Turkey is using Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to launch its own “special military operation” in northern Syria. Although Russian forces, as well as Syrian Arab Army (SAA), reportedly started reinforcing their positions near Tal Rifaat and Manbij, it is not probable the Kremlin will attempt to spoil Ankara’s plans in the region.
On June 8, Foreign Ministers of Russia and Turkey, Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, discussed in Ankara Turkish ambitions to conduct a military operation in northern Syria. Previously, the Kremlin urged Ankara to “refrain” from military action.
“We hope that Ankara will refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria,” Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said.
Moscow, however, does not have a mechanism to prevent Turkey from reinvading the Middle Eastern nation. Reports suggest that Russia started making deployments in north Syria to, flying reconnaissance flights over Tal Rifaat and setting up Pantsir-S1 air defence systems in Qamishli, a border town nearly 400 km further east. At the same time, the air forces of Russia and Syria conducted a joint drill over the war-torn country, which could be interpreted as another Kremlin message to Ankara.
Quite aware that Russia has a hard time seizing the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine, and that it was forced to withdraw its troops from Kyiv, Turkey does not seem to see Russian military muscle flexing in Syria as a serious threat. Ankara aims to establish a 30 kilometer (18 miles) deep buffer zone in Syria’s northern regions, from Idlib in the West to the Iraqi border in the East. The buffer zone would serve for the gradual resettlement of almost four million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Indeed, the refugee issue is something that worries Turkish authorities, and resolving the problem prior to the 2023 presidential election could guarantee President Recep Tayyip Erdogan another term in office.
Still, Ankara is unlikely to launch a “special military operation” in northern Syria unless it reaches a deal with the Kremlin. Given that Turkey aims to portray itself as a mediator in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, it is not in Ankara’s interests to deteriorate relations with Moscow.
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For the Kremlin, one of the options is a de facto “land swap” with its Turkish partners. Moscow would allow Turkish troops to seize certain portions of northern Syria that are under control of the Kurdish-dominated People’s Defense Units (YPG), despite a limited SAA presence in the region. Turkey, in turn, would not prevent the Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army from capturing parts of Idlib controlled by Turkish proxies.
The problem for Russia and Turkey is they are not the only foreign actors operating in Syria. Without the United States’ approval, Turkey is unlikely to start any military incursions into the Levant. Unlike Ankara, that sees the YPG as a terrorist group and extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Washington sees the Kurdish-led organization as an ally against Islamic State militants.
Thus, until Turkey and the US reach a final deal over the future of the region, the Turkish Army and its proxies will almost certainly continue shelling the Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory, but it is not probable that Ankara will start a large-scale invasion. Meanwhile, in order to prevent another defeat, the Kurds may try to find common ground with Assad.
According to Mazloum Abdi, the head of the Kurdish-dominated and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurds are “open to working with Syrian troops to fight off Turkey”.
“The essential thing that the Syrian Army could do to defend Syrian territory would be use air defense systems against Turkish planes,” he said.
It is, however, rather questionable if the SAA would dare to engage in an open confrontation against Turkey. Even with Russian help, the SAA would undoubtedly get the short end of the stick, and would lose control over large parts of the territories it currently controls. Thus, in case of a potential Turkish reinvasion of Syria, the Syrian government is expected to strongly condemn such actions, but not to fight a war.
Finally, given that Ankara could block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, it is entirely possible the US will eventually give Turkey the green light for a limited “special military operation” in northern Syria. Such a move would be seen as an American concession to Erdogan, while Moscow would interpret Turkish actions as other “stab in the back”. The greatest victims of such geopolitical deals would be the Syrian Kurds – the weakest link the Russo-American-Turkish triangle.
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