Is Russia trying to force Turkey to talk to Syria?
Following a story run by Syria’s government-controlled Ikhbariya TV on the morning of Feb. 19 that forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad could enter the northwestern town of Afrin near Turkish border in the next few hours, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The story was alarming for Ankara, as it also said Damascus was about to cut a deal with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting with Turkey for more than three decades. The Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces it backs have been carrying out a campaign for a month against the YPG-held Afrin and its environs, which the PKK calls the “Afrin Canton” in line with its autonomy/independence target.
Prior to the Erdoğan-Putin telephone conversation, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, when asked in a press conference in Amman, that if the Syria army retakes Syria to clear the YPG from the region (implying the border with Turkey) then Turkey would have no objection. But he added that if the purpose of Damascus is to protect the YPG from the Turkish operation “then no force could stop Turkey” moving forward.
The Turkish operation - with jets, tanks and howitzers – has been possible so far due to the indirect support of Russia, the main ally of the al-Assad regime, together with Iran. Otherwise it would have been quite possible for Syrian jets and artillery to open fire on the Turks, who they want out of their territory. Indeed, Çavuşoğlu said at the start of the campaign that Ankara had established contact with Damascus through Russia and Iran, in order to assure everyone that the aim was not to invade Syria but to clear the YPG/PKK from the region and thus reduce the threat on Turkey’s borders.
It is interesting that right before this move by the al-Assad regime there was a crucial visit to Ankara by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Feb. 15-16. A joint statement was released on that visit reiterating the U.S.’s commitments to Turkey’s security in line with NATO agreements and stressing the importance the “strategic partnership” between the two countries (despite being highly questionable at the moment).
One of the main reasons overshadowing relations is the U.S.’s choice of a “bad alternative” (in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) to cooperate with the YPG under the name of Syria Democratic Forces (SDF). The Americans have repeatedly promised to Turkey that the partnership will end once the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is defeated but the Turks have become nervous due to the lack of delivery on these promises. Now Erdoğan wants U.S. President Donald Trump to walk the walk in Syria, which would require a step – even if only small and symbolic - to show everyone that U.S. support for the YPG/PKK has come to an end.
The Syrian government’s move on Afrin could be a wink to encourage its former friends, the PKK, to abandon the Americans and switch sides. The PKK, led by its founder Abdullah Öcalan, had its headquarters in Syria from 1982 to 1998 until former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad kicked Öcalan out upon pressure from Turkey. Öcalan ended up being arrested by the Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) thanks to the help of the CIA, caught while leaving the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was hiding in 1999.
According to Turkish presidential sources speaking to the press after the telephone conversation, Erdoğan told Putin that if Syrian forces “protect the YPG or attack Turkish forces” then it could have serious consequences. Those sources suggested that Moscow “understood Turkey’s determination” to continue its anti-terror operation in Afrin.
Russia wants to curb suspected U.S. plans for Kurdish secessionism in Syria. So does Tehran, as Ali Akbar Velayeti, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamanei made clear on Feb. 17 in Baghdad. So does Turkey, whether or not it is backed by U.S. or Syria.
But Putin also still wants to show everyone that all roads in Syria lead to Moscow. For example, establishing contact between the al-Assad regime in Syria and Turkey would be a victory for Putin before the Geneva talks and before Russian elections in April. Clearly, diplomacy over Syria is being complicated by moves in the battlefield.