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Russia-brokered deal in Syria: Why Putin holds the key to the conflict

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their talks in Sochi, Russia October 22, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their talks in Sochi, Russia October 22, 2019. -
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Moscow and Ankara hailed a triumph after reaching a deal to remove Kurdish YPG fighters and their weapons from the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday.

The Russian-brokered agreement underlines the overwhelming changes in Syria since US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops two weeks ago ahead of Turkey's offensive against the Kurds.

Above all, it shows how central Russian President Vladimir Putin has become in the Syrian conflict.

Euronews interviewed foreign policy experts to find out why and how this happened.

Putin 'calling the shots'

"The Russians are the pivotal players because they are the one country speaking to all the different actors," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East & North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

With Tuesday's deal, "Putin emerges as the one who calls the shots in Syria," Heiko Wimmen, Project Director for Syria at the International Crisis Group, told Euronews.

"It's very clear by now that any medium-term arrangement in Syria will have to happen through the mediation of Russia."

That is the case in particular for Idlib, the only area that hasn't completely fallen back under Damascus' control, the expert said.

Early and strong commitment

Russia's central role in the Syrian conflict is not a novelty, even if it has gained in prominence in recent weeks.

"Russia has been a central actor ever since they decided to intervene in 2015. They basically saved the Syrian regime from collapse." Wimmen said.

"It's become clear that Russia is central to the military equation, simply because of the amount of commitment that they decided to undertake - of money, material and men."

"They've put a lot in this basket."

Filling the western vacuum

"The Russians are in a sense filling the vacuum created by the US departure. While Russia has doubled down on its commitment to Syria, all the western players have continually looked for an exit strategy, one that's now being consolidated by Trump's decision," Barnes-Dacey told Euronews.

"There's nobody else. The Europeans are absent, the Gulf States are absent... almost by default, all runs towards Moscow," Wimmen said.

The situation in northeastern Syria "has been a complete disaster for Washington and what is a disaster for Washington, almost by default, becomes a success for Moscow, " the expert added.

Pax Russica?

The Kurds, a longtime western ally, now seem to have no other choice than to abide by the new Pax Russica.

"Putin has succeeded in looking at both his relationship with Assad but also with Turkey in an extremely strong fashion. And now he offers the Kurds perhaps the only way of mediating between these two actors," Barnes-Dacey said ahead of the visit.

"It all depends on how the SDF and YPG leadership responds to this. It's again an agreement that is made at their expense. It doesn't really look like they were consulted," Wimmen told Euronews on Tuesday after the details of the deal were known.

"But I can't really see they have a choice. If the Russians are behind it and the Turks are behind it, there is nothing they can do about it."

"Hopefully, at least, this will prevent more people from dying and more displacement," Wimmer said.

According to OCHA, the UN's humanitarian wing, an estimated 180,000 people have been forced to leave their homes or shelters after two weeks of fighting in northeastern Syria. All are in "desperate need of humanitarian assistance," the agency said.

Russian perspectives

Maxim Suchkov from The Russian International Affairs Council (a non-profit academic and diplomatic think tank), believes that in the current situation Russia has a special responsibility which Moscow is trying to use favourably for itself, namely, "to act as a mediator between the two enemy camps – Turkey and Syria".

When asked why did the Kurds decide to deal with Assad, Suchkov said "they could deal with the Syrian government, ...or they could surrender to the Turks or start a war against them and lose, so the Kurds chose what they considered “the lesser of two evils”.

Konstantin Kosachev, a member of the Russian parliament's upper house and chair of its Foreign Affairs Committee said "the key point is the triumph of diplomacy and the failure of a policy of threats and sanctions. Russia has not only confirmed its ability to carry out a military and diplomatic mediatory mission in Syrian affairs, but in principle has denied the existence of any alternatives to this approach."

"In recent years," his facebook statement went on, "our country has gradually gained a key role that was recognized by everybody (including its opponents) in a peaceful process in Syria, but at the same time - and this is an important advantage compared to the supporters of "sanctions diplomacy" - Russia doesn’t use its position to the detriment of other sides (actors in this process) and knows how to negotiate."

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