Why is Russia targeting ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ area?

Why is Russia targeting ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ area?

A topic from last week’s column, titled “The striking coupling of differences in Turkish-Russian relations,” included Russia’s ballistic missile attack on oil refineries in the “Operation Euphrates Shield” area in Syria.

We are talking about a highly sensitive matter between Turkey and Russia - the locations hit by Russia are within an area that is under the control of the Syrian National Army (formerly known as the Free Syrian Army), which Turkey strongly backs and supports.

Many observers had a difficult time comprehending why Russia conducted an aerial attack on an area under the safekeeping of Turkey in a period where Ankara and Moscow’s relations are following a positive trend with significant projects such as the nuclear plan and S-400 air defense systems taking place.

Russia’s strike occurred on March 5, attacking oil refineries in al-Hamran near the Jarablus town and the village of Tarhin near al-Bab in eastern Aleppo in the Operation Euphrates Shield area.

Second attack after 10 days

Last Monday, Russia hit the locations of the same oil refineries again. In the first attack early in March, the missiles were fired from batteries near the Khmeimim air base in Latakia in eastern Syria and Kuweires Airport, some 30 kilometers east from Aleppo.

The new development was that Ankara did not stay silent over the attack this time. The Turkish Defense Ministry released a statement last Monday, saying: “[Multi-barreled rocket launcher] MBRL and ballistic missiles fired from the Kuweires Airport in Aleppo, which is under the control of the regime, targeted civilian settlements and fuel tankers’ parking spots in Jarablus and al-Bab districts and caused civilian casualties.”

The ministry also stated that “a notification was sent to the Russian Federation side to stop the shooting after the firing started and the determined targets were put under fire.” With this, a statement that indirectly holds Russia accountable was put on record.

Russia targeted same area last October

The fact that the area of Operation Euphrates Shield was attacked like this has become another rough topic in the agenda of Turkish-Russian relations and the long list of problems in Syria. About five months ago, on Oct. 23, 2020, Russia hit the same oil refinery in Jarablus. In this attack, ballistic missiles that were fired from a Russian warship off the Syrian coastal city of Tartous were used.

The timing of the last operation is also noteworthy. The attack coincided with the 10th anniversary of the start of the civil war in Syria. In a day where everyone was making the 10-year evaluations of the civil war, the fact that a region under the control of Turkey was hit from Kuweires is a novel matter of concern in the complex and difficult situations of the war.

Trade first?

Before assessing the missile attacks, we need to first throw light on oil refineries. Indeed, these oil refineries unroll one of the striking paradoxes in Syria. Oil fields in Syria are located in the soil, along the east of the Euphrates river. In other words, oil wells are within the area where the SDF, whose structure is set by the United States and the YPG it is safeguarding, has a say. The YPG is the extension of the PKK terror organization in Syria.

In a nutshell, some of the oil extracted from the region under the control of the U.S.-YPG/SDF alliance is being brought to the Euphrates Shield area, which is under the control of the Syrian National Army. In the scratchy refineries in this area, oil is processed and released in the market as diesel fuel and petrol. This activity creates a remarkable sum of input in the Euphrates Shield area - from generating electricity from power plants to heating and turning the wheels for commercial use.

Likewise, in the south, although there is fuel traffic between the YPG/SDF region and the regime region, it is known that the U.S. frequently takes actions to prevent this trade in order to put the Assad regime in trouble.

Message to Turkey, US

After nothing this, we can now move on to the question of why Russia hits the oil refineries. There is probably a combination of a number of factors.

First of all, Russia’s efforts to prevent armed organizations opposing the Assad regime from getting a share from the oil trade can be considered an important motive. Russia, the number one ally of the Assad regime, interrupts their ability to stand on their feet by harming these organizations.

On a level that complements this, Russia’s discomfort that the Syrian National Army gained ground towards an autonomous line as the dominant group in the Euphrates Shield region may be another factor behind the attacks.

The Euphrates Shield area - whose center of gravity is formed by Jarablus, Azez and al-Bab - is one of the regions in Syria where peace exists on a vast scale. Here, the relative atmosphere of stability, under the close observation of Turkey, was shaken to some extent by Russia’s latest moves. Without a doubt, with this show of strength, Russia aims to up its ante by placing itself as the dominant actor in Syria.

An account towards the U.S. can also be attributed to these moves.

For a long time, Russia has had concerns that the U.S. is trying to “create a state-like structure” in the east of the Euphrates and is using the “Kurdish card” for this purpose, which will threaten the territorial integrity of Syria in the long run. Moscow has expressed these concerns over and over again at various levels. The contribution of the oil trade to the YPG/SDF’s benefit from this activity is likely to be seen as a situation that will strengthen this centrifugal trend on the Russian front. Russia is sending a message to the U.S.-YPG/SDF alliance as the oil refinery is hit.

Russia using ‘dual’ rhetoric

However, there is a question that stands before us in this picture. While Russia is hitting oil refineries in Jarabulus and al-Bab, it is targeting a region directly under the auspices of Turkey. Moreover, the organizations on the ground here are not listed in the “terrorist” category. That is, Russia has no justification this time as it said in the case of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib that “my targets are terrorist groups.”

Despite knowing that their move will severely disturb Turkey, why is Russia still moving forward with it in a period where relations with Turkey are advancing in many areas?

I think the answer should be sought to a great extent in the way Russia manages its relationships. Russia does not refrain from taking actions that will disturb its interlocutor at the thresholds where it thinks its trumps are strong, and even when the relations are going well in other areas while interests conflict in the field of Syria. In other words, he uses a “dual” language.

From time to time, Russia’s actions have created turbulence in improving their relations with Turkey.

Let’s not forget that the air strike in which 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib on Feb. 27, 2020, was an operation jointly carried out by Russian and Syrian warplanes.

As a result, two developments in opposite directions in relations can very well happen on the same day. Look at the day of the incident we reported; Turkish and Russian soldiers also went on a joint patrol in the countryside of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani), east of the Euphrates, to the west of the “Peace Spring” region.

Sedat Ergin,