The battle between Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Syria has put the entire region at risk and revived fears of IS staging a comeback. The arrival of Syrian Army to defend its borders poses a serious challenge to Russia, which has strategic ties with both the nations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin must find himself in a bind currently. Putin and his unstinted support, boosted with Russian airpower and missiles, is perhaps the reason why Syrian President Bashar al Assad managed to not only stay on in power but actually defeat his rivals, including the IS.
Over the past five years, Putin has also invested a lot in building up ties with Turkey, a key member of NATO and one of the regional powers. Ever since Turkish President Erdogan apologised for the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in Syria, Putin has embraced Erdogan and also supplied to Turkey batteries of S400, a highly advanced missile system, despite severe objections by the United States.
In Erdogan, Putin has a rare opportunity to prise open the NATO alliance by creating tensions. Already, days after after the S400 systems arrived in Turkey, the US announced the exclusion of Turkey from the manufacture of F35 joint strike fighter, which is being developed for use by NATO members.
But the conflict in Syria, where Erdogan is trying to create a ‘safe zone’ all along the border between the two countries, threatens to put paid to Putin’s plans as sooner than later Russia would have to either help Assad in stopping the Turkish invasion or turn a blind eye to the Turkish attack and weaken not only Assad but also the Kurdish forces which have been an important component of the international battle against IS.
The mayhem began about a week ago, after the US President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew the US forces from northern Syria, clearing the way for Turkey to invade, and presenting Russia with a perfect opportunity to cast itself as a potentially decisive power broker in the complex conflict.
Russia is currently the strongest foreign power operating in Syria, and President Vladimir Putin has allied himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, throwing the full weight of the Russian military behind the Syrian Army.
Russian units have even begun patrolling around the flashpoint town of Manbij, in a clear sign that Moscow has become the de facto power broker in the region after the evacuation of US troops. “Russia has been trying to fill in some of the gaps at least from where US has withdrawn. I don’t think Moscow comes in as an alternative to American capacity but meets the Gulf countries half way, specifically on issues such as oil. The ongoing trip of Putin to Saudi in 12 years was timed to this manner, and perhaps Russia also sees in itself as a mediator between Tehran and Riyadh,” Kabir Taneja, fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation tells Media India Group.
It can be said that the only thing that keeps the Syrian Army capable of offensive operations is Russian, air, artillery, logistics, training and special operations support. As Syrian government forces try to take over the Kurdish territory, Russia will have to decide whether to back Damascus or allow the Turkish army to fill the void left by the Americans. The loose alliance between Ankara and Moscow will be tested in the coming days. “Russia will play it out with both Turkey and the Gulf countries. Selling the S400s to Ankara was a big move that till some extent the US brought on to itself by not selling Turkey Patriot missile batteries. As of now the Turkey – Russia entente is that of mutual strategic convenience. Its longevity is still questionable,” adds Taneja.
When it all began?
Last week Turkish forces carried out more than 180 air and artillery strikes, in the north-eastern Syria. Shells and rockets landed in several Turkish border towns on October 10, just a day after the US pulled out its troops from the area due to “untenable” situation there.
The seeds of this airstrike had been sown over the last several years. Countries like the US, Turkey, Iran, and Russia have been involved in the Syrian Civil War since its beginning in 2011. Soon after when the ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate or an Islamic state in 2014, their involvement further grew.
However, the first to start their fight against the ISIS, even before the ISIS announced the establishment of caliphate were the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia. A major chunk of the Kurds resides in the northeast and for the western powers they became a big support in their fight against the ISIS. However, as soon as the ISIS became an enormous power the YPG needed foreign support. That is when in 2015, the US government under President Barack Obama decided to provide the YPG with arms, arguing that it had the capacity to fight the ISIS.
However, Turkey, which is a major part of American-led NATO alliance, expressed its resentment at the US for arming the YPG. To pacify Turkey, the US told the Turkish government that the support to YPG was just “temporary and transactional”. The YPG was then broadened to include militants from several ethnic groups such as the Syriacs and Arabs and renamed as the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF).
