The Syrian civil war is far from over, and the participants aren’t shy to apply the quid pro quo principle to the ongoing fighting.
In 2016, Turkey was allowed to take control of Syria’s northern Aleppo province and the city of al-Bab in exchange for turning eastern Aleppo over to the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Back then, the swap wasn’t blatantly obvious. But just days ago, on Jan. 20, the Turkish General Staff officially announced the launch of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin; later that day Syrian government forces conveniently seized the Abu al-Duhur air base in Idlib governorate — one of the largest airports and an important air base in northern Syria.
The very fact that the opposition groups surrendered the air base practically without a single shot, and that the Turkish military used its air force along with barreled and reactive artillery without any objections from Russia, proves that an agreement had been reached and that steps had been coordinated. Hours before Turkey’s Afrin operation, the Russian Defense Ministry relocated its military police and the center for reconciliation of the warring parties to the Tell Adjar area of the Tell Rifaat deconfliction zone “to prevent potential provocations, to exclude threats to the life and health of Russian servicemen.”
It appears Ankara had informed Moscow of the targets in advance, given that the Russian military was able to move 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from Menagh air base, which Turkey bombed soon after.
Moreover, it would have been too risky for Ankara to launch a major operation in Afrin, drawing considerable opposition forces, unless it had received certain guarantees.
The first days of Operation Olive Branch have shown that the Turkish army and allied opposition forces seek to seize some areas bordering the Afrin canton by advancing from several directions — Turkey, Idlib and the Azaz district. They aim to avoid a frontal assault and to establish bridgeheads allowing them to move forward and to conceal the axis of the main thrusts.
In the summer of 2017, Ankara and Moscow pondered the possible scenarios of their engagement in the Afrin canton. It was fully conditional on the delineation of the Idlib de-escalation zone, the terms of which were worked out during the sixth round of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The guarantor states virtually divided the territory into several parts, one of which — east of Abu al-Duhur air base — was to become a demilitarized zone. However, given that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State (IS) militants are still operating there, it will probably be mopped up over time.
While the motive behind Turkey’s actions in Afrin is clear — Ankara seeks to weaken the Kurds to the greatest extent possible — Russia’s standing is much more complex.
While the motive behind Turkey’s actions in Afrin is clear — Ankara seeks to weaken the Kurds to the greatest extent possible — Russia’s standing is much more complex. Moscow, which supports Assad, has to voice its commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and publicly urge Turkey to halt the operation. Moscow has publicly mentioned that Operation Olive Branch began virtually on the eve of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Vladimir Shamanov, the chairman of the Russian State Duma's Defense Committee, said such an “undesirable precedent” could affect the event, scheduled for Jan. 29-30.
Given the possible risk to its reputation, Russia resorted to the surefire strategy of shifting the blame for the Turkish operation onto the United States. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the operation in northern Syria was triggered by “the Pentagon’s uncontrolled supply of modern weapons,” including shoulder-launched missiles, to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab alliance in which the People's Protection Units (YPG) play a large role. Turkey says both groups are Syrian branches of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
“The US’ provocative steps aimed at isolating the areas with the predominantly Kurdish population were the crucial factors contributing to the crisis in this part of Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, emphasizing the opportunistic nature of the operation. “Ankara’s extremely negative reaction was sparked by Washington’s statements about creating ‘frontier forces’ [near the Syrian-Turkey border], as well as other steps of the United States that undermine Syrian statehood and support the armed militant groups.”
The Defense Ministry piled on the accusations, adding that “the US steps derailed the peace process and the Geneva inter-Syrian talks, which the Kurds should rightfully join.” Russia’s military establishment blamed Washington for Ankara’s decadeslong and well-known position regarding the Kurds, even though Washington calls for Kurdish engagement in the political negotiations. The United States has also said it isn’t supporting the YPG, as the group is no longer part of the fight against IS.
But Moscow continues its attempts to publicly discredit American efforts in Syria and emphasize what is seen as the illegitimate US presence on the ground. It is clear Moscow seeks America’s exit from Syria, to bolster the Assad regime and create a greater rift in relations between the United States and Turkey, which are NATO allies.
Yet the main question Russian journalists and experts ask on social networks is what has compelled Russia to distance itself from the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, as the Kurds constitute a major component in resolving the Syrian conflict?
First, with its military police operating in the Tell Rifaat deconfliction zone, Moscow still stands a chance of establishing itself as a peacemaker in the conflict over Afrin. Second, the canton’s defense lines are well-fortified. Despite all the forces involved in the operation and the Syrian opposition’s contribution of almost 25,000 fighters to Turkey’s troops, the outcome of the military campaign remains unclear. Third, by distancing itself, Moscow may be sending signals to the Kurds in other Syrian enclaves, giving them a hint as to the price tag for taking actions inconsistent with the country’s territorial integrity.
Aldar Khalil said Russia had asked the Syrian Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian regime to be “safe and far from the Turkish attacks.” However, the Kurds refused to do so. Khalil is co-president of the executive council of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the governing body of Rojava — the secular, Arab-Kurdish, autonomous but unrecognized area also known as the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Rojava, which sits along Turkey’s border, includes Afrin.
Some media also reported that Russia had promised to shield the Kurds from Turkish assaults in exchange for allowing the deployment of pro-regime forces along the lines of contact in Afrin, Manbij and Tabqa. According to pro-Assad Al-Masdar News, shortly before the start of Operation Olive Branch, Damascus — in response to the Kurds’ refusal to support the government’s initiative — rejected the Kurdish proposal to re-establish state institutions and raise the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic over strategic sites in the Afrin canton.
If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan honors his threat to move on Manbij next, this might bring change to the political landscape, if not an end to the Kurdish dream in Syria. The media are reporting that Damascus has allowed Kurdish militiamen in eastern Aleppo to send reinforcements to Afrin. However, Ankara’s real intentions have yet to be seen. The country’s harsh terrain and the fierce Kurdish resistance may limit the operation and create a buffer zone or corridor from Idlib to northern Aleppo. Besides, in a bid to alleviate the plight of the besieged canton, the SDF have redeployed its Raqqa-based fighters — who are capable of attacking pro-Turkish factions from the rear — to Manbij.