Kurdish autonomy in Syria via Russian hands?
The Russian military announced on March 3 that Kurdish militants of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have started to leave their positions around Manbij in northern Syria to forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Sergey Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff said that from March 3, Manbij and the surrounding area would be under the control of the Syrian regime’s forces, which also means under the guarantee of the Russian military presence in Syria.
That announcement came a day after a statement from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that if the YPG does not leave Manbij, the Turkish military – having supported the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA) forces in taking al-Bab from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - will march on Manbij to hit the YPG.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has been fighting against Turkey for more than three decades. Ankara considers the PYD to be a terrorist organization like the PKK.
Çavuşoğlu’s message was directed to the U.S., which has picked the YPG as its ground partner in the fight against ISIL. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan told both former U.S. President Barack Obama and the incumbent Donald Trump that Ankara and Washington could act together against ISIL if the U.S. abandons the YPG/PYD as partners.
Çavuşoğlu urged the U.S administration to keep its promise to pull the YPG back from Manbij – which it took from ISIL together with the U.S. - to the east of the river Euphrates. The Turkish idea was to prevent the PYD/PKK from forming a belt along the Turkish border where it could later claim autonomy.
The answer to Turkish worries came not from the U.S., but from Russia.
This Russian move showed a few points regarding the six-year-old Syrian war:
1- Russia has outmaneuvered Turkey and the U.S. in Syria. Moscow has demonstrated its leverage on the PYD, which has been a partner of the U.S. since 2014. This could be one of the consequences of the Kurdish conference in Moscow on Feb. 15.
2- Part of Turkey’s demand has been fulfilled in an unexpected way: The YPG will be evacuated from Manbij, as the Russians say. So Russia has provided something to Turkey, together with the Syrian regime, which Ankara’s NATO ally the U.S. could not provide. But Turkey’s follow-up demand about giving control of the town to the FSA is no longer valid.
3- It is unlikely that Ankara will now issue an ultimatum against or make a military move against the Syrian regime forces in Syria. Firstly, the presence of Turkish forces in Syrian territory, which is justified by the anti-ISIL fight, is possible thanks to a deal with Russia. Secondly, after Ankara had difficulty mending ties with Moscow in June 2016 following the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, the government would not like to experience another crisis. That is particularly the case as Turkey’s struggling tourism sector relies heavily on Russians returning.
4- Since it entered the game in mid-2015 by sending additional troops, reinforcing its naval base in Tartus, and establishing an air force base in Hmeymim, Russia has held the upper hand in Syria. We do not have any evidence yet whether the latest Russian move was coordinated with the U.S. through covert diplomacy, but with it Vladimir Putin has made sure that Trump must consider the Russian factor in Syria before he makes his call for a new strategy.
5- The move might signal another nightmare scenario for the Turkish government. Putin has made it clear to Erdoğan that if he maintains his strong anti-Assad stance it may not be difficult for Putin to convince al-Assad to give autonomy to a PYD/PKK-led region along the Turkish border. Russia again seems to have a stronger hand than the U.S. in using the PYD/PKK as leverage on Turkey’s Syria policy.
Ankara must now see that the Russians are outmaneuvering two NATO allies at once - Turkey and U.S., which keep contradicting each other - and revise its policies in line with this to make a new move.