Turkey has struggled with a raging Kurdish insurgency for decades that has mostly been lead by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant organisation. The PKK demands a separate state for the country’s Kurdish population and has used violent means to achieve that goal. The SDF over the years has established an autonomous enclave for itself after pushing back ISIS from the northeast Syria. It is the main ally of the US in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed group but its fighters are viewed as “terrorists” by Turkey due to the group’s links with PKK. The Turkish government now fears that the SDF might inspire Kurdish insurgents in Turkey to launch their own de facto autonomous state in the country.
Why is Turkey targeting Kurds?
The main motive of the Turkish government is to drive the Kurdish YPG militia which it considers a security threat away from its border, and to create a space inside Syria where two million Syrian refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be settled.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s capital, Ankara’s goal was to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border and to bring peace to the area”. Erdogan wants to drive the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) away from the border region.
The Turkish President wants to create a so-called “safe zone” stretching some 30 km deep into Syria, in which some of the 3.6 million refugees currently living in Turkey can be resettled.
On the other hand the Kurds have been demanding for an independent country ever since the end of World War I. They want a country comprising all the Kurdish-dominated areas spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia.
Kurds are an ethnic group that belongs to the mountainous region of Western Asia. There are 25 to 35 million. They do not follow any particular religion, but most of them adhere to some form of Islam. But many Kurds, such as the ones in Syria, consider themselves to be non-Muslims.
A US made disaster
The crisis in Syria is a man-made crisis or rather a US made. In 2018 when US President Donald Trump for the first time tried to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria, he faced a major backlash from the national security agencies. Thereafter, the US and Turkey decided to jointly build the “safe zone.” Besides, the SDF was asked to withdraw from its forward positions along the Syrian-Turkey border. In return, the US promised to retain its forces along the border and deter an attack by Turkey. The SDF agreed and the US forces replaced SDF in the border areas. However, on October 6 this year Trump abruptly decided to withdraw US forces from northeast Syria, leaving the region unprotected and thus paving the way for a Turkish military offense.
Trump has been criticised by his fellow Republicans who accused him of abandoning allies who had fought against ISIS. US military and national security officials say that by allowing the attack on the Kurdish fighters, who did the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State, the US risks repeating a scenario that helped pave the way for the Iraq war.
An opportunity for ISIS?
There have been apprehensions that will this uncalled war reshape the map of the Syrian conflict once again, that can be a major setback for the Kurdish-led forces that have been battling against the Islamic State while widening Turkey’s territorial control at the border.
According to a United Nations report an estimated 100,000 people have fled their homes in northeast Syria, as Turkey pressed on with its offensive against Kurdish fighters despite growing international criticism of the campaign. The chaos could lead to an opportunity for the Islamic State that could result in ISIL’s resurgence. Aid officials have warned of “yet another humanitarian crisis” in war-torn Syria amid mass displacement and “disturbing reports” of attacks on civilian infrastructure, including water facilities, power stations and oil fields.
Syrian Kurdish leaders have long warned that the SDF may not be able to continue holding IS prisoners if the situation was destabilised by a Turkish invasion. According to the foreign relations department of the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria, the SDF is still holding 5,000 IS fighters of Syrian and Iraqi nationality and a further 1,000 foreigners from more than 55 other states.
Going against Turkey
The Kurdish-led administration has announced that it has struck a deal with the Syrian army in order to combat an intensifying attack by Turkish forces in the region. Not only have the majority of the countries criticised Turkey for its action but have also stopped doing business with them. The German government is halting arms exports to Turkey. Berlin said the ban will apply on the assumption that the weapons could be used in the operation against Kurds in northern Syria. France announced last week on Saturday that it too was suspending arms exports to Turkey, saying Ankara’s offensive in northern Syria was a threat to European security.
Realising the sensitivity of the situation, Trump, too, imposed sanctions on Turkey and called for an immediate ceasefire. Trump also said he was halting negotiations on a USD 100 billion trade deal with Turkey and raising steel tariffs back up to 50 pc. The president also imposed sanctions on three senior Turkish officials and Turkey’s defence and energy ministries. But for the moment, the battle continues and Trump may soon find that putting the genie back in the bottle is more complicated than ruling by tweets.