How long can Turkey rely on Russia in Syria?
The Turkish and Russian presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, reportedly expressed satisfaction over the outcome of the Sochi conference on Jan. 29-30 for bringing together government and opposition groups. During a telephone conversation on Jan. 31 they seemingly agreed that the decision to set up a committee to draft a constitution for transition in Syria represented the success achieved in Sochi.
U.N. Special Envoy Staffan di Mistura, who was present in Sochi, reportedly said the conference should be seen as complementary to the Geneva Conference, which aims to find a political solution to hasten the end of Syria’s seven-year-long civil war. This is what the three sponsors of the conference – Russia, Turkey and Iran – have been saying from the beginning.
The Sochi Conference was not flawless. Opposition groups, including the Free Syria Army (FSA), protested Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The FSA is part of “Operation Olive Branch,” a joint operation with Turkish forces that aims to clear the Afrin district of Syria of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and a U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
Turks were disappointed to see Mihraç Ural as a delegate in the pro-Assad groups in the Conference. Turks accuse Ural of plotting the bomb attack on the southern Turkish town of Reyhanlı in 2013, which killed 52 people and wounded 146.
But in the end, as a UN diplomat of Russian origin Vitali Naumkin reportedly said: “Nobody fought each other.”
Turkey’s ongoing military operation in the YPG-held Syrian town of Afrin near the Turkish border also reveals a strain. Official sources say “Operation Olive Branch” is not going as quickly as planned due to adverse conditions including bad weather. Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli told parliament on Jan. 30 that if the military had not paid extreme attention to civilian casualties, the operation launched on Jan. 20 could have been completed in 15 days. This means it will continue for some time to come.
And that means Turkish forces will have to depend more on Russian coordination regarding Syrian air space. A recent incident shows how crucial this last point is. On Jan. 29, a Turkish convoy entered Syria without proper coordination with Russia and came under intense fire from Syrian regime forces and had to withdraw. When they entered the region from another point, this time they were subject to YPG/PKK fire, which killed a Turkish civilian official.
On the other hand, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) sources admitted that some elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a PR-friendly name for the YPG, had moved to the Afrin region without their control or consent, to help their comrades. The Americans had difficulty explaining why the Afrin branch of the SDF claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing against Turkish troops.
But in order to set the record straight, it is well to remember a few points.
1- Turkey and the U.S. are still NATO allies and Turkey and Russia are adversaries in NATO, a fact brought home when Russian and American planes got dangerously close to each other over the Black Sea on Jan. 31.
2- The PKK is a terrorist organization according to U.S. records and the YPG is shown as a part of it. It was the CIA that helped the arrest of the PKK’s founder Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Between 1982 and 1998 it was Syria that hosted Öcalan and the PKK cadres and afterwards expelled Öcalan, who was flown to Russia for a while.
3- The PKK is not considered a terrorist organization by Russia. The YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has an office in Moscow. There are contact people in Washington DC but no formal office.
4- The Muslim Brotherhood is designated as a terrorist organization by both Syrian and Russian governments, but not yet by the U.S. government, despite the fact that President Donald Trump has vowed to finish it after ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
The situation can change at a blink of an eye in this part of the world.