Turkey has been at odds with its biggest military ally the U.S. for some time over Washington’s selection for a partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH in Arabic initials.
Ever since the Kobane clashes in 2014, the U.S. Central Command’s pick has been the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has been operating as the U.S.’s ground force, as U.S. administrations do not want American
soldiers to get killed in Middle East deserts any longer if there is a possible alternative.
The problem is that in this case, the alternative is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), which has been engaged in a fight against Turkey for over last three decades, and which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
Despite objections by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, neither former U.S. President Barack Obama nor incumbent President Donald Trump abandoned their choice of combat partners in the anti-ISIL campaign. That is one of the reasons why Turkey launched the Euphrates Shield Operation into Syria in August 2016, despite the trauma of the military coup attempt the month before.
It would not have been possible for Turkey to conduct that operation without the consent of Russian
President Vladimir Putin, the primary supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. After all, it would be impossible for Turkey to operate in Syria under possible attacks from the Russian
and Syrian air forces.
Continuing its tight involvement with Russia
on energy projects, and largely dependent on Russia
for mass tourism, the Turkish government has tried to highlight Russia
as a relatively friendly force in Syria, despite its support for al-Assad. That position can be seen partly as leverage against its NATO
ally the U.S., despite the fact that Ankara
granted permission for the use of its strategic İncirlik air base against ISIL, while it is also part of the four-year-old international coalition against the jihadi group.
But Russia, as well as the U.S., has apparently started to put pressure on Ankara
to accept the PYD as a legitimate member of the Syrian opposition to take part in peace talks. Turkish public broadcaster TRT World recently reported that the issue was discussed during a meeting between Russian
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila on Aug. 7. TRT also reported that when Lavrov “demanded to add names from the PYD” to the list of the Syria opposition delegation in the Astana talks, Çavusoğlu ruled it out, saying it was an “unacceptable red line for Ankara.”
This is not the first time that Russia
has voiced backing for the PYD in the Syrian theater, partly in a bid to balance the U.S.’s ongoing influence on the Syrian Kurdish group.
Earlier this year on Jan. 27, Lavrov hosted a group of Syrian opposition representatives including the PYD, again despite Turkish objections. Following that meeting, a Russian
plan for a future Syrian constitution was revealed, which left the door open to Kurdish autonomy. That is something The Americans have not officially mentioned yet.
Also, on Feb. 15, Russia
hosted a Kurdish Conference, inviting the PYD as well as a delegation from Turkey’s Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
More recently, as the partners of the Astana initiative for Syria, ranking diplomats from Turkey, Russia
met in Tehran on Aug. 8 for two-day talks on the extension of de-escalation zones in Syria. The issue was also discussed in Manila between Çavuşoğlu and Lavrov as a follow-up of the Astana talks that started in 2016.
Idlib, near the Turkish border, is now seen as the most crucial zone after the former al-Qaeda affiliate,
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, took control of the city. Last week, a row broke out between Washington and Ankara
over al-Qaeda activities in Idlib, amid a Turkish military build-up near the Syria border and reports of another possible operation against ISIL and the YPG.
The recent Russian
pressure on Turkey over the PYD could make Turkey’s job more difficult in Syria, not only regarding a new operation but also regarding the political future of its problematic southern neighbor.