Russia’s blessing and US mixed signals push Turkey ahead in Syria

Russia was conspicuously absent from the Afrin theatre, as the events in north-western Syria seemed to converge towards Moscow’s ends.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) adresses soldiers during his visit to Operating Base in Hatay on the sixth day of Operation Olive Branch, on January 25

TUNIS - With the blessing of Moscow, Turkey seems intent on pursuing and possibly widening its anti Kurdish incursion into Syria. The Turkish momentum is being aided by Washington’s mixed signals.

In a statement issued January 23, the US military maintained its support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a means of halting the risk of a resurgence by the Islamic State (ISIS) within Syria, as well as containing Iranian expansionism.

However, the White House adopted a more conciliatory tone that reflected the diminished threat of ISIS and the desire to avoid further entanglement in Syria’s tortured politics.

Thomas Bossert, a US homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to US President Donald Trump, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said he was in no way critical of the Turks’ action but he prayed for their “longer-term strategic patience.” This seemed to suggest the potential need for Turkish-American collaboration against the threats of ISIS and Iran.

The White House’s view seemed at odds with Turkey’s strategic priority of fighting the Kurds. That objective remained Ankara’s main focus as it forged on with its anti-Kurdish war plans, making no effort to exclude the risk of clashing with US proxies. Turkey called on the United States to drop support for the SDF or risk a direct confrontation with Turkish troops.

Speaking to broadcaster A Haber, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said: “Those who support the terrorist organisation will become a target in this battle.”

“The United States needs to review its soldiers and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdag said.

Experts dismissed notions of conflicting signals from Washington. Stephen J. Flanagan, a senior political analyst with the RAND Corporation, speaking by phone,  said: “I really don’t sense any conflict. I feel what they’re trying to do is prevent the conflict reaching Manbij and avoid any major civilian casualties.

“I think the US has made it clear that it understands Turkish concerns and, like other governments around the world, is urging caution.” Unable to count on US support, the Kurds of Syria’s Afrin province appealed to the regime in Damascus to help stop the Turkish advance into the country’s north.

Turkey escalated its shelling campaign on Afrin, with planes striking the surrounding province and a variety of Turkish-sponsored militias, as well as the country’s regular forces, attacking the town from nearby Azaz and Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Russia was conspicuously absent from the Afrin theatre, as the events in north-western Syria seemed to 
converge towards Moscow’s ends.

Reports said Turkey-sponsored militias in Syria’s opposition claim pressure from Ankara to attend Russia-sponsored talks at Sochi, scheduled for January 29-30. Turkey had long opposed the Russia-led peace process due to Kurdish involvement. The recent plea from Afrin’s Kurds reaffirms their loyalty to Damascus, marking a further advance in Moscow’s longstanding goal of preserving Syria’s territorial integrity under the control of Damascus.

While the US State Department has publicly committed to a process of stabilisation and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ultimate departure from leading the country, it is unclear how it can achieve this without significant Russian support.

Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute in Washington wrote that the events in northern Syria have shown “Russia’s attitude in Afrin is not encouraging.”

“A regionally isolated US will have either to entrench with its local allies in eastern Syria over the long term, parrying off the unconventional attacks that will come or quit eastern Syria altogether,” Ford said.