US-Russia rift on Aleppo-Mosul line next to Turkey

US-Russia rift on Aleppo-Mosul line next to Turkey

Following the Russian veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution draft on the aerial bombing of the Syrian city Aleppo, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Turkey today, Oct. 10, to attend the 23rd World Energy Conference in Istanbul. 

He is expected to sign a deal with President Tayyip Erdoğan for the new Turkish Stream pipeline to connect Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea carrying natural gas to European markets via Greece. 

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and his Turkish host Berat Albayrak (also the son-in-law of President Erdoğan) are likely to be the most active figures of this meeting, but the items on the agenda range from tourism to agro-trade and construction projects.

It is easy to forget that until mid-June the two countries were having one of their worst times because of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet that violated the Turkish-Syrian border on Nov. 24, 2015. 

However, Putin’s visit is taking place at a time when the rift between Russia and Turkey’s NATO ally, the U.S., is growing due to the five-year old Syrian civil war.

Russia wants its physical presence in Syria (its naval base in Tartus and its air base in Latakia) to give an upper hand to Bashar al-Assad’s regime by fully retaking the second biggest city of the country, Aleppo, from the hands of anti-Assad forces.

For Russia, whoever is designated by al-Assad as a terrorist, is a terrorist. That includes not only the affiliates of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but many rebel groups including the Free Syria Army (FSA), backed by the U.S.-led coalition.

One diplomatic source in Ankara told me Russia’s Aleppo tactic seems similar to the one it used in Grozny in Chechnya almost 20 years ago: Massive bombing, forcing ordinary people to leave town, forcing the remaining ones to pick sides (either the regime or ISIL or FSA), and announcing that all who do not choose the regime are terrorists.

The rift could escalate to such dimensions that Syria (which in effect means Russia) could close its airspace to U.S.-led coalition flights, also carried out from Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base. That would mean an end to U.S. ops in Syrian air space without confronting Russia.

Russia wants to maintain and strengthen its military position in Syria, which now hosts its only base in the entire Middle East and East Mediterranean. 

The American answer to that is not likely to be in Raqqa, the ISIL stronghold in Syria, but in Mosul, the ISIL stronghold in Iraq. The operation to take Mosul from ISIL is likely to be easier. There are far fewer ISIL militants in Mosul than in Raqqa, fewer than 1,000 according to intelligence estimates. On paper, it is the Iraqi government forces that will carry out the operation, supported by the U.S.-led coalition. The Obama administration in the U.S. hopes to secure a big success story before the Nov. 8 presidential elections, as a booster for Hillary Clinton. 

But there are problems with an operation on Mosul.

First of all it was the same Iraqi army that abandoned the city in June 2014 when it heard ISIL militants were coming. Nearly 40,000 Iraqi troops fled Mosul, also leaving their U.S.-donated weaponry, for around 1,100 ISIL militants to take the huge city overnight in June 2014. The Iraqi troops were predominantly Shiites from the south of the country and did not consider the predominantly Sunni Mosul as “their land.”
Secondly, there is the Iranian factor. The Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, has been actively fighting in Iraq (as well as Syria) on the side of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government (as well as the Syrian government). Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is probably one of the strongest men in both Iraq and Syria, practically in command of the Hezbollah forces in Syria and of the Hashd al-Shaadi militia in Iraq. They both want to take part in the Mosul operation.

Thirdly, there is the Kurdish-Turkish factor, which is very complicated. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq does not want to risk its position regarding either Iran or Turkey, with the latter being the outlet of its oil and gas. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), on the other hand, is based in the Kandil Mountains (in KRG region) and is currently fighting against Turkey.

The Iraqi government does not want Turkey - which has been giving military training to the predominantly Sunni Hashd al-Vatani militia at the Bashika camp near Mosul for more than a year - to take part in the Mosul operation. Iran does notsay anything other than “Ask Baghdad” which acts as the “Voice of Tehran” according to Ankara. 

The PKK is on the U.S. terrorist list. But its Syria Branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are currently acting as the ground units for the U.S. Air Force. That makes Turkey extremely upset.

Turkish President Erdoğan has urged Obama to drop the YPG as a partner, saying the two countries could support other rebel forces to take Raqqa from ISIL. The immediate answer from the U.S. is that it will not allow any PKK affiliates to take part in the Mosul operation. 

In other words, the U.S. wants to keep Turkey away from both the prospective operations in Mosul and Raqqa (almost halfway between Aleppo and Mosul). In this way the U.S. wants to avoid further complications between the PKK, the Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi and Iran, thus freeing the hands of its Central Command (CENTCOM) forces.

The U.S. wants to keep its NATO ally away from the scene, as if Turkey does not have a 910 km border with Syria and the 330 km border with Iraq. There are strong historical ties between Turkey and its two southern neighbors, with it only being a few hours’ drive to reach both Aleppo and Mosul from Turkey. 

The U.S. and Russia are in the midst of a serious rift in Syria and Iraq on the Aleppo-Mosul line, along the Turkish border, in a region where neither of them really belong.

There is also the rift in Ukraine. The Turkish Stream pipeline was supposed to pass through Ukrainian territorial waters to Romania or Bulgaria, two European Union member countries under the name of South Stream. The U.S. was actually against that as well, as it would have increased Europe’s gas dependency on Russia. But when Russia annexed Crimea it changed concept of the Black Sea’s territorial waters. When Bulgaria and Romania joined to the embargo on Russia over Ukraine, Putin took the Turkish path.  
Under other circumstances, Turkey might have reacted against what Russia is currently doing in Aleppo fiercely.

For now both Erdoğan and Putin are separating politics from trade. It will certainly be interesting to watch the U.S.’s next move.