Russia seeks to drive a wedge between U.S. and its allies in Syria

Russia gave Turkey a green light to launch a military operation against the Kurdish-held northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin in order to drive a wedge between the Kurds and its U.S. backers and increase tension between the United States and its Turkish NATO allies, Turkish war reporter Hediye Levent said.

Turkish aircraft and artillery began bombarding the district of Afrin on Jan. 20, and Turkey’s leaders pledged to clear the area of what Ankara calls terrorists it says are linked to Kurdish separatists who have been fighting in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades.

Russia controls the air space over Afrin and no operation could have gone ahead there without its consent. A small Russian force withdrew from Afrin just before Turkey’s operation began after Turkish security officials held meetings with their Russian counterparts.

The move, coupled with a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive against the Turkish-backed Islamist rebels in the province of Idlib, to the south of Afrin, sparked speculation that the two powers had struck a deal for each to give up one area in exchange for the other.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG) had hosted Russian forces in the Afrin enclave, but the Kurdish militia is also backed by the U.S. special forces in eastern Syria where, forming the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it has taken back swathes of territory from Islamic State (ISIS), including its former capital, Raqqa.

“It is not surprising that Russia gave Turkey the green light to engage in Afrin. Essentially, Russia is telling the Kurds; ‘Limit your relationship with the Americans, otherwise, we can’t protect you],” said Levent, who has covered the Syrian war extensively for the left-wing Turkish newspaper Evrensel.

“Russia has a significant investment politically and militarily in Syria, as it considers Syria to be Russia’s entry point to the rest of the Middle East. The U.S. invested heavily in Iraq, militarily and economically, but with the emergence of ISIS, they needed allies in Syria, too. Not wishing to side with Iran, or the Syrian government, they chose to ally themselves with the Kurds.”

Beginning with pro-democracy protests in March 2011, violently put down by the Syrian government, fighting in Syria has mushroomed into a multi-sided conflict that has dragged in regional and global powers.

“Neither Russia nor the United States likes the influence the other has in the region. The ongoing conflict is a proxy war between the two,” said Levent. “But the end is unknown, in that we don’t know if the United States will build military bases or use its alliance with the Kurds to further its interests.”

Russia’s direct involvement in the war from September 2015 has helped turn the tide in favour of the Syrian government. With only a small remnant of ISIS left in the far east of the country and many rebel areas beleaguered or captured, analysts say the fighting could be heading towards its final weeks and months.

“As the conflict is coming to end, all sides, including Turkey, now want to ensure they have a position at the political bargaining table,” Levent said.

As the war began, Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president, turned against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the friend he had once holidayed with, and backed a string of Syrian Islamist rebel groups.

“While both Syria and Russia agree that the area has to be cleansed of militant groups, Turkey has a different priority. Turkey actually wants these militants to remain in the area, and have them seated at the discussions, because these groups can support Turkey’s interests,” Levent said.

But as the Islamist rebels have been forced back by Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia, and the United States has backed the Kurdish YPG, Erdoğan has edged towards Russia and railed against his U.S. NATO ally, regarding Kurdish ambitions in Syria as en existential threat to Turkey, greater than accepting peace with Assad.

“It’s easy for people to take sides in a war they can’t see, touch, hear, or smell,” said Levent. “We have to be careful to not take sides, because every war sooner or later affects the entire region. When the war started in Syria, it created a lot of excitement in Turkey. Now, that excitement has turned to, ‘dear God, what have we done?’”

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