Turkey Pulse

Turkey, Russia wage proxy war against Washington in Syria

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Article Summary
Syrian Kurds say Russia gave Turkey the green light for the Afrin operation after the Kurds refused to cede Afrin to the Syrian regime; can Turkey turn the situation to its long-term advantage?

Turkey’s Free Syrian Army-backed Afrin operation has probably put an end to speculation on where Russia stands when it comes to Syrian Kurds and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been adamant on Turkey’s intention to send Turkish troops into Afrin to dislodge Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) there. Erdogan believes Syrian self-rule in northern Syria is more dangerous for Turkey than the Islamic State (IS).

Afrin has been an exceptionally stable and relatively tranquil corner of Syria since 2012, when it fell under the control of Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey believes are affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Afrin had never been categorized as a de-escalation zone for two reasons. First, there was no need because of Afrin's relative stability. Second, the region was under Russian influence. Thus, Turkish military intervention in Afrin at any level would have to take place with the acquiescence of Russia.

Moreover, less than 48 hours before the Turkish military operation — ironically dubbed Olive Branch — the Syrian regime in Damascus declared that a Turkish air operation would be met by Syrian missiles. The Syrian statement came while Turkey’s army and intelligence chiefs were in Moscow to get Russian approval and thus, the Syrian statement was interpreted as complementing a previous Russian warning against flying over Russian-controlled airspace over Syria.

The moment Turkish F-16s were in action and Turkish tanks rolled toward Afrin, no one was left with any doubt that Operation Olive Branch had the Russian green light.

Why did Moscow give Ankara the green light?

The moment Turkish F-16s were in action and Turkish tanks rolled toward Afrin, no one was left with any doubt that Operation Olive Branch had the Russian green light.

According to Syrian Kurdish officials, the reason was their rejection of a deal offered by Russia.

Aldar Khalil, the co-chair of Movement for a Democratic Society, the ruling body of Kurdish self-rule in Afrin, said, "Russia told us … that we need to offer them something. Then they would stop Turkey. We asked what we were supposed to offer. They said we should hand Afrin over to the regime. Then the attack will not happen. Of course the attack would not happen if we handed Afrin over to the regime, because the Turkish attack is only against our democratic project. That's why we declined the Russian demand.” 

Khalil added, “Syrian Kurdish forces were given an ultimatum over the weekend: Leave your positions to the Syrian regime or face the wrath of Ankara. They chose to stay. Then came Turkey's assault on Afrin.” 

That is what Nobahar Mustafa, a representative of the foreign relations committee for the Syrian Democratic Council — the political wing of the Kurdish forces fighting in northern Syria — told me in an interview Jan. 22.

She said representatives of the Kurdish YPG met with Syrian regime officials at the Russian air base at Khmeimim on Jan. 20. There the Syrians conveyed the threat. "We told them, 'We will not save our people from the Turkish butchers to give them to the Syrian and Iranian butchers,'” Mustafa said.

However, that does not fully explain the underlying motive in Russia’s dramatic decision to give the green light.

Almost all the Russian statements following the Turkish military action in Afrin denounced the United States for triggering the Turkish wrath that led to Turkey's military action in Afrin. The US statement on the establishment of a border security army — mainly to consist of Kurds that the United States would arm and train — was an ill-conceived American provocation, according to Moscow, that gave certain legitimacy to Turkish anger and the action that followed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized this point twice while the Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory was underway and Turkish fighter planes were using Afrin airspace.

The Russian position clearly indicates that the Syrian portion of the chessboard is important for Moscow in its game against Washington. Russia apparently saw a further opportunity to weaken NATO and create more fissures between Ankara and Washington by acquiescing to the Turkish military move into Afrin. The imperatives of Russia's proxy war against the United States have preponderance over the uncertainties and problems that Turkey’s move could entail.

Tukey is also waging a proxy war in Syria against the United States. It was not clear what threat there was to Turkey from the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The area has no record of a particularly irritating anti-Turkey campaign compared with other Kurdish-inhabited parts of northern Syria. All those other Kurdish-inhabited zones in northern Syria are effectively on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, where the US presence has provided support to the Syrian Kurds, who helped Washington oust IS from Raqqa. The United States' zone of influence in northern Syria is generally considered to be that east of the Euphrates; Afrin is well to the west.

In this sense, the Turkish military move toward Afrin reflects a convergence of Russian and Turkish interests in their consecutive proxy wars against the United States over the Syrian battleground.

Then comes the crucial question: What are the limits of the Turkish move into Afrin and is it sustainable?

From north to south, Afrin is roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) long, and from east to west, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) wide. That is a small chunk of land that should not be an enormous obstacle for a military power to achieve its aims in a short period. If Turkey achieves its objectives in a fairly, and internationally acceptable, short period of time, the Turkish-Russian proxy war against Washington could be won by its protagonists. If it takes a longer period with unbearable casualties for the conscience of the international community, things might change, and with them even the Russian position.

It remains to be seen whether Turkey can achieve its military and political objectives in a relatively short period of time. The longer it takes, the more problematic it will be for Ankara.

Yet one thing is quite certain: If Erdogan entered into this gambit for — as many observers note and claim — domestic political reasons more than anything else, he is the winner in the short term. With an aroused anti-Kurdish nationalist fervor, he could have a landslide victory if he asked for early elections; the vote is now scheduled for 2019. While the passage of time and a looming economic crisis had the potential to somewhat erode his power, now he is seen as the commander in chief who is grandly addressing the Turkish psyche. His supporters firmly believe that the fight he commands is, in fact, against the United States. For them, Washington is waging a proxy war against Turkey, using the Kurds. If Afrin is won, the victory would be against Washington (and the West) more than against the Kurds.

Every potential contender to Erdogan is in line with him, supporting his war effort, fearful of antagonizing the aroused nationalist sentiments of the public. All voices of dissent, all those who preach peace against war are either suppressed, detained, arrested or, worse of all, vilified as “traitors” or “the agents of foreigners.” Nowadays is not a time for reason to prevail in Turkey.

If Turkey gets stuck in Afrin militarily, then that could be a different ballgame. In a country where conspiracy theories are rampant, some think that is exactly what the Americans are counting on. And there are some who even think that what the Russians actually wanted in letting Turkey into Afrin was to weaken Ankara, their historical and strategic adversary.

The weeks ahead, if not months, will clear up the situation, as there are more question marks at the moment than answers.

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Found in: us-russian relations, ypg, operation olive branch, us-turkish relations, kurds in syria, afrin, recep tayyip erdogan, russian influence in syria

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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