Rumored Russian withdrawal from Syria sparks regional alert – Middle East Monitor

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

The helicopters, which were filmed and reported on local and social media, appeared to have a clear and simple message: Despite reports that Russia was withdrawing troops from the region to reinforce Ukraine, the Kremlin, a key local player, intends to do so to stay – at least for the time being.

The Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 was a seminal moment for that conflict and the entire region. However, talk that it might leave or reduce forces increased sharply in May, drawing several nations into this conflict and perceiving both risks and opportunities.

Since invading Ukraine on February 24, Russia has withdrawn troops from several locations including the Syrian desert, areas around Aleppo, Idlib and the border with Turkey and Israel, according to Turkish, Syrian and other media, potentially opening the door both to Turkey and Iran.

Both of these prospects have raised regional concerns, particularly in Israel and the nearby Arab states, as well as in Washington. Russian President Vladimir Putin was a key factor in Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad’s survival in 11 years of war – viewed by some as enabling years of war crimes, by others as a stabilizing influence.

READ: A Russian ship is transporting 30,000 tons of looted grain from Ukraine to Syria, satellite images show

To what extent this is still acceptable after the Ukraine war remains unclear. With its troops slowly advancing in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin needs all the forces it can get — with reports including not only Russian troops and Syrian contractors, but also Syrian and other foreign fighters.

Turkiye may be the first to act decisively, amid speculation that President Tayyip Erdogan will launch his fifth major military intervention in Syria since 2016, hoping to free up more territory for Turkish-backed fighters at the expense of US-backed Kurdish groups to separate

Iran has also dialed in its presence, with Assad visiting Tehran earlier this month in what was widely seen as an offer of more Iranian support in the event of another Russian withdrawal.

Caught in the middle

Turkiye was furious at US support for the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces during the fight against Daesh, which left US-backed Kurdish elements in control of significant areas.

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

However, both Russian- and US-led military activity in the region this weekend appeared specifically designed to deter such action, with some Arab media suggesting Washington and Moscow had directly coordinated moves to persuade Turkiye not to act.

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

READ: Prospects for a new Turkish military intervention in Syria

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

US officials fear the closure of this border crossing will trigger a new refugee and humanitarian crisis and amplify the impact of soaring food prices following the Ukraine war. Turkiye, on the other hand, will hope intervention launches could create “safe areas” that could force hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants from its territory.

US officials have warned against such a move.

complex relationships

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

Moscow has equally complex ties with Iran and Israel, at once a supporter of Tehran against Washington but also a rival, both for influence in Syria and now when it comes to crude oil exports to China. The Syrian regime may prefer working with Russia over Iran, not least because it is currently trying to restore ties with the Arab nations in a bid to secure readmission into the Arab League – but it likely sees Tehran as more committed.

Israel seems particularly concerned about an increased Iranian presence in Syria, concerned that it could end a widely publicized but never publicly acknowledged deal between Israel and Russia to keep Iranian troops and proxies off the Israeli border.

READ: Syria Experts Sent to Moscow to Support Putin’s Barrel Bombing Campaign

Israel has carried out several hundred attacks in Syria in recent years, particularly against missile manufacturing plants operated by Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Until last month, these missions appeared to have been deliberately ignored by Russian air defenses in Syria. But according to several Israeli media reports, a Russian-built and operated S-300 missile was launched at Israeli jets for the first time last month.

Whether this was a genuine attempt to bring them down or just a warning shot is uncertain – Israeli media reported that missile radar never picked up the plane. But it adds more uncertainty to a relationship also threatened by the Ukraine war, as Israel sends a field hospital to Ukraine but has so far refused 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 Middle East Monitor‘s editorial policies.

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