What message is Russia delivering to Turkey on the YPG?
Talal Silo, a former high-ranking commander and spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group whose core is formed of troops from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), recently gave a substantial interview to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. He was speaking almost a month after defecting from the SDF.
The information Silo provided was very important in terms of detailing the substantial cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG, a group that Ankara sees as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The interview also shone a light on the YPG’s organic relationship with the PKK, while Silo revealed how the SDF made deals with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters over the liberation of Raqqa in October as well as other Syrian regions.
However, it was interesting to observe Silo’s unwillingness to discuss the YPG’s relationship with Russia, especially in Afrin.
Indeed, Silo’s Russian revelations were easily upstaged by a recent picture of Russian General Alexei Kim posing with the YPG spokesperson Noureddine Mahmoud, in front of YPG and Russian flags at Russia’s Hmeimeem military base in Syria.
The two men appeared together before the press to announce the YPG takeover of Deir el-Zour’s eastern countryside from ISIL, with the help of both the U.S.-led coalition and Russia.
This is not the first time Russian commanders have posed in front of YPG flags. In March 2017, a group of senior Russian officers were pictured with YPG leaders in Afrin in front of both YPG flags and posters of the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Russia has a military presence at the Minnagh airbase in the Afrin canton, and has kept close links with the group in recent years.
A senior Russian Defense Ministry official on Dec. 4 issued a statement revealing the true nature of Russia-YPG relations. Major General Yevgeny Poplavsky said Russian warplanes had flown 672 missions to help SDF forces fighting ISIL to capture the province of Deir ez-Zor.
This display of support has been interpreted as an indication of Russian efforts to strengthen ties with the YPG, despite Turkey’s strong opposition.
The timing of the push is crucial. It follows an agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran to accelerate efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Their aim is to conduct an inclusive conference that brings together various ethnic and religious groups to the same table to discuss the future of the war-torn country.
Contrary to Russia’s wishes, Turkey strongly opposed extending an invitation to the YPG. The conference is expected to take place in February 2018 if the three guarantor countries can eventually agree on the participants.
Russian support of the YPG strongly contrasts with Turkey’s vows to clear PKK-affiliated groups from Afrin and all of northern Syria. On Dec. 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed his vow that Turkey would not tolerate the presence of any terrorist organization on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, and would clear these areas of YPG troops. At the moment Russia controls the airspace over Idlib and Afrin, and Turkey’s repeated demands to conduct aerial surveillance have not yet been approved.
Russia’s move coincides with a further deterioration in Turkey-U.S. relations. In more harsh remarks against the U.S. on Dec. 5, Erdoğan linked the ongoing Reza Zarrab case in New York with developments in Iraq and Syria, claiming that the U.S. was trying to distract Turkey’s attention in order to facilitate the establishment of a terror state in Turkey’s southern neighbor. Furthermore, recent statements from Washington stress the continuance of the YPG-U.S. partnership, even in the post-ISIL period.
It is reasonable to expect a reaction to the Russian move from Erdoğan and other senior government officials. Turkey’s diplomats admit to serious disagreements with Russia and Iran over the role of Syrian Kurdish groups, but they prefer to look at the bigger picture regarding ongoing cooperation.
Turkey’s non-negotiable stance over the YPG continues to narrow its area of maneuver and risks harming its cooperation with almost all actors in the field. The Russian move clearly signals that Russia will continue to see the YPG as a legitimate partner both in the field and also in Syria’s future.