Something is going terribly wrong on the Syrian front

Something is going terribly wrong on the Syrian front

The downing of a Syrian Su-22 jet on June 18 by a U.S. F-18 near the Syrian city of Raqqa triggered an unexpected escalation of tension between the U.S. and Russia.

Following a statement by the U.S. Central Command saying that the Syrian jet was downed - in Syrian air space - “in collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces,” the Russian Defense Ministry said it had suspended a de-conflicting and exchange of information agreement with the U.S. That agreement had been struck as part of the shared aim of taking Raqqa from the occupation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

CENTCOM’s statement that Syria had earlier attacked the “SDF-held town of Tabqa,” and Damascus’ reminder that it is still Syrian territory where the Americans are operating, may have played a role in Moscow’s dramatic decision.

The SDF is the acronym for the Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly consisting of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey had objected to CENTCOM’s plan to partner with the YPG, on the grounds that it is essentially the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has been fighting against Turkey for the last three decades. U.S President Donald Trump turned down Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s suggestion of desisting from partnering with the YPG during their meeting on May 21, and now Syrians and Russians are also wary that the advance of the SDF (or the YPG), with the backing of U.S. forces, may have ulterior motives apart from just liberating Raqqa.

The Russian statement said that from now on Russian planes will “track as targets” all military activities on the western banks of the Euphrates River. “West of the Euphrates” is a line that has been used by Ankara for over a year, concerned about YPG/PKK militants advancing to form a continuum in the area they control along the Turkey-Syria border, which Turkey says is part of preparations to officially separate a PKK-controlled Kurdish region from Syria.

Turkey had started an operation in August 2016 in support of Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels to clear the last remaining pocket along the Turkey-Syria border of ISIL occupation, which also put a wedge in the Kurdish-corridor plans. The deliveries of heavy arms to the SDF (which the Turks read as YPG) have caused concerns in Ankara that they may one day be used against Turkey. American assurances that the arms have tracking systems do not convince Turkey, where there are high-ranking officials who suspect that CENTCOM is paving the way for the founding of a Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq under PKK control, forcing the U.S. administration to accept it as a necessity.

But it seems that now the Russians also have concerns about the SDF (or the YPG) advancing much further, especially going west of the Euphrates.

Despite having the backing of the U.S., the YPG seems to be forcing its limits too. The Turkish military announced on June 19 that YPG forces had shelled the FSA-held town of Mare, west of the Euphrates, killing seven civilians.

The PKK is a terrorist group according to both Turkey and the U.S. - though not according to Russia, by the way - but they are no fools. They have also read U.S. statements saying Washington’s partnership with the YPG will be finished as soon as the fight against ISIL in Syria is over. The PKK therefore seems to have its own contingency plan to grab and establish control over as much territory as possible, which could ultimately be used as a bargaining chip. This strategic move has started to bring the Americans and the Russians face to face in Syria.