Russia’s deal with US-backed Kurds strands Turkey

Sunday 30/04/2017
Footprint. US forces at the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) headquarters after it was hit by Turkish air strikes in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, on April 25. (Reuters)

London- If there is one area of their strategy on Syria in which the United States and Russia see eye to eye, it is that the Kurd­ish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) represent their most dependable ally in the campaign to oust the Islamic State (ISIS) from its stronghold of Raqqa.
In March, Russian troops de­ployed in the Kurdish town of Afrin, which has been regularly shelled by Turkish gunners target­ing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which provides the hard core of the inter-commu­nal SDF forces.
Moscow described the deploy­ment, the first involving a direct agreement with the YPG, as fo­cused on negotiating truces be­tween local warring parties.
That put the Russians within “hand-grenade range” of US troops deployed in the area, in the words of US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, commander of US operations.
The US Central Command re­vealed that military commanders of both sides were in contact to avoid accidental clashes.
This tentative cooperation was thrown into question by US Presi­dent Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syrian government targets in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar As­sad’s regime against civilians.
However, the diplomatic clash between Washington and Mos­cow over the chemical attack and Trump’s retaliation is unlikely to shatter their unspoken alliance when it comes to backing the Syr­ian Kurds.

Turkey has reacted furiously to the latest Russian moves. Its prior­ity is to curb the growing strength of the YPG, which it regards as a terrorist group and an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Moscow’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara was summoned in March after a Turkish soldier was killed, ostensibly by a YPG sniper, and af­ter photos circulated of Russian of­ficers wearing YPG insignia. It was just a year after US troops had been pictured in the same region wear­ing similar gear.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mev­lut Cavusoglu reflected Ankara’s disquiet in April when he said: “The strange thing is these days two powers — the United States and Russia — are competing with each other for control over a terror group.”
Defence Minister Fikri Isik went even further during a visit to Washington, threatening that an of­fensive to retake Raqqa would be delayed if the United States contin­ued its cooperation with the YPG.
Isik said Turkey would only fight alongside Arab units of the SDF and claimed local non-Kurds would sooner side with ISIS than lose their land to the YPG.
The challenge for Washington and Moscow is that Turkey’s inter­vention in northern Syria, princi­pally aimed against the YPG, has had little effect on ISIS.
The Russians and the Americans appear to agree that their best bet is to back the Kurdish-led forces rather than rely on the Kurds’ prin­cipal enemy, Turkey.
For the Russians, Turkey’s stance stalled a rapprochement with An­kara that emerged after relations foundered when Turkish planes shot down a Russian warplane op­erating out of a Syrian airbase in November 2015.
Despite its unswerving support for the Damascus regime, Moscow has been open to Kurdish moves to entrench an autonomous regime in northern Syria, adding a further strain to Moscow-Ankara relations.
Russian intervention has effec­tively thwarted an extension of Turkey’s suspended Euphrates Shield incursion into northern Syr­ia, which was nominally aimed at pushing back ISIS but which prin­cipally targeted the YPG.
Despite Turkey’s protesta­tions of the operation’s success, it achieved little beyond the capture of Jarabulus and other areas close to its border. Further Turkish in­volvement is constrained by the Russian presence.
On the diplomatic front, Moscow has, in effect, accepted the idea of Kurdish autonomy as part of a fu­ture federal structure for post-war Syria.
Russia may have been encour­aged in its Syrian policy by the per­ception that Trump had empha­sised the fight against ISIS as his priority, rather than the removal of Assad. The April 7 US air strike on a Syrian air force base and the gen­eral uncertainty about the Trump administration may have shaken that analysis.
However, these concerns look unlikely to disrupt either Russian or US support for the YPG and its non-Kurdish allies in the SDF.
Evidently buoyed by its strength­ening alliances, the political lead­ership of the YPG-dominated SDF has announced it is forming a civil­ian council to rule Raqqa once it is liberated from ISIS. The council would represent Kurds, Arabs and local minorities in establishing a secular administration in the re­gion.

The value of the Kurdish-led forces for both the United States and Russia is their proven robust­ness in the fight against ISIS. Their additional attraction to the Rus­sians is that they have chosen a pragmatic tactical accommodation with the Damascus regime.
Amid growing indications of co­ordination between Russia, Syria and Kurdish-led forces, Syria’s Al- Watan newspaper quoted the SDF spokesman Talal Silo as suggesting his US-backed movement would even welcome Syrian government participation in the liberation of Raqqa.
War creates strange alliances.