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Ukraine, Syria top Lavrov's agenda in Turkey

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives in Ankara on June 8.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu shake hands during a joint press conference following their talks in Moscow on March 16, 2022.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to visit Turkey June 8 as Ankara looks for a Russian or US nod to press ahead with a new military intervention against Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria.

Though Lavrov’s talks in Ankara are expected to focus on the Ukraine war and its economic ramifications for Turkey, their importance has grown amid Ankara’s intervention threats. Asked about the issue last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Russian officials need to talk with their Turkish counterparts first, adding that Defense Ministry officials would accompany Lavrov on the trip. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed hope that Ankara would avoid moves that would make matters worse in the war-ravaged country.

Speaking in parliament the day before, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We are entering a new phase in our decision to create a safe zone with a depth of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) along our southern border. We are cleansing terrorists from Tel Rifaat and Manbij.” He was referring to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which, Ankara says, is the franchise of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria. The PKK is designated as a terrorist group by Ankara and much of the international community over its nearly four-decade armed campaign in Turkey. Though the Turkish military operation has not officially begun, the situation on the contact lines with the Kurds is already akin to a war, short only of a ground offensive beyond the lines.

Erdogan is expected to refrain from ordering the troops into Tel Rifaat and Manbij without a green light from the United States, the main backer of the Syrian Kurds, or Russia, the main ally of the Syrian government. Washington has voiced objections to Turkey’s plans, while Moscow’s messages have been more ambiguous since Erdogan first raised the specter of a new operation last month. 

While acknowledging Turkey’s security concerns, Moscow has suggested Ankara should work with Damascus on the basis of the 1998 Adana Accord on security cooperation between the two countries. Various scenarios may unfold depending on Russia’s attitude.

Turkey’s fresh intervention plan comes to the backdrop of a spat over Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, with Ankara conditioning their accession on the designation of the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, as terrorist groups, along with the PKK. Turkey’s frictions with its NATO allies suit Moscow’s book, hence the more cautious Russian language on a fresh Turkish thrust in Syria. But does Russia’s ambivalence herald the green light Erdogan seeks? Judging by developments on the ground, this is not exactly the case.

Russia’s approach seems to be similar to how it acted in 2019, using the pressure that Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring put on the Kurds to alter the balance of power to the east of the Euphrates. The Russians have increased their presence in the region, as has the Syrian army, in a way that both narrows the US zone of influence and looks like countering the prospect of a Turkish military thrust. Russia’s deployment of warplanes and helicopters to the Qamishli airport could be read as a message to deter Turkey, with the helicopters conducting air patrols over areas in Erdogan’s crosshairs. On June 3, the Russians reportedly deployed the Pantsir-S1 air defense system to the Qamishli airport. Also, they have reportedly deployed additional troops to Ayn Issa, Tel Tamir, Manbij, Kobani and Qamishli, while the Syrian army has built up its presence in both Raqqa and the north of Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Iran-linked forces have sought to advance to the vicinity of Tel Rifaat. From Iran’s perspective, Tel Rifaat changing hands as a result of a Turkish operation would jeopardize the Shiite settlements of Zahra and Nubl, which lie to the southwest of the town along the route to Aleppo city. Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported that Iranian-backed forces attempted to deploy Grad missiles to the area May 30 but were stopped by Russian forces that are stationed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) west of Tel Rifaat. The following day, the Russians alerted the Kurds and the Syrian army when Iranian-backed forces attempted to enter the environs of the YPG-controlled Minnig air base to the northwest of Tel Rifaat. According to the agency, the Russians also barred Iranian representatives from a May 30 meeting with YPG members and Syrian officials. 

In earlier Turkish operations, Russian moves accommodating Erdogan have been underlain by the goal of securing critical gains for Damascus, including the Syrian army’s return to northern areas, and fueling Turkish-US rifts. By greenlighting Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, for instance, Russia secured the removal of rebels holding eastern Aleppo. Could it now give Turkey partial concessions in Tel Rifaat or Manbij without upsetting much of the power balance on the ground in return for the reopening of the M4 highway between Aleppo and Latakia? Or could it allow Erdogan to press ahead with his safe-zone plan in return for reversing the status quo in Idlib and removing the armed groups controlling the province? Or could it use Turkey’s firepower as an element of pressure on the Kurds to lay the ground for a deal that would lead to the Syrian army assuming control in Kurdish-held areas? 

In 2018, Russia tried unsuccessfully to convince the Kurds to cede control of Afrin to the Syrian government to prevent Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. In 2019, Operation Peace Spring was confined to Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain as Turkey made deals with the United States and Russia. As a result, Russia secured the Syrian army’s return to a number of areas. Government troops were stationed in Manbij, Tabka, Ayn Issa and Tel Tamir, and a symbolic number of border guards were deployed to areas abutting Turkey. Ankara’s present “corridor” plan would reverse those gains. Moreover, Turkey aims to place its rebel allies from the Syrian National Army (SNA) in the areas it would seize, and those militia are seen as a common adversary of the Syrian government, Russia, Iran and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Greenlighting such a Turkish operation might upset the balance that Moscow has struck with Damascus and Tehran and completely undermine Russian efforts to pull the Kurds away from Washington and closer to Damascus. 

Turkish control of Tel Rifaat would put Aleppo back within the range of the Turkish army and the SNA. The northern Aleppo neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsood and Ashrafieh are predominantly Kurdish, so access to the route connecting Aleppo to Tel Rifaat and Afrin is crucial for the Kurds. The Aleppo connection is important also for YPG-held areas as a passage to Manbij and the eastern bank of the Euphrates from the south of Turkish-controlled al-Bab. And Manbij, where the Kurds are not the majority, sits on a vital point in terms of controlling the M4 highway, which links the two banks of the Euphrates. Manbij and Tel Rifaat are of utmost strategic significance for the Syrian government as well. Given all those factors, the prospect of Russia foregoing the M4 section linking Aleppo to the northeast seems illogical, not to mention Russia’s constant pressure on Turkey to reopen the westward section of the road that connects Aleppo to Latakia.

Nevertheless, the question remains open on whether the Russians could give Turkey certain concessions short of upending consequences on the ground for the sake of strategic interests beyond Syria. For instance, opening room for Turkey at certain M4 and M5 connections or allowing Turkey to mount a military operation while reserving the Syrian army’s right to respond might be debatable possibilities.

If the YPG or the SDF are indeed threats to Turkey’s national security, returning their areas of control to the Syrian state is logically the shortest cut to address Ankara’s concerns. And this is what Russia means by proposing the Adana Accord as a basis for a solution. Yet without Turkish boots on the ground, Erdogan will be bereft of the victory narrative he needs at home to boost his sagging popular support ahead of elections. 

In October 2021, Moscow had successfully pressed for the shelving of a second Turkish intervention in the east of the Euphrates, but today, with the Ukraine war on its plate, it appears reluctant to vex Ankara. And this seems to be emboldening Erdogan to take risks. Nevertheless, the conditions appear unripe as yet for give-and-take on the issue ahead of Lavrov’s visit.