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Russia treads lightly in Syrian deadlock

Moscow is reacting with marked restraint to the escalation around Ain Issa, even seeming to play along with Ankara, though Turkey and the Syrian National Army have no reason to conduct offensive operations in the area.

In early December, Russia established three observation posts manned by Russian military police near the town of Ain Issa in northeast Syria. Since then, Moscow has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade the command of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to transfer control of the city to the Russian military or the forces of the Syrian regime in order to avoid a possible attack on it by the pro-Turkish Syrian National Army (SNA). At the same time, Russian is not interfering with attempts by the SNA to take new positions in the vicinity of Ain Issa and advance in its direction.

On Monday an SDF commander criticized Russia for not speaking out against recent attacks on the strategic town of Ain Issa in Syria’s Kurdish northeast, a region known to the Kurds as Rojava.

“There were Turkish attacks very close to a base in Ain Issa and Russia did not say a word,” Riyad Khalaf, chairman of the SDF’s Gire Spi (Tell Abyad) Military Council, told Rudaw news agency.

“Initially in our talks with the Syrian government, they were trying to pressure us into giving the lands of Ain Issa to the Syrian government,” he added.

Other Syrian Kurdish officials have also accused Russia of pressuring them into giving land to Damascus.

The Russian military is reacting with marked restraint to the escalation around Ain Issa, even seeming to play along with Ankara, despite the fact that based on the provisions of the 2019 Sochi deal between Russia and Turkey, Turkey and the SNA have no reason to conduct offensive operations in the area. The city of Ain Issa itself and the SDF positions to the north of it are located at a distance of more than 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the Turkish border — the depth at which Ankara was able to create a security zone under the 2019 accord. The Sochi deal also called for the withdrawal of Kurdish formations to a distance of at least 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Turkish border, but given the location of Ain Issa this does not apply either.

Russia's refusal to actively intervene or issue ultimatums is due to a number of factors. First, the Russian military in SDF-controlled areas in northeastern Syria and in the trans-Euphrates region feels extremely insecure. The limited presence of the Russian military police and regime forces does not allow full-fledged military operations there, and Russia is only able to use air forces isn the area under agreement with the United States. American jets still control the airspace over this region and it is unlikely Washington will allow the Russian air force to carry out bombing strikes in its area of ​​responsibility. Thus Moscow is seeking compromise solutions to avoid an escalation that could see a return of Turkish military intervention as in the 2019 Operation Peace Spring.

Turkey and its Syrian allies have no serious reasons for launching an offensive on Ain Issa, but there are reasons for resuming operations against Kurdish militants in the direction of Manbij and Ain al-Arab (Kobani), where the calm remains. The Russian side was unable to fulfill Articles 3 and 5 of the Sochi memorandum, which relate to the withdrawal of the SDF from the Manbij and Tell Rifaat regions, as well as from a strip along the Syrian-Turkish border in eastern Syria. In these areas, there are still Kurdish YPG units operating under the auspices of the so-called “military councils" affiliated with the SDF. The presence of limited regime forces and units of the Russian military police in northeastern Syria does not negate the Kurdish militias' obligation to withdraw.

Thus, it became clear over time that the 2019 Sochi agreement weakened, rather than strengthened, Moscow's position in Syria. If previous to the deal Russia could use Turkey's failure to fulfill its obligations on Idlib to resume military operations, then after the conclusion of the Sochi memorandum, the Turkish side now had arguments to reject Russian claims. That is, Ankara links the implementation of its part of the March agreements on Idlib with the implementation by Russia of Articles 3 and 5 of the Sochi memorandum. Moscow is unable to comply with these provisions without entering into direct confrontation with the United States. The Sochi memorandum was formulated when it was assumed that the United States would withdraw all its forces from Syria. Now, American troops not only did not leave Syria, but they also conduct patrols together with SDF units in those areas that the Kurdish formations were supposed to leave, such as in the Malikia region.

A way out of such a stalemate could be a decision to revise the provisions of the Sochi memorandum, taking into account the new realities. But in this regard, Ankara will insist on amending the relevant Russian-Turkish agreements on Idlib, doing away with obligations to fulfill them.

Russia has found itself in a vulnerable position after the deployment of a significant group of Turkish troops in Idlib that could impede plans by Damascus and Moscow to conduct new military operations in the region. That is, Turkey has acquired the ability to block attempts by the Syrian government forces to advance in Idlib, which it clearly demonstrated in February-March, while the Russian military police and the forces of the Syrian regime deployed in the Euphrates region do not have the ability to counter the offensive of Turkish troops and the SNA on Kurdish formations. So far, the main obstacle to the resumption of Operation Peace Spring against the SDF in the Syrian northeast is not the Russian military or government forces, but the uncertainty regarding which line incoming US President Joe Biden will take toward Ankara. The Turkish side would not want to start building relations with the new American administration by provoking a crisis in which the United States would be forced to engage.

Also, Ankara’s expectation of certain problems from the new occupants of the White House makes Turkey continue to pursue a strategic partnership with Moscow and avoid the emergence of conflict situations.

Therefore, at the current stage of escalation at Ain Issa, most likely the fighting can be limited to a local operation, which will allow the SNA to take control this settlement. Or the Turkish side, while continuing to put pressure on the SDF, will leave a window of opportunity for Moscow to force the Kurdish formations to leave the city, which would come under the control of the Russian military police. In return, Russia could reduce pressure on Idlib by stopping airstrikes.

At the same time, if Ankara decides on a limited operation against Ain Issa, then one should expect an increase in Russian air raids on Idlib. Russia has also demonstrated that it is capable of delivering precise airstrikes. One such example is the attack on the Feylak al-Sham group in Idlib at the end of October in which more than 80 SNA fighters were killed. At the same time, it is not at all obvious that such an air offensive will force the Turkish side to agree to any territorial concessions to the regime in Idlib. As noted, Moscow and Damascus should face serious difficulties in conducting a ground operation in this region, but attempts to conduct limited operations — reconnaissance in force in order to assess the readiness of Turkish troops to respond to such actions — cannot be ruled out.

In any case, controversial issues between Moscow and Ankara will continue to be discussed at Russian-Turkish interdepartmental consultations, which are ongoing, and ways of solving problems will be found one way or another. Russia and Turkey will also continue to avoid the situation where the partner will find itself in a hopeless position, leaving him no other way but to aggravate and escalate. This was most clearly shown during the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, where, as a result of the hostilities, Russia — with Turkey’s participation — was able to lead the peace process by deploying its peacekeeping contingent in the conflict zone. Thus, Moscow was able to leave other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group “out of the game,” compensating for possible reputational losses from non-interference in this conflict on the side of its ally Armenia.

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