Wladimir van Wilgenburg
Oct 19 2019

How Putin used Turkey’s Kurdish phobia to win in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has successfully used the Kurdish phobia of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his bid to help Damascus restore territorial control over Syria. Putin’s ultimate goal is to convince Turkey go back to the 1998 Adana agreement and restore its relations with Damascus.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Russia and Turkey have supported different sides: Turkey wanted President Bashar Assad ousted and replaced with an Islamist government while Russia did everything to keep him in power.

Things took an especially bad turn for opposition factions in Syria when Russia launched a military intervention against them on behalf of Assad in September 2015. This eventually led to Turkey shooting down a Russian jet in November, and in Dec. 2015, the Russian military accused Erdoğan and his family of involvement in illegal Islamic State (ISIS) oil trade.

On Dec. 19, 2016, a Turkish gunman shot Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. Moreover, Turkey accused Russia of giving Kurdish rebels weapons inside Turkey in May 2016.

However, relations took a turn in June 2016, when Erdoğan apologised for the downing of the Russian jet.

This was one of the rare occasions that the Turkish president apologised for Turkey’s malevolent behaviour in the region. He never apologised to the West for his actions, such as calling the Dutch “Nazis”. President Putin also condemned the military coup attempt of July 2016 against Erdoğan.

Since then, Putin has successfully used Turkey to undermine NATO and to weaken the Syrian rebellion by diverting attention away from Assad. Russia also benefited in its plans to dominate the gas market, eliminating Turkey as an alternative transit route for gas to Europe. Moreover, Turkey bought the Russian S-400 missile system this summer, angering the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress.

The breakdown of Turkey’s peace process with its Kurds in July 2015, and its fears that Syrian Kurds would gain more legitimacy after they became the main partner against ISIS in 2015, led to increased fears, which Russia used to its own benefit

Since 2016, Russia has supported Turkish military operations in northwest Syria, including the Euphrates Shield of 2016 and Olive Branch of 2018, as well as the recent Peace Spring.

The Russian president also knew that if Turkey would attack the Kurds in northeast Syria, the Kurds would be forced to call on Damascus for help. When Turkey attacked the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in 2018, Russia offered the Kurds two options: either completely surrender Afrin and other areas to Assad, or face the Turkish wrath. The Kurds chose resistance.

When Kurds in Afrin later called on the Syrian government to protect its border, it was already too late. Before Turkey’s unilateral operation in Afrin, Russia supported Kurds against rebel forces near Aleppo. A commander of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) received an award in Moscow in Dec. 2017. One month later, Russia pulled out of Afrin, and the Kurds felt betrayed.

The Turkish operations against the Kurds completely undermined the rebels’ manpower in their fights against the Syrian government in Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib. It also pushed Turkey against the U.S. rather than Assad and Russia. Turkey used rebels to fight against Kurds and not Assad. Turkish observation posts established in Idlib did not stop Assad’s advances.

After all, Turkey cared only about eliminating the Kurds in Afrin, not Idlib. Turkey also took part in deals to evacuate rebels from other areas where they had been defeated by Assad’s forces. Turkey started to support the Russian-backed Astana process, which would eventually benefit Assad.

Therefore, some Kurdish officials and local media suggested that Turkey sold Aleppo for Bab, while Afrin was sold for Ghouta. People from Ghouta were settled in Afrin, after the Kurds were defeated in March 2018.

Russia also benefited from U.S. President Donald Trump’s isolationist policies. Kurds reached out to Damascus and Moscow after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from Syria in December 2018. But Damascus did not want to give in. The U.S. troops ended up staying then, however, are now pulling out. Damascus and Moscow were just waiting for a possible Turkish-Kurdish conflict to explode, or for U.S. troops to leave after a Trump tweet.

The new Russian-Turkish relations also undermined the NATO alliance and U.S.-Turkish relations.  Now EU countries are imposing weapons embargos on Turkey, and the country’s reputation within NATO is damaged. The U.S. is also implementing weak sanctions on Turkey.

Now with the U.S. pulling out, it seems Russia is the main power that will decide the future of Syria. Unless the new U.S.-Turkish ceasefire deal leads to major changes. The Russian president has also said he will work to push all foreign armies out of Syria.

It remains to be seen how this will play out on the ground,however, it is clear that Moscow is the main benefactor of Trump’s recent decision, and managed to play its cards well.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.