Spy crisis with Russia could affect Syria

Spy crisis with Russia could affect Syria

The spy crisis between the U.K. and Russia is spilling across Europe and America, as a growing number of countries expel Russian diplomats in solidarity with London. Following the U.S.’s March 26 decision to expel 60 more Russian diplomats, 14 EU countries - including Germany, France, Italy and Poland – as well as Canada and Ukraine, decided to come up with a coordinated response aiming to deliver the biggest blow to Russian intelligence efforts in the West since the end of the Cold War. 

The crisis started on March 4 when Sergei Skripal, who had been working as British intelligence agency MI6’s mole in the Russian intelligence agency FSB and settled in Britain after a spy swap, was poisoned while eating with his daughter Yulia at a pizza restaurant in Salisbury. The U.K. accused Moscow of trying to kill Skripal and expelled 23 Russian diplomats, which was reciprocated by the Russians. In response to yesterday’s show of solidarity, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the “extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever and will help defend our shared security. Russia cannot break international rules with impunity.”

Contacted by the Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Foreign Ministry officials said Ankara was not planning to take similar action against Russian diplomats “for the time being.”

It is not only American and European territories where Russian and Western agents are confronting each other. Syria is perhaps the hottest ground for such confrontations, amid an actual hot war going on there since 2011.

After physically getting closely involved in the Syrian war on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia has expanded its presence in Syria. It has expanded the capacity of its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and established a major air base in Khmeimim near Latakia. The presence of Russian Special Forces is no secret, as from time to time there are reports about officers being killed in fighting against terrorists linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or al-Qaeda. It is also no secret that Russian intelligence has been in close contact with Syrian intelligence for many decades, while Russia and Iran are in close contact with each other in support of al-Assad. In addition to the Russians, there are thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and pro-Iran Hezbollah militias on the ground in Syria.

On the other hand, Russia has accused the U.S. of setting up 20 operation bases east of the river Euphrates with the help of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington has used the YPG as a ground force against ISIL under the PR-friendly name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but Moscow has recently started to refer to this (originally Marxist-Leninist) group as a “Kurdish-led U.S.-proxy militia.”

Despite both being members of NATO, Turkey and the U.S. are engaged in a bitter ongoing rift over the use of PKK-affiliated groups in the fight against ISIL and al-Qaeda. Despite the alliance against ISIL, the PKK is also designated a terrorist group by the U.S., and Turkey has been carrying out operations against PKK-affiliated groups in Syria, west of the Euphrates. Those operations have been carried out with the indirect support of Russia, and Turkey is meanwhile involved in creating “de-escalation zones” in Syria together with Russia and Iran within the framework of the Astana Process.

Amid this complex picture, there is no guarantee that the spy war ongoing between Russia and the West will not spill over to Syrian territory. If that happens it could make the outlook in Syria even more complicated.

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