Russia faces dilemmas in northeastern Syria

While it has added some fortifications, Moscow is challenged with new political and military uncertainty over Syria's northeast.

al-monitor Russian and Syrian national flags are pictured near the northern Syrian village of Zor Magar, as seen from the Turkish border town of Karkamis in Gaziantep province, Turkey, Oct. 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir.

Nov 21, 2019

On Nov. 15, Russian military police were reported to have taken control of the Metras military airfield in the vicinity of Sarrin, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Kobani, officially known as Ain al-Arab. The air base is located far to the west of the oilfields that the United States had promised to shield from Islamic State, Russian and Assad forces. Until recently the airfield was used by American troops who could monitor and keep track of ground lines of communications stretching to the Syrian-Turkish border, which supply pro-Assad and Russian forces, deployed between Ain al-Arab and Tell Abyad. Hence, the takeover of the base vacated by the United States was painted by Russia’s mass media as a significant achievement. A more critical assessment, however, suggests the Russian operation is still fraught with many new risks.

Russia is also enjoying the use of two former US bases in Manbij and Tabqa, and the Russian military police takeover of the Sarrin base, allowing Russian-backed forces to dominate part of the strategic M4 highway, raises speculation about whether this was a product of some kind of US-Russia agreement. After the United States abandoned the Sarrin base in late October, it remained unoccupied for a while. On Nov. 1 the base saw a return of US troops, with the alleged aim of using the airfield to deliver supplies needed to establish new military footholds in eastern Syria. Then US troops left the facility again shortly before the Russian military police arrived at the site.

The United States keeps monitoring the situation in northeastern Syria, considering it possible to hand over other facilities or territories to other actors, including Russia and Turkey. However, if required, the Americans may reoccupy some bases, thus rebuilding their presence on the ground. At a regional level, this makes Russian troops and their Syrian allies vulnerable to and dependent on — to a certain extent — the United States.

Three Russian military police units — together with Turkish forces — are tasked with patrolling the entire border area to a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles) east and west of the Turkish safe zone. Yet they lack proper air cover, making Russian and Russia-aligned Syrian forces on the ground vulnerable to various kinds of provocations and possible clashes with local groups, both pro-Turkish and Kurdish ones. The major deterrent for such groups is the threat of air power.

While attack helicopters have landed in Qamishli, their operational area is confined to the strip along the border jointly patrolled by Russia and Turkey. At the same time, it still rests with the Americans to decide for whom to open the airspace over the country’s northeast.

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