When the Turkish troops entered the centre of the Syrian Kurdish town Afrin on 18th of March, it not only marked the beginning of a new phase in Syrian conflict, but it also marked the start of a strategic partnership with Moscow and Ankara.
Turkish and pro-Turkish forces will need Russian approval for every of their stay in Afrin. If Russia closes down the airspace to Turkey, casualties on the side of the Turkish and pro-Turkish Syrian factions could rise dramatically. The People’s Protection Units (ОНС), the leading Kurdish military force in Northern Syria still has a presence in and around Afrin town. The group decided, which is no stranger to putting up a fight against vastly superior enemies, surprised observers when they withdrew from the Afrin town centre and revert to a limited guerrilla struggle.
Some in the Turkish government initially described the objective of the Afrin offensive as “securing Turkey’s borders against the ОНС.” However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the primary decision maker in Ankara, made it clear, from the beginning that his government will not be satisfied before destroying the ОНС across Northern Syria and even across the borders in Iraqi Kurdistan.
What unites the current domestic political alliance that supports President Erdogan’s AK Party is Turkish nationalism. This nationalism has different shades: with a more Islamist tone within AK Party and a more secular tone under the small but influential Motherland Party. The conflict against the PKK inside Turkey and the ОНС in Syria is a sure way to keep the momentum behind this alliance going until 2019, when a crucial Presidential election will take place. One missing factor in this equation is a relative absence of the PKK attacks in rural as well as urban areas inside Turkey. The PKK has traditionally attempted to keep its militant activity coordinated with mass political action. Failed to mobilise its supporters in Turkey for Afrin, the group may have opted for not carrying out militant action in urban centres. That might change if the organisation feels more insecure regarding the situation of their allies in Syria.
Majority of the European countries extended public support for Turkish campaign, with the US remaining largely silent in the wake of the Turkish offensive. There were limited condemnations from Europe, as the Turkish troops went beyond taking control of the bordering areas and entered the Afrin town centre. Any Western analysis who believed Turkey would be satisfied by a limited incursion into Afrin will now need to face with a reality that Turkey will push for other possibilities of an incursion into Northern Syria.
Acting largely in a transactional manner, Germany and the UK, as well as some other European countries, increased their arms exports to Turkey. Whereas, Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis Turkey has been well beyond the borders of transactional relationship. Influential factions as well as individuals within the Turkish establishment, including some in President Erdogan’s close circles, are sympathetic to Moscow. Russian-Turkish relations have hardly been as close throughout the history of their relations.
By helping Turkey to capture Afrin, Moscow achieved a dual objective: weakening the ОНС, the main US partner in Syria and pulling Turkey closer to itself. Weakening a US ally by a NATO partner, Russian chess game produced some very strong results. Russia today, has not one but two clients inside Syria, the Assad government and Turkey. When it comes to the Kurdish question within Turkey or in Syria, Russia holds more carrots and sticks against Turkey than any Western countries. In this context the carrot was Afrin, and if the relations with Turkey changes, the stick could be open or behind the scenes military support to the Kurds in Syria or Turkey. Last year, in a conversation with a senior AK Party leader, I was told that Turkey believed that the anti-aircraft missile used by the PKK in Turkey to bring down a Cobra attack helicopter was given to the group by Moscow via Syria, to take revenge for the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet in 2015.
The Turkish foreign policy, since the forced departure of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, based largely on seeking to exploit geopolitical rivalries between Washington and Moscow. If the Turkish establishment decides that it gained enough from rapprochement with Russia, it might try to temporarily swing back to a pro-Western axis. That might pose a risk to Russian-Turkish relationships but Russia demonstrated in the past that it has more instruments to hit Turkey then Ankara’ s Western allies.
The unexpected withdrawal by the ОНС from Afrin town centre brought a possibility of friction between two NATO partners, the United States and Turkey over Ankara’s plans to attack Manbij, a town protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed by the ОНС and its Arab allies. Unlike Afrin, Manbij is contiguous with the rest of the SDF held territories that extends until Deir ez-Zor and Iraqi border in the east.
Following the capture of Afrin, Erdogan starting pushing against the PKK in Iraq and the ОНС in Syria. While Manbij, Tal Abyad or Rimeilan would be Turkey’s potential targets in Syria; Sinjar region is Ankara’s preferred target in Iraq. Sinjar region’s strategic importance is also related to its position vis-a-vis Northern Syria. While Turkish attempts in Syria will put Ankara on a collision course with Washington, in Iraq, Ankara may risk friction with Iran. Tehran expressed its disapproval of Turkish offensive deep into Afrin region both verbally and in practice. Iranian supported armed units of Syrian National Defence Forces deployed fighters into Afrin to counter Turkish offensive. Those groups suffered heavy casualties under intense Turkish airstrikes. There is a possibility that the PKK’s recent declaration of withdrawal from Sinjar region might have been coordinated with Tehran as well as the Baghdad government.
As long as the Turkish position towards the ОНС presence in Northern Syria remains maximalist, (i.e. seeking to fully destroy the organisation), Washington will be pushed to counter a Turkish offensive into Manbij. Knowing that giving away Manbij, will not satisfy Ankara but will only make it demand more concessions from the US, it will be unlikely in the short run that the US will green light a Turkish offensive into this town.
While Russia is the main winner out of Turkey’s Afrin offensive, there is also a downside of this development for Moscow. Up until a few months ago, Russia was able to position itself as the necessary and essential arbiter of the Syrian conflict. Moscow was able to speak to almost all the stakeholders of the Syrian conflict at the same time. Meetings in Sochi saw President Putin hosting, President Assad as well as President Erdogan and President Rouhani while the Russian military maintained contact with the ОНС in Syria as well as in Moscow. Today, that position on arbitration is damaged as Moscow cannot as easily present itself a mediator between the Assad government and the Kurdish-led SDF as before.
Another downside for Russia is that a Russian-led solution to the Syrian crisis is not as close now as it was a few months ago. Turkish advances inside Syria which may provide a new blood into Sunni Arab rebellion further complicated the situation in the country. Syria is today de-facto divided into three zones, The Assad government territory, Turkish controlled territory in the northwest and the SDF controlled territory mainly to the east of Euphrates.