Here’s a question
What will Vladimir Putin do about Northeast Syria?
His thinking starts with, “the US can’t wait to get out. We’ve won already.
“But what have we won?”
In the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates River, an American withdrawal will leave behind a tinderbox on its way to becoming a bloody battlefield.
Warfare matching the Kurds — battle-tested, highly esteemed fighters defending their ground against a much larger, better equipped, but perhaps less cohesive, and less motivated Turkish force is a horror only Putin can prevent.
American objections have already been blown off by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For almost 50 years now, in the traditionally Kurdish areas of Syria, “normal” was collaborating with the Assad regime, including its police state, in exchange for a portion of local autonomy. It’s a deal most of the Kurds would accept, if it meant Government protection against those Turkish forces poised to invade, overrun and kill.
Unfortunately, for the Kurds, Syrian Government military forces, as tokens of Bashar al-Assad’s sovereignty over the Kurdish parts of Syria, probably aren’t enough. They can’t forestall or repel a Turkish invasion.
Military support from Russia would tip the scales.
A word from Putin might be enough for Erdogan to scale back the international aspects of his war against all the Kurds he can find. The Russian might let the Turk concentrate on Kurds in Turkey and northern Iraq and (at least for a while) in northern Syria west of the Euphrates River, and leave the Syrian Kurds east of the river alone.
It’s those Kurds, who settled west of the river, around the towns of Azaz and Afrin, who were the cross-border itch Putin allowed Erdogan to scratch. They’d gone too far, decided the Russians and the Americans and their associates and allies, so everyone stood aside as an invading Turkish force took the Azaz and Afrin Kurds out.
But Erdogan’s appetite wanted more, and so, somehow, with Putin’s approval or connivance, the Turks took on the messiest job in Syria, Idlib. Today, just short of two and one half years after the Turkish incursion began, Turkish soldiers and local allies now police a province whose pre-war population of one and a half million has been doubled by refugees from everywhere else in Syria. Mixed in with local and recently-arrived civilians are tens of thousands of Islamist paramilitary fighters – classic “dead-enders” ready to take a lot of people with them.
“Take them out!” Russia has cajoled Turkey. Take on Syria’s black hole, the quagmire — conquer Idlib province. Some Russians have hinted the Turks have been too slow to accomplish their mission.
Of course, until they do, and likely after, Turks will rule on Syrian soil and Bashar al-Assad’s restoration to sovereignty, ostensibly one of Russia’s chief war aims, will be incomplete.
But that’s a problem for another day.
Today it is the glory and the burden of Vladimir Putin that only he can save the Syrian Kurds.
That’s the question.