A new chapter began in West Asia after the US troops pulled out from north-eastern Syria recently. Turkey launched a cross-border operation in the region controlled by the Syrian Kurds, putting the entire territory at risk. According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 people have been displaced since the invasion in October.
The Syrian Kurds were America’s critical ally in fighting the terrorist group, the ISIS (Islamic State) of Iraq and Syria) in Syria. Along with the US troops, the Kurdish forces got a foothold in the north of Syria early in the civil war. The Kurdish Peopleʼs Protection Units (YPG) fighters fought as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - which lost about 11,000 fighters in waging a war against the terror group. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the region opened the opportunity for Turkey to promote its interests in the region - leaving the Kurdish forces vulnerable to attack.
Countries like the US, Turkey, Iran and Russia have been involved in the Syrian Civil War since its beginning in 2011. Soon after, when the ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate or an Islamic state in 2014, their involvement only grew. The Turkish government wants to drive the Kurdish YPG militia away from its border and to create a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria in order to settle two million Syrian refugees, currently present in Turkey.
Dr. Om Prakash Mishra, Professor and Head, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, told BE, “Turkey claims that the YPG is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been categorised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU. The PKK has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state in south eastern Turkey for 34 years. Suspicious of Kurdish intentions, Turkey sees the growing influence of the YPG as a threat to its security.”
Russia, the new peacemaker
The withdrawal of American forces from Syria makes Russia the sole power from outside the Middle East with military forces and political influence in Syria. With Turkey and Syria embroiled in a battle, it presents an unfavourable situation for Moscow to deal with the direct collision between its allies in Ankara and Damascus.
Russia is unlikely to have endorsed Turkey’s invasion, which threatened its system of regional balance. But it also considers an all-out offensive too risky. It preferred containment and co-operation with Turkey to deal with the ISIS. With Turkey pointing out about dangers to its country’s security from groups linked to the PKK, Russia has settled for an agreement.
Currently, Moscow is acting as the only negotiating force between the Turkish troops, allied Syrian rebel proxies, the Kurdish-led SDF and soldiers belonging to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President. Russia deployed its military force in Syria's northeast border under a deal with Turkey to end attacks on Kurdish-led fighters.
On the other hand, Moscow helped the Kurds negotiate a deal with Damascus to allow the Syrian government troops to move into the Kurdish-controlled territory to protect it from Turkey. To continue its successful run, Russia has been trying to stay open to all partners and perfect its skills as a security manager in the region.
A window for ISIS
The Kurdish fighters were the most critical force in bringing down the Islamic State. After the invasion by Turkey, the SDF may not be able to continue holding ISIS prisoners under their watch as previously warned by Syrian Kurdish leaders. The most pressing is the fate of these former ISIS fighters being guarded by the Kurds. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria engagement reported that the US now estimates that more than 100 ISIS fighters had escaped and that they do not know of their status.
The chaos could lead to an opportunity for the ISIS’s resurgence. Although the ISIS has lost its territorial control and is fragmented after the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, it might take advantage of the situation.
Anindya Jyoti Majumdar, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University informed BE, “The international community generally consider regions like Syria as shatter belts. There are a number of internal parties and external powers involved in a particular zone of conflict, trying to promote their interests Therefore, there will be different kinds of temporary adjustments with different actors who are active in the field. It will not be easy to say what kind of direction these relations will take but the idea is for every party to promote its interests - whatever that interest might be.”