Middle East

Rumoured Russian scale-back from Syria prompts regional alarm

After some of the heaviest shelling of Syrian territory by Turkish forces in months, six Russian helicopters, on Monday, staged a show of force along the border.

The helicopters, filmed and reported on local and social media, appeared to have a clear and simple message: despite reports of Russia pulling troops from the region to reinforce in Ukraine, the Kremlin intends to remain a major local player – at least for now.

The Kremlin’s 2015 military intervention in Syria was a game-changing moment for that conflict and the wider region. Talk that it might leave or scale back forces, however, sharply increased in May, leaving multiple nations drawn into that conflict, sensing both risk and opportunity.

Since its 24 February invasion of Ukraine, Russia has withdrawn troops from several locations, including the Syrian desert, areas around Aleppo, Idlib and the Turkish border as well as that with Israel, according to Turkish, Syrian and other media, potentially opening the door to both Turkiye and Iran.

Both those prospects have prompted regional alarm, particularly in Israel and nearby Arab States, as well as in Washington. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a key enabler of Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad’s survival through 11 years of war – seen by some as enabling years of war crimes, by others as a stabilising influence.

READ: Russian ship carries 30,000 tonnes of grain plundered from Ukraine to Syria, satellite images show

To what extent that remains sustainable in the aftermath of the Ukraine war remains unclear. As its troops push slowly forward in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin needs all the forces it can get – with reports that include not just Russian troops and contractors from Syria, but also Syrian and other foreign fighters.

Turkiye may be the first to act decisively, with speculation President Tayyip Erdogan will launch his fifth major military intervention into Syria since 2016, hoping to carve out a larger area for Turkish-backed fighters at the expense of US-backed Kurdish groups.

Iran has also been dialling up its presence, with Assad visiting Tehran at the beginning of the month in what was widely seen as a bid for more Iranian support in the event of a further Russian pullback.

Trapped in the Middle

Turkiye was infuriated by US support for the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces during the battle against Daesh, which left US-backed Kurdish elements in control of significant areas of territory.

Cross-border military operations have strengthened Erdogan politically in the past – while some analysts say Ankara is betting NATO states will not oppose such a move when they need Turkiye to sign off on NATO membership for Finland and Sweden.

Both Russian and US-led military activity in the area this weekend, however, appeared designed specifically to deter such actions, with some Arabic media implying Washington and Moscow had directly coordinated movements to persuade Turkiye not to act.

Whether the US and Russia can currently overcome their differences on Ukraine to coordinate actions in Syria is another question. Last week, Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, railed against US intervention, labelling its presence “terrorism” and accusing Washington of exploiting Syria’s agricultural resources and oil.

READ: Prospects for a new Turkish military intervention in Syria

US officials, meanwhile, told the New York Times this week they were concerned Russia will use its control of the last humanitarian border crossing into Syria – at Bab Al-Hawa on the Turkish border – as a political bargaining tool in the hope of easing sanctions over Ukraine. The crossing was only kept open last year, following negotiations with Moscow after Russia and Syrian authorities sealed the only other aid routes in.

US officials worry that closing that border crossing will spark a new refugee and humanitarian crisis, compounding the effect of rising food prices following the Ukraine war. Turkiye, in contrast, will hope any intervention launches could create “safe areas” that could get hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants off its territory.

US officials have cautioned against such a move.

Complex Relationships

What happens next is likely to be shaped by the complex relationship between Ankara and Moscow, and personally between Erdogan and Putin, who talked by phone on Monday. The two countries have fought each other in Libya and Syria, but also sometimes cooperated, with Turkish media and foreign policy pundits suggesting a deal could be struck on control of key towns and border posts.

Moscow has equally complex relations with Iran and Israel, simultaneously a backer of Tehran against Washington but also a rival, both for influence in Syria and now also when it comes to crude oil exports to China. The Syrian regime might prefer to work with Russia than Iran, not least because it is currently attempting to restore relations with Arab nations to gain readmission to the Arab League – but it likely sees Tehran as more committed.

Israel appears particularly concerned over a heightened Iranian presence in Syria, worried that this could end a widely reported but never publicly acknowledged deal between Israel and Russia to keep Iranian troops and proxies away from the Israeli border.

READ: Syria experts sent to Moscow to help Putin’s barrel bomb campaign

Israel has conducted several hundred strikes into Syria in recent years, particularly targeting guided-missile manufacturing plants run by Hezbollah or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Until last month, these missions appeared to have been deliberately ignored by Russian air defences within Syria. But according to multiple Israeli media reports, last month saw the first firing of a Russian-built-and-operated S-300 missile against Israeli jets.

Whether that was a genuine attempt to bring them down or just a warning shot is uncertain – Israeli media reported the missile radar never locked on to the aircraft. But it adds yet more uncertainty to a relationship also challenged by the Ukraine war, with Israel sending a field hospital to Ukraine but, so far, refusing to bow to US pressure to sanction Russia.

Russia’s invasion, it seems, has changed a lot. The Middle East is still discovering what that means.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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