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Putin and Erdogan Announce Plan for Northeast Syria, Bolstering Russian Influence


SOCHI, Russia — His jets patrol Syrian skies. His military is expanding operations at the main naval base in Syria. He is forging closer ties to Turkey. He and his Syrian allies are moving into territory vacated by the United States.

And on Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia played host to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for more than six hours of talks on how they and other regional players will divide control of Syria, devastated by eight years of civil war.

The negotiations cemented Mr. Putin’s strategic advantage: Russian and Turkish troops will take joint control over a vast swath of formerly Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria. The change strengthens the rapid expansion of Russian influence in Syria at the expense of the United States and its Kurdish former allies.

Under terms of the agreement, Syrian Kurdish forces have six days to retreat more than 20 miles from the border, abandoning land that they had controlled uncontested until earlier this month — when their protector, the American military, suddenly began to withdraw from the region. The Syrian Kurdish leadership did not immediately respond to the demand.

Mr. Erdogan also got most of what he wanted — a buffer zone free of a militia that Turkey regards as a terrorist threat — but it came at the expense of sharing control of the area with Mr. Putin and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose rule Mr. Erdogan has long opposed.

“Only if Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is respected can a long-lasting and solid stabilization in Syria be achieved,” Mr. Putin said alongside Mr. Erdogan after the meeting.

“It is important that our Turkish partners share this approach,” Mr. Putin added. “The Turks will have to defend peace and calm on the border together with the Syrians. This can only be done in the atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation.”

Mr. Putin has emerged as the dominant force in Syria and a major power broker in the broader Middle East — a status showcased by Mr. Erdogan’s hastily arranged trip to the Russian president’s summer home in Sochi. And it looks increasingly clear that Russia, which rescued the government of President al-Assad with airstrikes over the last four years, will be the arbiter of the power balance there.

As President Trump questions American alliances and troop deployments around the world, Russia, like China, has been flexing its muscles, eager to fill the power vacuum left by a more isolationist United States. In Syria, both Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan have seized opportunities created by Mr. Trump’s sudden withdrawal.

Mr. Erdogan had long wanted go to war against the Kurdish-led forces that control northeast Syria but he dared not, as long as the Kurds’ American allies were stationed there. After Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw American forces from the area, Mr. Erdogan launched an invasion.

The Sochi meeting began a few hours before the end of an American-brokered truce between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria, where Mr. Erdogan says his troops have seized more than 900 square miles of territory since invading on Oct. 6.

“The U.S. is still the 500-pound gorilla,” said Howard Eissenstat, a professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. “If the U.S. decided that ‘issue X’ was a primary concern to its national security, there would be very little that anybody in the region could do about it.”

But with the United States increasingly removing itself from the picture — as symbolized in the Russian news media by the images of abandoned washing machines and unopened cans of Coca-Cola left behind in the chaotic withdrawal — it was Russia’s consent Mr. Erdogan needed on Tuesday to solidify and extend his gains.

“Before, Turkey could play the U.S. against Russia and Russia against the U.S.,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based research group. “Now that’s no longer the case, and Russia has shaped up to be Turkey’s only real counterpart in Syria.”

The Sochi meeting looked to be a culmination of Mr. Putin’s yearslong strategy of taking advantage of Western divisions to build closer ties with Turkey, a NATO member and long a key United States ally, and to increase Moscow’s influence in the Middle East.

As the United States and Western Europe vacillated in their approach to Syria — to the frustration of Turkey and other Middle Eastern powers — Russia chose to protect its ally, Mr. al-Assad, and stuck with him despite fierce criticism from the West that the Syrian ruler was a brutal despot.

The upshot, Russians now say, is that while their country lacks the West’s economic might, it can be counted on to keep its word.

“Some people are furious again, some people are jealous and some people are drawn to power,” Dmitri Kiselyov, the prominent host of a news program on state-controlled Russian television, told viewers Sunday night. “Whatever the case, Erdogan is flying to Russia to meet with Putin.”

Russian television showed Mr. Putin looking relaxed as he delivered his opening remarks in Sochi, leaning back with his hands clasped easily over an armrest. Mr. Erdogan, by contrast, sat up straight as he eyed his Russian counterpart.

Mr. Putin, who relishes chances to drive wedges into Western alliances, has drawn closer to Mr. Erdogan, whose relations with Europe and the United States have been rocky. They have met eight times this year, according to Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser.

In July, Turkey defied Western warnings and began taking delivery of a Russian antiaircraft missile system, prompting the United States to cancel Turkey’s purchase of American-made fighter jets. NATO had warned that the purchase could reveal Western technological secrets to Russia, and that the Russian weapons were incompatible with the alliance’s systems.

Mr. Putin has also cultivated ties with the United States’ closest ally in the region, Israel, and its bitterest adversary, Iran, another supporter of Mr. al-Assad.

Russia “doesn’t have the economic or military capabilities the U.S. has,” Mr. Eissenstat said, “but it has been very savvy about using its power in limited and effective means.”

Until this month, Kurdish fighters had managed to carve out their own autonomous region in northeast Syria, free of government control, amid the chaos of the war. They greatly expanded their territory from 2015 onward, when they became the principal Syrian partner of an American-led coalition working to defeat militants from the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS.

As Kurdish fighters won ISIS-held land, they took over its governance, eventually establishing control over roughly a quarter of Syria.

But Mr. Erdogan viewed the Kurdish militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, as a threat to Turkish national security, since the group is an offshoot of a guerrilla movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

As a result, Mr. Erdogan sought to create a buffer zone along the entire length of the Turkish-Syrian border, roughly 20 miles deep, to keep Kurdish fighters from getting within mortar range of Turkey.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan got Mr. Putin to agree to parts of this plan: Under the agreement, Russian and Turkish troops will jointly patrol most of the Syrian-Turkish border, a stretch roughly 260 miles long and six miles deep. Kurdish forces will have to withdraw even further — to an area 20 miles from the border.

The Turkish government and its Syrian Arab proxies will also get to keep control of a deeper area of borderland, roughly 75 miles long and 20 miles deep, captured from Kurdish forces this month.

But in exchange, Mr. Erdogan has had to give up hopes of exerting greater control over a much wider territory — and agree to allow Mr. al-Assad’s forces back to a border they abandoned several years ago.

Mr. Erdogan was also rebuked by Mr. Putin for risking a revival of the Islamic State. Distracted by the invasion, Kurdish fighters have been unable to carry out anti-ISIS operations, and several ISIS militants have escaped Kurdish-run jails.

“It is important to make sure,” Mr. Putin said as Mr. Erdogan stood beside him, “that members of terrorist organizations, including ISIS, whose militants are kept by Kurdish armed formations and are trying to escape, would not use the opportunity created by the actions of Turkish forces.”

Mr. Putin also called Mr. al-Assad after the meeting to fill the Syrian leader in, the Kremlin said in a statement, and the Syrian leader “supported the decisions made.”

As American troops crossed the border from Syria into Iraq this week, the Iraqi government faced questions about whether the withdrawal was camouflage for an American buildup in Iraq. The United States military has a large camp in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the troops are going there until arrangements are made for them to move on.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper seemed mindful of the Iraqis’ concerns on Tuesday when he said, on a stop in Saudi Arabia, “The aim isn’t to stay in Iraq interminably. The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home.” Mr. Esper also said he will discuss the matter with Iraqi officials when he visits Baghdad on Wednesday.

Anton Troianovski reported from Sochi, and Patrick Kingsley from Istanbul. Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad, Eric Schmitt from Washington, Ben Hubbard from Qamishli, Syria, Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow, and Carlotta Gall from Akcakale, Turkey.


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