Sochi deal keeps US troops, Kurds out of oil-rich area

“Putin’s offer to use his diplomatic skills to defuse escalating tensions in the Middle East could not come at a better time," said Oklahoma University Professor Joshua Landis.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Russian military police members stand outside an armoured vehicle along a road near the north-eastern Syrian town of Amuda in Hasakah province, October 24. (AFP)
Filling the vacuum. Russian military police members stand outside an armoured vehicle along a road near the north-eastern Syrian town of Amuda in Hasakah province, October 24. (AFP)

BEIRUT - After announcing the withdrawal of 1,000 troops from north-eastern Syria in mid-October, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “We’ve secured the oil.”

Analysts have been trying to understand that confusing statement, which implied that the US president was planning to keep troops around the oilfields. Others saw it as a mere assertion that US troops had helped liberate the Syrian oilfields from the Islamic State (ISIS).

Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, showing that they had a completely different agenda for north-eastern Syria — one that kept both the Americans and the Kurdish fighters out of the entire area.

After a 6-hour meeting, Putin and Erdogan agreed to redeploy the Syrian and Russian armies throughout all territory that had been controlled by the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), which leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Under Russian auspices, the Syrian government and the YPG had already agreed to that, in writing. The surrendered territory would include al-Omar oilfield near Deir ez-Zor, with a production capacity of 100,000 barrels per day, and the Rmeilan oilfield, south-west of Malkieh, where the Syrian Army is heading to before the end of October.

Putin insists on recapturing the oil fields, a much-needed asset for the cash-strapped Syrian economy, which has been relying on Iranian assistance for nearly nine years. Collectively the fields contain approximately 2.5 billion barrels of oil, whose revenue can bankroll what remains of the Russian war effort in Syria, repay Iranian debt and help with reconstruction.

They would ultimately help reduce Syrian dependence on the Iranians, something Putin has been trying to do since his forces rumbled into the country four years ago.

Oil aside, the Sochi agreement seems to accommodate the interests of Putin’s two allies, Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Turkish president finally got what he wanted, a safe zone along the border area, liberated from any Kurdish military presence, where he could relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011.

For months, he has been begging the Americans for a zone that was 460km in width and 32km in depth. Last August, however, Trump made it clear to Erdogan that the United States would only tolerate a zone that was 80km wide and 14-15km deep, with no mandate to go after the Kurdish fighters or dismantle their positions along the border. Erdogan turned to Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani at a meeting September 16, seeing if they would present him with a better offer, which they did.

What Erdogan got at Sochi was a Russia-backed safe zone 32km deep, which is exactly what he had asked for and larger than what the Americans were offering. It would encompass the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, which have been on Erdogan’s target list since last December, across an area of 150km.

In addition to Ras al-Ayn, Erdogan had demanded control of Kobane and Tell Rifaat but was forced to back out on both. The Sochi agreement states the cities will remain in the hands of the Syrian and Russian armies.

So would the major cities of Manbij, Hasakah, Qamishli and Raqqa, the former “capital” of ISIS, which the Kurdish fighters liberated last year only to surrender it to Damascus in October. Erdogan did not seem to mind a Syrian government comeback as long as the Kurdish fighters were driven out of the area, saying: “It’s their (Syria’s) land.”

“Putin’s offer to use his diplomatic skills to defuse escalating tensions in the Middle East could not come at a better time — particularly because the American foreign policy process is in shambles,” Oklahoma University Professor Joshua Landis said.

“President Trump’s latest political initiatives in Syria have only increased insecurity and heightened the likelihood of war in the region. Long-term stability can only be restored to Syria if the Syrian government restores its sovereignty of Syrian land.”

The final communique at Sochi said Russia will continue to “facilitate” the implementation of the Adana Agreement between Damascus and Ankara, signed in 1998 but suspended in 2011.

This was the brainchild of Putin, who made the suggestion last February. Erdogan hesitated to commit, however, waiting to see what the Americans had to offer. In his government’s letter to the United Nations explaining his military operation in Syria, Erdogan referred to the Adana Agreement, saying it entitled the Turkish Army to hunt down Kurdish militants in Syria.

An amended Adana Agreement states that the Russian Army would deploy side-by-side with the Syrian military across the border area, serving as a double buffer for Erdogan against Kurdish infiltration.

That’s the exact offer Putin made to the Israelis in 2018 when they complained that return of government forces to southern Syria implied a return of Hezbollah as well. To soothe their fears, he deployed Russian military police on the Syrian-Israeli border, facing the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon.

The original Adana Agreement gave the Turks the right to go after Kurdish separatists up to a distance of 5km, a zone that has been expanded to 32km. It also called for joint security committees with the Syrians, which Putin is trying to arrange.

His forces will aid the Syrians in patrolling the borders and protect the Turks from Kurdish attacks. He has negotiated a complete dismantling of the SDF and YPG, whose forces will be incorporated into the Syrian armed forces after surrendering their US-supplied arms to the Russians.

Former US Envoy Brett McGurk summed up the new reality saying: “Putin and Erdogan want us out. That’s been their plan for some time. What they agreed to (at Sochi) makes it very difficult to realistically maintain a US presence, let alone one that might meaningfully impact the situation on the ground in Syria.”

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