Russia’s deal with US-backed Kurds strands Turkey
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.