Turkish ploy to play U.S. and Russia middle man appears not paying off

Turkey has achieved little success in playing the middle man between Russia and the United States in northern Syria, hoping to prevent territorial gains by both Kurdish rebels and Syrian President Bashar Assad, two academics said in the Conversation on Wednesday.

It seems Syrian forces are winning the battle for the last major rebel-held enclave in the country, said Umut Korkut and Tarık Başbuoğlu, while Turkey has lost 13 soldiers since the end of December in Idlib and risks a new major refugee problem as almost 1 million people have fled towards the Turkish border. 

“For the past few years, Turkey has played its alliances with Russia and the United States interchangeably to affect the turn of events in northern Syria,” the authors said.

Turkey’s goal is to protect its sphere of influence from both Kurdish rebels and the forces of Assad, but it has no long-term strategy to settle the humanitarian crisis in the Idlib province and the military crisis that its Syrian rebel allies face, the authors said. 

Turkey joined the Astana process with Russia and Iran in 2017 in an attempt to maintain stability in northern Syria. It struck a deal with Russia in 2018 to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib to prevent a possible attack by Assad on the province, which is home to 3 million people. 

“While there has been a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia in recent years, Turkish politicians have made sure that Turkey has not disengaged with the United States over its Syrian policy either,” Korkut and Başbuoğlu said. 

Russian-backed Syrian forces launched an attack on Idlib in April, despite the deal between Ankara and Moscow.

Turkey and the United States have disagreed over the presence of Kurdish forces in northern Syria for several years. Turkey launched an operation into northeast Syria in October, targeting Kurdish armed groups which form the backbone of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting Islamic State. 

But both countries have Assad as their common enemy and Turkey is now seeking U.S. support to counteract a possible alliance between the Russian-backed Syrian government and the Kurds, the authors said. The United States also needs Turkey in Idlib to weaken Assad forces in the northeast and to curb the growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, they said.