Small Wars Journal

Russia Seeks to Build Local Force in Northeast Syria

Russia Seeks to Build Local Force in Northeast Syria

Sirwan Kajjo - Voice of America

1

Russia has been working to establish a new military force in the Kurdish-majority, northeastern part of Syria with the aim to deploy those troops and hardware to areas along the Syria-Turkey border, local sources told VOA.

The military force reportedly would replace a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-armed group that Turkey claims are terrorists.

"The Russians have already opened recruitment centers in two towns in our region, including Amuda and Tal Tamr," said a Kurdish journalist, requesting anonymity.

He told VOA he knows "several young people who have signed up to join this force," adding that Russia is primarily "recruiting ethnic Kurds."

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed to VOA that Russian efforts were under way to build an allied force in the Kurdish region.

Kurdish military officials said they were aware of Russia's plans, noting the new fighters will largely be used for patrol missions, along with Russian troops in the area.

"Those joining the new force are our people," said a senior commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). "We want to make sure that we have a close military relationship with Russia," he told VOA on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak about the matter to the media.

The SDF official ruled out any potential confrontation between the newly established Russian forces and the U.S.-backed SDF, since "we are essentially involved in the recruiting and vetting process of the new fighters."  

The SDF is a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been an effective partner with the United States in its fight against Islamic State in Syria.

SDF officials have stated to VOA they have at least 85,000 fighters who have been trained and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition to defeat IS.

Following a decision in October by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces near the Syria-Turkey border, the Turkish military and allied Syrian militias began an offensive in northeast Syria to clear the region from the Syrian Kurdish fighters Turkey views as terrorists.

Ankara says the SDF is an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The U.S., however, makes a distinction between the two Kurdish groups.  

'Return of Regime Authority' 

In response to the Turkish incursion into Syria's northeast, Syrian Kurds have allowed the Syrian regime and Russian troops to deploy in the area in an attempt to halt the Turkish operation. Since then, Russia has been trying to increase its presence in the region, experts say.  

"Russia's goal is the return of regime authority in the east of the Euphrates," said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank.

Syrian Kurdish forces took control of the area in 2012 after Syrian government troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebel groups elsewhere in the war-ravaged country.

With the U.S. withdrawal from some areas in northeast Syria, Syrian government forces appear to be poised to regain control of the Kurdish-held region.

Largely depleted after eight years of fighting rebels throughout the country, the Syrian military is unlikely capable of asserting its authority over this part of Syria.

Russia "understands that the regime is currently too weak to achieve this," Spyer told VOA. "Hence, Moscow appears to be establishing new bodies to try to push the gradual reconnection of Kurdish forces in northeast Syria to the Syrian state."

Long-term Presence

Some experts, such as Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, think Russia's recent move suggests it has plans for a long-term presence in the area.

"This is consistent with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's overall approach to the region — control by relying on local actors," she told VOA. "The relationship with the Kurds is especially important because Syria's oil right now is critical to control in Syria," Borshchevskaya added.

Russia vs. U.S.

After mounting pressure from the U.S. Congress and U.S. foreign allies, Trump decided to keep about 500 U.S. troops in the area to protect the region's oil fields, and prevent IS and Syrian regime troops from accessing them.

"As minuscule as Syria's oil reserves are in terms of its global market share, oil revenue has become critical for keeping the [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad regime afloat," Borshchevskaya said. "U.S. and Kurdish-led forces collect oil revenue, but with the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, the Kurds have little choice but to work more closely with Putin and Assad."

"These latest Kremlin moves in Syria show that Putin is building additional leverage in Syria, with implications for the entire region — and U.S. interests," Borshchevskaya added.