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Gambit in Chess… ”The Putin’s Syrian Gambit”

gambit (from ancient Italian gambetto, meaning “to trip”) is a chess opening in which a player, more often White, sacrifices material, usually a pawn, with the hope of achieving a resulting advantageous position.

The word “gambit” was originally applied to chess openings in 1561 by Spanish priest Ruy López de Segura, from an Italian expression dare il gambetto (to put a leg forward in order to trip someone).

Gambits are often said to be offered to an opponent, and that offer is then said to be either accepted or declined. If a player who is offered a gambit captures the piece (and thus gains material) the gambit is said to be accepted. If the player who was offered the gambit ignores it and instead continues to develop his pieces, then the gambit is said to be declined.

In modern chess, the typical response to a moderately sound gambit is to accept the material and give the material back at an advantageous time. For gambits that are less sound, the accepting player is more likely to try to hold on to their extra material. A rule of thumb often found in various primers on chess suggests that a player should get three moves (see tempo) of development for a sacrificed pawn, but it is unclear how useful this general maxim is since the “free moves” part of the compensation is almost never the entirety of what the gambiteer gains. Of course, a player is not obliged to accept a gambit. Often, a gambit can be declined without disadvantage.

A gambit is said to be ‘sound’ if it is capable of procuring adequate concessions from the opponent. There are three general criteria in which a gambit is often said to be sound:

  • Time gain: the player accepting the gambit must take time to procure the sacrificed material and possibly must use more time to reorganize his pieces after the material is taken.
  • Generation of differential activity: often a player accepting a gambit will decentralize his pieces or pawns and his poorly placed pieces will allow the gambiteer to place his own pieces and pawns on squares that might otherwise have been inaccessible. 
  • Generation of positional weaknesses: finally, accepting a gambit may lead to a compromised pawn structure, holes or other positional deficiencies.

The Turkish troops who poured into Syria to battle Kurdish fighters abandoned by the U.S. may have inadvertently handed Russian President Vladimir Putin a strategic victory in the Middle East.

“We have always called on Turkey to exercise restraint and considered any military operation in Syria unacceptable,” Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Tuesday in Abu Dhabi, where the Russian president was meeting with United Arab Emirates leaders. “Security along the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by deploying government troops.”

Less than a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the intervention, Russia underlined its dominance in the region by warning of the limits of its patience with the operation. The Kremlin’s message came after President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey that left many in Congress unimpressed following his withdrawal of the last 1,000 U.S. troops from territory held by the Kurds for seven years during the Syrian war.

Putin has seized on the crisis to maneuver Syrian government forces into Kurdish-held territory, a major step in his efforts to restore President Bashar al-Assad’s control over all of the country after Russia’s military intervention tipped the war in his favor. The Kurdish-led authority in northeast Syria announced Sunday that it had struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow for the Syrian army to protect the northern border with Turkey after the U.S. pullout.

The agreement gives the Kremlin undisputed leadership in shaping Syria’s future, bolstering Putin’s image in the Middle East, where he’s already forged a partnership with Iran, created an oil alliance with Saudi Arabia and built close ties with Egypt’s strongman President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Putin has also wooed Erdogan, who defied U.S. opposition to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 air-defense system, and they have coordinated efforts to try to resolve the Syrian war despite tensions over the Kurds.

Putin traveled to the U.A.E. from Saudi Arabia, where he made his first visit since 2007, reinforcing the Kremlin’s efforts to exploit waning U.S. influence in the Middle East under Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.

Syrian government troops took full control of the key frontier city of Manbij and surrounding towns following the U.S. departure, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday in an emailed statement. Russian military police are patrolling the northeast border of Manbij province along the line of contact between Syrian and Turkish forces, it said.

The U.S. has “abandoned partners, undermining others’ trust,” said Tom Tugendhat, a U.K. lawmaker from the ruling Conservative party and chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. Russia “is a key ally of both sides and wins either way,” he said on Twitter.

Russia won’t permit any armed clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces, Lavrentiev told reporters.

“Putin has forced his allies and rivals to accept that he has essentially become the architect of the political and military balances in the Syrian conflict,” Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North East research at Eurasia Group, said by email.

Trump sought to regain the initiative on Monday by holding phone talks with Kurdish military commander Mazloum Abdi and Erdogan in the presence of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has pushed for “crippling” sanctions on Turkey. The U.S. president assured Abdi he would do “everything possible” to stop the Turkish incursion, Graham said on Twitter.

Ankara says the offensive, which has provoked a wave of international condemnation, is necessary to push back Kurdish fighters it describes as terrorists linked to separatists inside Turkey.

But Putin on Friday warned that the operation risked triggering a resurgent threat from Islamic State, with thousands of jihadists detained by the Kurds potentially able to escape. “This is a real threat to all of us,” he told regional counterparts in Turkmenistan. The Kurds said Sunday that nearly 800 inmates affiliated with Islamic State had escaped from a detention center after Turkish shelling.

The Turkish attack and U.S. pullback presented a perfect opportunity to achieve Russian goals in Syria and restore central control over the oil-rich northeast, according to Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert.

“Russia has always wanted the government to recover control of as much territory as possible.”