Turkey Barters with US, Russia Ahead of Syria Incursion

Nikola Mikovic

Image courtesy of Adem Altan / AFP

With the world’s attention focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Turkey is preparing to launch its own “special military operation” in northern Syria. Ankara appears to be taking advantage of the conflict in Eastern Europe to achieve strategic goals in the Middle East.

It is not a secret that Turkey aims to create a 30-kilometer deep buffer zone across its border with Syria. But to do that, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have to get the green light from Turkey’s NATO ally the United States, as well as at least a tacit approval from its frenemy Russia.

Turkish troops plan to seize the towns of Tel Rifaat, Kobani, Ain Issa and Manbij in northern Syria. Presently, the region is under the control of the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The problem for Erdogan is that Washington sees the YPG as an allied force against ISIS militants. Could the US be about to “betray” the Kurds again?

Recent comments from State Department spokesman Ned Price indicate that the US and Turkey still have not reached a final deal on northern Syria. “We recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on its border,” Price said. “But again, we are concerned that any new offensive would further undermine regional stability.”

Given that Washington needs Erdogan not to sabotage NATO membership requests from Finland and Sweden, it is entirely possible the US will soon indirectly approve the Turkish military incursion in northern Syria.

Without external support, Kurdish forces are unlikely to be able to withstand the combined power of the Turkish Armed Forces and its proxies from the remaining Syrian rebel stronghold in Idlib. If the US does not prevent Turkey from launching a military operation in the region, the Kurds will almost certainly lose control over a significant portion of strategically important territory.

Still, it is questionable if the Turkish military will seize Manbij – a town that sits on a major intersection of roads on Syria’s west-east highway known as the M4. Given that it is the Russian army that patrols along this route, Turkey is unlikely to attack Manbij unless it first attempts to make a deal with the Kremlin.

From the Russian perspective, some sort of a “land swap” – Manbij for Jabal Al-Zawiya in Idlib – would be the best option. But given Russia’s weak position in the international arena, and its preoccupation with the ongoing military fiasco in Ukraine, it is unlikely that Turkey would agree to make such an arrangement. Instead, in order not to seize Manbij, Ankara could demand certain economic concessions from Moscow, such as a discount on Russian energy and grain.

Russia’s isolation does not allow the Kremlin to set any conditions on Turkey, which means that a potential deal with Erdogan would come at a very high price for Moscow.

Reports suggest that Russia has recently redeployed some of its troops from Syria to Ukraine. More importantly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that “Russian forces in Syria have almost no military missions left” clearly indicates that, at least for the time being, what is happening in Syria is not Moscow’s top priority. For the Kremlin, at this point, it is very important to avoid a new escalation in the region, and to preserve relatively good relations with Turkey.

It is not improbable, therefore, for Russia to simply turn a blind eye to a new Turkish incursion into Syria, even though such a move would represent another humiliation for the Kremlin on the global stage. Although Russia acts as a major ally of Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, in reality Moscow cannot guarantee Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. A passive approach regarding Turkish operations in the north of the country would be yet another demonstration of Ankara’s leverage over Russia.

Theoretically, Russia could provide a “symmetrical response” to Turkish actions by pushing Assad’s Syrian Arab Army to launch a military offensive in Idlib. The problem, however, is that Assad’s forces are unlikely to make any significant gains in the province where Turkey increased its military presence, and continues backing its proxy forces, namely the Syrian National Army.

In response to Erdogan’s announcement of an operation in northern Syria, Russia has reportedly sent fighter jets and helicopter gunships to a base close to the border with Turkey. The move could be interpreted as a message from the Kremlin to Ankara. But Turkey is quite aware of Russia’s extremely poor military performance in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s unfavorable geopolitical position, and therefore Moscow’s gesture will be seen as an empty threat that will not affect its military plans.

The fate of the Syrian Kurds will largely depend on the US, rather than on Russia. If the US approves Turkish actions, Ankara will establish control over significant portions of northern Syria. In the future, Turkey, through its Syrian rebel proxies, would be able to use the territory as an instrument against Assad in Damascus and his ally Russia.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”