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Intel: What is Russia's next move after Turkish attack on Syrian forces?

Russian military police units were reportedly deployed to the town of Saraqeb in northwestern Syria on March 2.
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 18: Russian soldiers, with Russian flag, are seen on armoured vehicle as they enter the base at the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates, which the US troops' withdrew from, located 90 kilometres east of Aleppo in Aleppo Governorate, Syria on November 18, 2019. (Photo by Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russian military police units were reportedly deployed to the town of Saraqeb in northwestern Syria on March 2. The Syrian army first captured the town Feb. 5, but was forced to retreat from it Feb. 28 after days of continuous attacks by Turkish-backed armed groups. Syria said March 2 that it had recaptured the town.

"Taking into account the importance of safe and unimpeded movement of motor transport and civilian population along the M4-M5 highways, units of the Russian military police were deployed to the city of Saraqeb at 17:00 on March 2, 2020," the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria said March 2. M4 and M5 are two main highways that traverse the country from east to west and north to south respectively. 

Why it matters: In the Feb. 28 phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the latter said he asked the Russian leader to step aside and let Turkey “do what is necessary” with the Syrian government.

Over the following two days Syrian army positions in the northwestern region came under heavy fire from the Turkish army and allied opposition groups. Turkey killed dozens — Ankara claims over 1,000 — of Syrian troops and damaged a number of facilities. It also attacked a number of positions belonging to Hezbollah and other Shiite militias operating in coordination with Syrian government forces. 

During this period, Russia opted for a virtual unilateral cease-fire, acting only to repel drone attacks on its Khmeimim airbase in Latakia province. On March 1, the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Rear Adm. Oleg Zhuravlev, said Russian troops “cannot guarantee the safety of flights for Turkish aircraft over Syria.”

He said Syria had to seal off the skies over its territory after Turkey downed two Syrian Su-24 attack aircraft.

Now Moscow seems to have pushed forward with some new deterrence tactics. The deployment of military police in Saraqeb after its recapture by the Syrian army has the strategic town under President Bashar al-Assad’s control and is meant to deter further possible attempts to win it over by the Turkey-backed opposition forces.

Tactical loss, strategic gain? Russia’s virtual inaction in the face of Turkish attacks on Syria drew an array of reactions from speculation of “Moscow’s fears of Ankara” in Turkey to “indignation over betrayal” in Syria to some bewilderment in Russia.

Following the killing of more than 30 Turkish troops in an airstrike, Al-Monitor described how Russian decision-makers might react if the situation with Turkey were to escalate further. One thing it didn’t mention was the well-known difficulties of getting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accept the terms of Russian-Turkish agreements. Against this background, Russia’s posture on the battlefield after the Putin-Erdogan phone talks may be explained by that Putin opted for a limited non-interference to allow Erdogan to save face at home, to have Assad rethink his cocky behavior and realize the limits of his own powers and for Russia to reassert its position as a mediator in a Turkey-Syria conflict rather than as an ally of one party. In other words, Moscow suffered some short-term reputational loses with an eye on a bigger prize of maintaining the status of a kingmaker in Syria.

A source in the Russian Foreign Ministry who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity denied this theory.

“This is a conspiracy [theory],” he said. “Turkey wasn’t supposed to use drones against the Syrian army, drones were allowed for reconnaissance purposes. Hence, the Syrian army had to close the skies to defend itself,” he added, referring to a “gentleman’s agreement” between Moscow and Ankara on the use of drones over Idlib.

What’s ahead: Erdogan will visit Moscow on March 5 for talks with Putin over Idlib.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said March 2 that Russia’s position will be “absolutely consistent and will remain unchanged,” referring to Russian commitments to the Sochi agreement of 2018 that guarantee Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Know more: See what’s at stake for Russia in the spat with Turkey in Maxim Suchkov’s story and follow Turkey Pulse for in-depth coverage of the situation from the Turkish angle.