Why Russia Is the New Middle East Power Broker

The U.S. withdrawal from a previously Kurdish-controlled area gives Russia even more influence in the region, a Fletcher professor says
Two men shaking hands. Why Russia is the new Middle East power broker; the U.S. withdrawal from a previously Kurdish-controlled region gives Russia even more influence in the region
Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan on Oct. 22. “Russia wants other countries to recognize its status as a great power, and believes that playing a role in Middle Eastern diplomacy can help it achieve that,” said Chris Miller. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/AP
October 24, 2019

Share

In a deal forged in Russia earlier this week, Russian and Turkish troops will take joint control of a vast swath of northeastern Syria that was until recently held by the Kurds, former U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. The new agreement is evidence of Russia’s growing influence in the region, from which the U.S. abruptly withdrew its troops in early October, said Chris Miller, assistant professor of international history at The Fletcher School.

“The U.S. withdrawal has substantially weakened the position of the Kurds, who have been forced to cut a deal with Russia and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad as a result, and surrender some territory that they held to the Turks,” Miller said. “So long as the U.S. backed the Kurds, the Kurds had no reason to offer concessions to either Syria or Turkey. Now they have no choice.”

In the agreement announced by Russia and Turkey, Syrian Kurds were given six days to retreat more than 20 miles from the border with Turkey, abandoning land they had previously controlled. Turkey invaded northeastern Syria on October 9, shortly after President Trump pulled U.S. forces from the region. The offensive, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was intended to create a buffer zone between Turkey and Kurdish forces, whom the Turks consider to be terrorists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is Assad’s strongest backer, met with Erdogan at Putin’s summer home in Sochi for more than six hours on October 22, just before a five-day ceasefire in northeastern Syria was set to expire. Russian airstrikes have helped Assad’s government remain in power in Syria, which has been devastated by eight years of civil war. The deal Turkey struck with Russia requires Turkey to accept sharing control of the buffer zone along the border with Syrian forces.

Turkey is a NATO member and U.S. ally, but its new agreement with Russia suggested that Putin’s influence in the Middle East is on the rise.

Tufts Now spoke with Miller to understand Russia’s expanding role in the region—and what that means for U.S. interests.

Tufts Now: How influential will Russia be in deciding what happens next, regarding Turkey and Syria?

Chris Miller: Russia will be a major player in deciding what comes next. It is the only country that can facilitate negotiations between Syria and Turkey, for example. It also has longstanding ties to Syria’s Kurdish groups. The Kremlin isn’t powerful enough to dictate a solution, but it is the only power that has lines of communication open with all the major players in Syria.

Erdogan says he wants to push Kurdish fighters away from Syria’s border with Turkey and create a “safe zone” there, but on October 22 Assad reportedly said, “Erdogan is a thief and is now stealing our land.” How do you think Putin will broker a deal between the two?

Syria and Turkey have very different interests in the conflict, but Russia has leverage over both. Turkey wants to push the Kurdish militias back from its border, and to stop and ideally reverse the flow of refugees from Syria to Turkey.

“Syria and Turkey have very different interests in the conflict, but Russia has leverage over both,” said Chris Miller. Photo: Paul RutherfordAssad, meanwhile, wants to reconquer all of Syrian territory. Neither has any desire to see Kurdish militias’ power expand, though both realize that the Kurds are a force that must be dealt with.

Russia is still a crucial source of military support for Assad, who cannot win the war without the Kremlin’s help. Turkey, meanwhile, wants the war to end without Kurdish militias along its border. The Kremlin thinks it can use leverage over both Turkey and Syria to push them toward a compromise peace.

How did the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria affect Russia’s military and political influence in the region?

The U.S. was the key backer of the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The U.S. withdrawal has substantially weakened the position of the Kurds, who have been forced to cut a deal with Russia and Assad as a result, and surrender some territory that they held to the Turks. So long as the U.S. backed the Kurds, the Kurds had no reason to offer concessions to either Syria or Turkey. Now they have no choice.

Why does Russia want to be a power broker in the Middle East?

Russia wants other countries to recognize its status as a great power, and believes that playing a role in Middle Eastern diplomacy can help it achieve that. The Kremlin is also pleased that it appears to be succeeding at the expense of the United States, which has seen its influence in the Middle East decrease. Russia often measures its success vis-à-vis the United States, so where American influence is declining, Russia is satisfied.

Are U.S. interests hurt by Russia taking on such a central role in the Middle East?

The deal Russia is brokering between Syria and Turkey contradicts longstanding U.S. policy—under Obama and Trump—to support the Kurds as the force in Syria most willing and capable of fighting ISIS. So long as ISIS fighters do not escape or ISIS forces reorganize in Syria, the Russian-brokered deal might not contradict the main U.S. interest of preventing the resurgence of ISIS. Neither Turkey, Syria, nor Russia has an interest in seeing ISIS reemerge.

But the chaotic nature of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria—Trump saying one thing, with his cabinet officials contradicting him hours later—does not make other countries confident that the U.S. is a country they can do business with.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.