As of 17.30 Damascus time, intense fighting continues between Turkish proxy militants and the Kurdish led US proxy militia group SDF in Syria’s Aleppo Governorate.
Although Turkish backed militants had previously exchanged fire with the SDF, the ensuring battle in the town of Ain Daknah appears to be the most intense instance of fighting to-date, between Turkish and US proxies.
Al-Masdar reports that heavy artillery fire is being exchanged between the SDF and Turkomen dominated groups flying under the SDF flag in addition to the pro-Turkish Sunni militant group Ahrar Al-Sham.
This development does not come as surprise, as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remarked that among the top priorities for Turkey in Syria is fighting Kurdish militants who in many cases have openly expressed solidarity with the Turkey based Kurdish terrorist group PKK.
Erdgoan has been unambiguous in his refusal to allow Syrian Kurds the ability to gain any territorial or geo-political upper hand in Syria and other members of his government have been even more abrasive in stating their lack of reservations in respect of directly confronting a proxy militia of the United States, a fellow NATO member.
Turkey’s own position as a US “ally” and NATO member has become increasingly tenuous over the Kurdish issue, over which Ankara and Washington find themselves on opposite sides of what for Turkey is a supremely important issue of national security, something that both Erdogan’s AKP and the secular Kemalist opposition CHP agree upon. While Erdogan does and likely will still occasionally offer domestically aimed anti-Ba’athist rhetoric in respect of Syria, at this point this is just fodder for Erdogan’s core supporters who continue to represent a Muslim Brotherhood style ideology with Turkish characteristics.
As for Turkey’s actual role in Syria, it is now to restrain or even make gains against Kurdish militias. While this has caused extreme friction between Ankara and Washington, with Ankara accusing Washington of being behind Gulenist plots against Turkish sovereignty, the real decisive factor in Turkey’s war against Syria Kurds will be Russia.
Turkey’s relationship with Russia continues to grow strong and crucially, Russia itself seems to be pivoting away from its historic sympathies with Middle Eastern Kurds and towards a cautious and pragmatic embrace of the reality that all of the major regional players, except for Israel, are now dead set against any Kurdish ethno-nationalist agitations. This is one of the few things that both Syria and Turkey agree upon, even though Ankara and Damascus still do not have diplomatic relations, stemming from Turkey’s erstwhile support for Takfiri lead illegal regime change in Damascus.
On Monday of this week, Presidents Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi, a symbolic Russian city on the north cost of the Black Sea which is just a warm water boat-ride away from Turkey.
In the aftermath of the meeting, I described Russia’s pivot away from latent Kurdish sympathies in the following way,
“During the most recent Astana meeting, Turkey openly objective to the participation of Kurdish groups in the so-called “pan-Syrian dialogue” which Russia has called for.
These objections are one of the unique areas where Iran, Turkey and Syria have a clear point of view while Russia’s view is far more nuanced. Iran, Turkey and Syria are now on the same page in so far as they consider armed Kurdish led, US proxy militias in Syria to be a terrorist threat and a long-term security issue.
Russia by contrast, has previously welcomed the participation of “moderate” Kurdish factions in a political process to end the Syrian conflict and had previously been somewhat sympathetic to Kurdish demands for federal autonomy in post-conflict Syria.
The rationale for this much over-hyped and gradually closing schism is obvious enough. Syria, Iran and Turkey all have militant Kurdish terrorist groups operating on their own soil and the clear fear is that if one group gets an upper-hand over their respective central government, this could set a dangerous precedent in the region. This is why Turkey and Iran cooperated with Iraq on subduing ethno-nationalist Kurds in northern Iraq in the autumn of 2017.
Russia has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, but at the same time, due to historic links with Kurdish groups, Russia was willing to facilitate the meeting of some Kurdish demands, if possible. This is because, Russia would prefer Kurdish groups to see Russia as a guarantor of peace, rather than the United Stats which Iraqi Kurds have openly said let them down. It is also because in the past, Russia had explored the possibility of a Kurdish buffer-zone between traditional Arab allies and Turkey in order to add one more layer of protection against a once hostile NATO member in the region.
Today, both of these Russian rationales have largely been changed due to new realities on the ground. Russia’s long-time ally Syria has recently stated that it views armed Kurdish groups occupying Syrian territory as no different than Takfiri groups doing the same, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. In naming Kurdish militants as terrorists, Syria has affirmed that it is not planning on taking a soft-line against Kurdish ethno-nationalists after the conflict against Takfiri groups is inevitably won. With Iraq, Iran and Turkey all taking the same line, Russia is not about to fight for a non-state group against four states whose friendship with Russia is key to Moscow’s ability to have good relations in the region and balance out would-be power struggles in the Middle East.
