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Death Trap For Russia In Northern Syria

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Death Trap For Russia In Northern Syria

A Russian soldier gestures during a patrol near the Syrian and Turkish border in north Syria on Friday. Oct. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

On November 18, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey will launch a new military operation in northeast Syria if the area was not cleared of what he called terrorists.

Cavusoglu claimed that the United States and Russia had not done what was required under agreements that halted a Turkish offensive against “terrorists” (i.e. Kurdish armed groups – the YPG and the PKK) in northern Syria. Under the Turkish-US and Turkish-Russian agreements Kurdish units had to remove from the area near the Turkish border.

“If we do not obtain a result, we will do what is necessary, just as we launched the operation after trying with the U.S.,” Cavusoglu said, referring to work with the US to remove the YPG from the area before Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring on October 9.

Turkey sees the YPG, the main component of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control the northeastern part of Syria, as a terrorist group with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that involved in a long-standing rebellion against the Turkish state.

The statement of the Turkish foreign minister came following a new attakc on a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in northeastern Syria by YPG-affilated radicals. YPG supporters threw petrol bombs at Russian and Turkish vehicles.

On November 19, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov commented on Cavusoglu’s statement describing it as surprising.

“The Russian Defense Ministry was surprised to hear Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statement about Russia’s alleged failure to fulfill its promises, as well as his threats about an operation in northern Syria,” Konashenkov said. “The Turkish top diplomat’s statement calling for military activities may raise tensions in Syria’s north instead of easing them in accordance with a joint memorandum signed by the presidents of Russia and Turkey.

The surprise of the Russian Defense Ministry towards the statement of the Turkish foreign minister is surprising itself. Ankara has been providing a consistent foreign policy towards Kurdish issues and Syria as a state. The November 18 statement goes fully in accordance with this course.

It should be noted that the Turkish leadership has never seen Russia as a long-term partner. Rather, Ankara sees Moscow as a situational ally and aims to exploit the gullibility of this ally to achieve own goals.

The Turkish foreign course is an apparent demonstration that Ankara is not seeking to make ‘friendship’ with other regional and global actors. Turkey’s foreign policy is mobile and variable. However, it is always designed to defend interests of Turkey as a regional leader and the key state of the Turkic world.

Cavusoglu’s statement hint at a new shift of the Turkish foreign policy, which may undermine the Russian influence in northern Syria.

By November 19, Turkish and Russian forces had conducted at least 8 joint patrols in the framework of the reached ‘safe zone’ agreement. Most of them, excluding the very first ones, were marked by attacks and provocations carried out by YPG-affiliated Kurdish radicals. Initially, pro-YPG rioters threw stones. Then, they blocked patrols and attack vehicles. Recently, they started using petrol bombs. What’s next? Anti-tank guided missile strikes?

By these provocations, the Kurdish leadership are testing red lines of the Russians that are the main factor that limits Turkish response to such actions. Attacks on Russian vehicles also demonstrate that at least a part of the local Kurdish population sees the Russian military presence as hostile. The main reason is Moscow’s open and active cooperation with Ankara in the region.

The developments of the last weeks demonstrate that Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring in northeastern Syria in de-facto coordination with Iran and Russia. The Turkish offensive was also un-publicly supported by the Trump administration. After the end of the operation under the US-Turkish and Russian-Turkish deals, the region of northeastern Syria had all chances to move towards a further stabilization.

The full implementation of steps agreed by Ankara and Moscow in the framework of the safe zone agreement will bring a long-awaited peace to the territory of northeastern Syria in the next 1-2 years. Nonetheless, the Turkish leadership is not interested in this. The Erdogan government needs the “Kurdish threat” and the instability in northern Syria to have a wide group of formal pretexts for a further expansion into the neighboring country and backing of pro-Turkish groups operating there. Turkey is interested in a peace on its own territory. At the same time, it prefers a low intensity conflict in the ‘instability zone’ in northern Syria.

If Ankara successfully plays Russia in its northeastern Syria ‘safe zone’ game, it will achieve the following goals:

  • To discredit Russia and its personnel in the eyes of the Kurdish population;
  • To undermine Russia’s political position in this part of Syria;
  • To indirectly demonstrate the fallacy of the Russian initiatives in northern Syria.

The further growth of tensions in the regions and continued attacks on Russian vehicles patrolling the area contribute to this scenario.

The Russian forces were deployed to the north as a part of Moscow’s wider effort to back the Assad government and support a broader political settlement of the conflict. Therefore, Russia has very limited interests there, but already faced notable obstracles (from the intractability of the Kurdish leadership to the shift of the Turksih policy).

In own turn, the Russian withdrawal from the border area as a result of some major security incident or a series of smaller ones will allow Turkey to continue pursuing its mid-term goals:

  • To keep under the control the “Kurdish threat”, which is being actively exploited by the Erdogan government in its domestic and foreign policies;
  • To seize key logistical routes, including the chunk of the M4 highway east of the Euphrates, in northern Syria. In some cases, Turkish forces may even push to capture some oil fields in the area;
  • To justify an increase of support to pro-Turkish groups in northeastern Syria and in the Idlib de-escalation zone.

By undermining the Turkish-Russian safe zone agreement and thus the Russian position in the region, the Kurdish leadership hopes to strengthen its negotiating position with Damascus and gain some additional political and financial revenue despite the collapse of its pro-US policies. Despite this, the wider look at the situation demonstrates that this approach is leading towards an even larger catastrophe. If the safe zone deal collapses and Turkish forces resume their offensive, the Kurdish population will get under the wheels of the Turkish military machine. A large part of the Kurds will be repressed or have to flee towards the US-occupied or Damascus-controlled areas. The US will keep control of the oil. Turkey will get the north. However, the Kurds will blame the Russians because they ‘did not protect them’.

According to some experts, the US is fully aware of this scenario and its intelligence services are now working to support YPG radicals that attack Turkish-Russian patrols because this gives Washington levers of influence to pressure forces of the Assad government and Russia on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.

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