Yaşar Yakış
Jan 19 2018

Turkey loses out if U.S., Russia find common ground in Syria

The U.S. Department of Defense announced on Jan. 13 that it would set up a Border Security Force composed of 30,000 personnel in Syria. Half of its fighters were going to be veterans from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a combat group equipped and trained by the U.S. The force was going to be deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border in the north; the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east and along the Euphrates River. This area corresponds to the territory already controlled by the SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Pentagon later stepped back from this move, but said the equipping and training of the Kurds would continue as before. For realistic policymakers, the first move made abundantly clear the designs of the U.S. The second move looks more like an attempt to satisfy certain sensitivities. Turkey may take pride for having persuaded the U.S. to change its mind, since this change took place after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met Tillerson at the margins of a meeting in Vancouver.  The ultimate goal and the content of the initial move are likely to remain unchanged, however, consisting of creating a Kurdish-dominated region in the north of Syria.

Another important feature of this area is that it contains almost all the oil, gas and water resources belonging to Syria. Whether this region will become an autonomous or federal region within the territorial integrity of Syria is another question that will be decided when the time comes.

There was more than one anomaly in the first move:

First, the U.S. was setting up an army in the territory of another country without the consent of its government. This could not be justified under international law. It may set a precedent for other cases, which may turn against the U.S. interests in the future.

Second, the move was presented as an initiative of the anti-ISIS coalition. A decision of this nature requires unanimity or at least consensus. There was no sign that such a consensus was reached. Turkey, for one, which plays an important role in the fight against ISIS, was strongly opposed.

Third, the Kurds constitute a minority in the region delineated by the decision. Therefore, the move was a recipe for further violence in the future.

Russia has unequivocally opposed the move since the day one. However, if the U.S.’s ultimate goal were to use the move as a bargaining chip to force Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside and to lay the foundations of a future Kurdish State, it might find a middle ground with Russia. The U.S. may be contemplating killing two birds with one stone: creating a friendly state for Israel in the region and taking the countries that host sizeable Kurdish minorities down a notch and making them more manageable for the U.S.

Turkey has announced several times that it would not allow the establishment of a Kurdish belt in the north of Syria. This divide between Turkey and the U.S. may grow even wider if Turkey carries out military action against the U.S.-equipped Kurds in Afrin or elsewhere in Syria.

In light of this complicated network of interests, is an agreement conceivable between the Washington and Moscow?  

Russia is an important supporter of the Kurdish cause. The draft constitution prepared for Syria by Russia proposes federal status for Kurds. Therefore, the U.S. and Russia may find an accommodation over the Kurdish question in Syria.

The same reasoning goes for Bashar Assad’s stepping aside. Russia is in favour of the territorial integrity of Syria, though with a federal structure. Russian leaders have announced on several occasions that what is important for them is a democratically elected government in Syria that they can continue to cooperate with, whether it is Assad’s or not.

These parameters offer the U.S. and Russia a possible area of convergence if political and military developments do not get out of control. Such an outcome would create serious disappointment in Turkey with both of them.