Secondly, with Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its relationship with Iran improving at a fast pace and with Ankara’s relations with Washington downgrading at an equally frantic pace, the idea of a ‘buffer zone’ is becoming largely outdated. Any would-be Kurdish statelete would be US/Israeli puppet state that would only strain the regional balance of power that Russia is so keen to stabilise.
Turkey and Iran will both be happy by Russia abandoning its moderate version of Project Kurd. In return, Russia will no be well placed to insure that after remaining issues are settled, Turkey does not end up permanently occupying Syria’s Idlib, thus alleviating a grave concern of Damascus.
A longer term issue will be balancing out Iran’s legal partnership with Syria against Israel’s illegal but seemingly unstoppable threat to continue to occupy and strike Syrian targets under the pretext of Iran’s presence (however limited) in Syria.
In this sense, Russia’s deal-making with Turkey, could prove to be a useful precedent in working out a solution that keeps Syria safe once the conflict formally ends, while also insuring that Russia maintains good will with Iran, while acting to quietly restrain Israeli aggression. The progress Russia has made in terms of turning Turkey from an outspoken enemy of Syria into a country that cooperates with both Russia and Iran (as Syrian allies) is a significant achievement. Convincing Israel to cease its hostility against Syria while allowing Syria and Iran to pursue their alliance will be the next great task of Russia, as Russia is the only power capable of speaking on friendly terms with all parties in the Middle East, including the occupier entity.
It is clear that while Turkey and Russia still have a fair share of disagreements on regional security, that Turkey and Russia are now the key leaders on ‘both sides’ of the international community who will help to bring the conflict to the close in Syria”.
This is not to say that Russia gave Erdogan a “green light” for further attacks on the Kurdish dominated SDF such as the one currently taking place, however it does indicate that Russia will not step in, even in a quiet capacity to restrain such attacks as it may have done previously. To be sure, Russia will continue to seek a balance of powers in the region, but Russia’s patience with the Kurds appears to have run out.
Instead, Russia is moving into a position whereby, Moscow will use the Kurds as leverage against protecting Syrian territory from future Turkish incursions. Turkey has been quietly setting up shop in Syria’s Idlib Governorate in what can only be described as a prelude to an attempt at long term occupation. This has included the appearance of state-run Turkish post offices on Syrian territory. This is something Syria finds totally unacceptable and it is something that increasingly frustrates both Russia and Iran.
The United States, which previously endorsed Turkey’s military adventurism in Syria, now realises that the presence of Turkish Army troops and paid up Turkish proxies in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, is going to be one of the biggest long-term stumbling blocs to setting up a Kurdish zone of occupation in northern Syria, one which Kurds have said they hope will stretch from eastern Syria to the Mediterranean.
Against this background, Russia is in a position to both effectively guarantee a hands-off ‘wink and a nod’ approach to Turkey going after the SDF in Syria, while using this as future leverage to force a Turkish withdrawal from Idlib and nearby areas of occupation in Syria.
Turkey cannot afford to alienate Russia and the US at the same time and as Turkey and Russia’s relationship is steadily becoming one of strategic and economic importance, while Ankara’s relationship with the US is becoming one that is increasingly seen by Turkey as an infuriating dead-end, the choice for Turkey is becoming obvious.
Turkey has already expressed solidarity with Russia’s calls for the US to leave Syria. This became most clearly expressed when the Turkish Prime Minister slammed the US for helping ISIS terrorist to safely evacuate from Raqqa. The statement was crucially made only hours after Sergey Lavrov blasted the US along roundly similar lines.
Turkey therefore is demonstrating that its statements on Syria are increasingly in-line with those of Russia, this is especially true in respect of statements intended for an international audience, as opposed to Erdogan’s domestic rhetoric which ought to always been listened to in its appropriate context. Russian political leaders tend to speak in generally similar styles whether their remarks are intended for domestic or international consumption. The opposite is true of many Turkish leaders, including Erdogan.
Ultimately, Russia is allowing Turkey to do Syria’s ‘dirty work’ while preserving the public status quo of Turkey and Syria being at odds, something which serves the domestic purposes of both the leaders of Turkey and Syria. At the same time, in failing to restrain Turkey, Russia is showing that it has dropped its opposition to Turkey’s hard-line against Syrian Kurds, which itself is an admission of Syrian Kurds being disproportionately loyal to the United States whose goals in Syria are becoming increasingly and ever more stridently opposed by Russia.
Russia does not want Turkey to expand its influence in Syria but nor does Russia want a permanent or semi-permanent occupation of Syria by a US military using Kurdish ethno-nationalists as a fig leaf for their ambitions.
In this sense, just as Turkey under Erdgoan has chosen Russia over the US as an important superpower with whom to form a strategic partnership, so too has Russia chosen to deal with Turkey’s concerns regarding Syria as a priority over those of the US with whom Russia cannot see eye to eye. By contrast, Russia can make important “win-win” or near “win-win” compromises with Turkey. This appears to be the immediate result of the most recent Putin-Erdogan meeting.