through the Syrian countryside trailing big Russian flags. The videos mirrored similar images of U.S. military patrols when they began nearly two years ago.
The Russian patrols took place in an area around the town of Arima, which is already controlled by the Syrian regime, and don’t pose any challenge to the U.S. troops located several miles away.
But Aaron Stein, director of Middle East programs at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the patrols served as a reminder that with U.S. policy in disarray and U.S. troops on the way out, “Russia owns all of this now.”
Russia has so far not committed to helping either Turkey or the Kurds. After Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters that Erdogan was scheduling a visit to Moscow this month, the Kremlin said plans are in the works but cautioned that no date has been set.
The Russians have also made no commitments to the Kurds to support their quest for a deal that would bring Syrian government troops back into the area to deter a Turkish invasion, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the main Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The Kurds have submitted a proposal to Moscow that would allow the Syrian government to restore its overall sovereignty over the vast area of Syria taken over by the Kurds since 2012, first during the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then in the war against the Islamic State. In return, the Kurds want the Syrian government to grant them a degree of autonomy, allowing them to continue their experiment in self-governance, Muslim said.
“We have given our road map to the Russians. We are just waiting on a decision,” he said.
Amid conflicting messages from members of the Trump administration about how the troop withdrawal will occur, it seems increasingly clear that Russia, as the only power talking to all the players, is best positioned to mediate a solution, Stein said.
“The U.S. is coming out, and the other countries are moving in to fill the vacuum, and they’re all talking. They’re just not talking to the U.S.,” he said.
Speaking to reporters after a visit to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that U.S. troops will withdraw after the Islamic State’s last pocket of territory has been defeated.
Pompeo’s comments seemed to contradict statements by Bolton earlier this week. Bolton said the United States would not pull troops out of Syria without first receiving guarantees from Turkey that it would refrain from attacking the Kurds — which drew a sharp rebuke from Erdogan — and assurances that Iran would not fill the vacuum.
Pompeo appeared to acknowledge that Turkey has concerns about the Kurds possibly using the territory they control to launch attacks against Turkey after the U.S. forces are gone.
“We acknowledged that there is a threat to Turkey from terrorists, and we will be very supportive,” he said.
Trump apparently promised Erdogan in a telephone call last month that the United States would turn over the war against terrorism in the area to Turkey, according to accounts by U.S. officials.
But Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, as a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State because of the militia’s affiliation with Kurdish militants fighting for autonomy inside Turkey.
“They are all the same to us,” Cavusoglu told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the Islamic State and the Kurdish groups fighting both in Syria and Turkey.
Turkey is also reaching out to Iran to discuss the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, Cavusoglu added. “Whether you like it or not, Iran is an actor in Syria,” he said. “Thus, we need to work in a constructive manner with the present actors.”