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Russia Finds Itself In The Middle As Turkey Continues Offensive In Syria

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's focus for the next few minutes on one of the key players in the conflict in Syria, Russia. On the one hand, Russia supports the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, Russia is selling high-tech weapons to Turkey. Now Russia finds itself, quite literally, caught in the middle. The Russian Defense Ministry says Russian soldiers are patrolling between Turkish and Syrian government forces in northern Syria in an apparent attempt to keep the two sides apart.

NPR's Lucian Kim is tracking all this from Moscow. He joins me now. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: Hey. So start with the latest move by Russia, which has been to criticize this Turkish military operation. They're calling it unacceptable. How come?

KIM: Well, these comments come from President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for Syria. He told reporters that Russia does not support this Turkish operation and has always told Turkey to exercise restraint.

I spoke to Vladimir Sotnikov. He's a Middle East expert at Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies. And he told me that the main concern for Russia right now is to prevent a direct clash between Syrian government forces and the Turkish army. That's because Russia, as you mentioned, is friendly with both countries, and a direct clash would mean open war between them. Another concern that Sotnikov mentioned to me is the fear of ISIS detainees escaping in this ensuing chaos and possibly making their way to Central Asia, which, of course, borders Russia.

KELLY: So stay with this fascinating visual for a second of Russian forces patrolling in between Turkish and Syrian forces, both of whom they're supposedly allied with. How many Russians are there? How many are on the ground?

KIM: Well, of course, Russia's military presence in Syria mainly consists of its air force, which has been fighting on the side of the Assad regime. And as far as the region where the Turkish operation is taking place and where the U.S. military has withdrawn, the Russian Defense Ministry says there is now Russian military police patrolling in those areas between Turkish and Syrian forces. The details are very sketchy. According to a senior Trump administration official, the Russian presence there is very limited, probably not even in the hundreds.

KELLY: And set this in the context of Russia's overall ambitions in Syria. Russian forces were in the region - were in Syria - well before Turkey decided to sweep across the border.

KIM: Right. Well, Putin went into Syria to prop up the Assad regime four years ago, and he's largely been successful. Now what confuses this picture is that Putin is also very friendly, as you said, with Turkey's leadership. Russia is selling sophisticated weaponry to Turkey, which is traditionally a U.S. ally. So suddenly, we have all these interests clashing in one place.

As Vladimir Sotnikov, the expert I spoke to, told me, Russia now has this great opportunity to act as a mediator among all these different sides. But at the same time, he said there's also a great danger that things could go horribly wrong, and we could just end up with a war of everyone against everyone.

KELLY: And I should note before I let you go, Vladimir Putin is - speaking of inserting himself in the region, he's actually there. He was in Saudi Arabia, and he's now moved on to Abu Dhabi.

KIM: Yes, exactly. And in sort of the bigger picture, Putin has established himself as this Middle East powerbroker. He can pick up the phone. He can call the leader of Israel, of Iran, of Egypt, of Saudi Arabia. You name it, Vladimir Putin can speak to that country directly.

KELLY: Fascinating. NPR's Lucian Kim reporting there from Moscow on Russia's moves, possibly to help fill the security vacuum left after U.S. forces were pulled back.

Lucian, thanks so much for your reporting.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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