Turkish President Erdogan will visit Moscow next week for talks with his Russian counterpart, during which time it’s very likely that the important topics of the planned S-400 missile deal and the Syrian Kurds will come up in the course of discussions with President Putin. Thus far, Russia has sought to leverage its “military diplomacy” in the Mideast by selling wayward NATO-member Turkey state-of-the-art S-400 anti-air systems in order to complement its multipolar reorientation (or some would more mildly argue, “rebalancing”), but the deal has reportedly been caught up in a snag over pricing arrangements and other issues.
One of the latter seems to be Russia’s support for Kurdish “decentralization” in Syria, as suggested in the Russian-written “draft constitution” unveiled in January, which is intended to epitomize the “balancing act” that the “progressive” faction of Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to strike between all Mideast actors. The challenge, however, is in convincing the four state-level parties, especially its two most directly affected ones in Syria and Turkey, that this is a necessary “compromise”, seeing as how Baghdad was able to successfully coordinate with its neighbors in driving the separatist Kurds out of oil-rich Kirkuk in a lightning-fast and largely bloodless operation last month.
The primary difference between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds is that the latter count at least 10 American bases on their occupied soil, and it’s unlikely that the US would turn a blind eye to its troops being “put in harm’s way”, as the Pentagon would likely frame it in “justifying” a militant response to any forthcoming liberation operation launched in the Kurdish-occupied lands of northeastern Syria. That’s why Russia will probably try to clinch a Great Power “gentleman’s” agreement with its US rival in agreeing to de-facto freeze the Arab-Kurdish component of the War on Syria along its post-Daesh lines largely corresponding to the Euphrates River, with each country promising to “restrain” its on-the-ground allies (the Syrian Arab Army [SAA] and “Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], respectively) from “violating” this deal.
The possible creation of a de-facto independent, albeit even if legally unrecognized, Kurdish statelet in northeastern Syria could play out to Russia’s grand strategic interests in “balancing” the Mideast by creating a low-intensity pro-American “threat” along Turkey’s southern borderlands that could be indirectly exploited for keeping Ankara “in line” with Moscow and preventing Erdogan from ever second-guessing his multipolar pivot. Russia might request that the Syrian Kurds surrender the energy fields that are under their control to Rosneft in order to comply with Damascus’ promise that Moscow would be allowed to rebuild this nationwide industry if it successfully saved the country, with Russia possibly offering to share some of the proceeds with the Kurds (and maybe even Damascus) as a quid pro quo, as well as trying to “convince” Syria to de-facto recognize their “decentralized” “autonomy”.
For as “brilliant” as this “balancing” plan might sound on paper, it’s much more difficult to execute in practice, since neither Damascus nor Ankara want to see any sort of “decentralized” Kurdish statelet along their shared borderland, no matter if it’s closer to the US or Russia. This explains why Jamal al Zuubi, a deputy of the Syrian parliament, told Sputnik less than a week ago that “Kurdish self-governance in the north of Syria is only a mere desire of some terrorist groups”, thus equating the Kurdish PYD and their larger SDF “federal” forces as terrorists and severely complicating the “progressives’” “balancing” efforts. It also allows observers to understand why Turkey objected so loudly to Russia’s invitation to the Syrian Kurds to attend the planned “Congress of the Syrian People” conference in Sochi later this month, which was reportedly postponed because of Ankara’s opposition.
By all indications, it appears as though Damascus and Ankara are coordinating their policy towards the Syrian Kurds just like Baghdad did with its neighbors prior to the liberation operation against Kirkuk, but that such speculative talks are probably taking place in secret due to the heightened sensitivity of both countries’ domestic audiences to this possibility. If this is the case, and it surely seems to be to one extent or another, then it would mean that Syria and Turkey are doing so outside the prior third-party mediation efforts of Russia, which would be a dramatic breakthrough in their bilateral relations after the two neighbors’ ties with one another soured since the War on Syria first began nearly seven years ago.
To return back to the upcoming Erdogan-Putin Summit after having explained the appropriate contextual background behind it, the Turkish President will probably try to instrumentalize his country’s planned S-400 deal with Russia in order to extract concessions from President Putin concerning Moscow’s “decentralization” policy towards the Syrian Kurds. It’s possible that Russia is already reconsidering its prior strategy after calculating that the potential risks to its hard-fought geopolitical gains of the past two years far outweigh the “balancing” gamble that betting on the Kurds amounts to, and this is evidenced by the recent statement earlier this week from Alexander Ivanov, the spokesman of Russia’s airbase in Hmeimim.
He’s on record as saying that “It is possible that the military options will be the only way facing Damascus to reach regions beyond its control in the North which are under the Kurds’ control illegally and with the US support”, which is the first time to the author’s knowledge that an official Russian figure acknowledged that the armed Kurdish “federalists’” control over northeastern Syria is illegal. This statement importantly came just a day or two after Zuubi’s declaration that the “federalist” project “is only a mere desire of some terrorist groups”, suggesting that Moscow received the signal that Damascus was sending and is responding to it in a positive way. To ensure that Russia goes through with what looks to be an impending policy reversal towards the Syrian Kurds, Erdogan will probably use the S-400 deal as a bargaining chip because he knows that it’s much more important to Russia than to his own country, which could always just solicit Chinese systems instead like it had originally sought to do a few years back.
The S-400s are the best anti-air system in the world, but Russia sees their value more in geopolitical terms than financial ones, since their purchase by Turkey powerfully undermines NATO and solidifies Ankara’s newfound multipolar pivot. From the Turkish perspective at this moment, the country could still move closer to the emerging Multipolar World Order if it sacrificed quality for a cheaper Chinese system in order to protest Russia’s support of the Syrian Kurds’ “decentralization” ambitions, though Erdogan would of course prefer to stay loyal to the deal that he already clinched with Putin and that’s why he’ll probably use the agreement as leverage in pressing Moscow to reverse its position on this issue of national security importance to his state.
Whether as a result of clandestine coordination with Damascus or not, Ankara would in essence be advancing Syria’s interests as well because of the shared concerns that the two neighboring states have over Russia’s “balancing” strategy towards the Kurds, which is why it’s provocative but nevertheless accurate to refer to Erdogan as Assad’s “emissary” to Moscow next week because both Mideast states are simultaneously working along different diplomatic tracks to convince their Eurasian partner to reconsider its envisioned “Kurdish-friendly” “political solution” to the War on Syria.
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