MOSCOW - Russian officials say they expect Turkey to start halting soon its cross-border incursion in north-eastern Syria. They say Syria’s Kurds have agreed to shelve their plans for a self-governing state and Kurdish fighters will join Syrian forces patrolling the border.
The deal-making between Damascus and the Kurds started in earnest nearly a year ago when U.S. President Donald Trump first broached the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, say officials who spoke on the condition they not be identified.
They pointed to one of the announced war aims of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on launching his cross-border offensive, formally known as Operation Peace Spring — to ensure Syria’s territorial integrity, code, the Russian officials say, for a Kurdish statelet not to emerge in northeast Syria. “We have been the oil in the negotiations,” a Russian official told VOA.
Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring last Wednesday to eliminate, it says, what it terms Kurdish terrorists from northern Syria in order to secure Turkey’s borders and aid in the safe return of Syrian refugees. Ankara has long viewed the Syrian Kurdish militia, allies of the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State militants, as an offshoot of Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Last week Russian leader Vladimir Putin appeared to endorse Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria, but has drawn some red lines of his own including that the offensive, which has plunged 35 kilometers deep into Syria, doesn’t lead to any permanent occupation by the Turks of Syrian territory, according to both analysts and Russian officials.
In return for the Kremlin’s acceptance of the Turkish offensive, there’s also the expectation that Turkish President Erdogan will acquiesce with Moscow’s plans for Syria’s political future, one that will see President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s ally, reclaim the whole of Syria.
Asked if Erdogan was coordinating the Turkish offensive with Putin, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said: “Contacts between the Russian and Turkish authorities are happening. In particular, there was a phone call (between the presidents), and phone conversations between the foreign ministers. There are also communication channels between the (two) militaries.”
Peskov declined to comment Monday when asked if Moscow felt it was time for Turkey to end its operation inside Syria. He added the Kremlin had already warned all parties in the Syrian conflict to avoid any action that could escalate tensions.
The Russian and Turkish leaders talked by phone last week as a prelude to Turkish warplanes launching waves of airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish border towns.
The Syrian Army entered the city of Manbij in the northern province of Aleppo late Sunday, according to local media reports. Syrian units are planning to reach the city of Kobani, about 60 kilometers away, within the next 48 hours.
Kobani was the scene of a heroic fightback by Syrian Kurdish forces, with U.S. air support, against Islamic State, whose militants besieged the town for five months in 2014 and 2015.
Most of the town was flattened and most of the population fled north to Turkey during vicious fighting, returning later to start reconstruction.
SDF deal confirmed
The Kurdish-led Self-Administration of North and East Syria issued an official statement on Sunday confirming the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow after the U.S. announced it was withdrawing all remaining troops from Syria. The decision came five days after the Turks launched Operation Peace Spring with the backing of Syrian Arab militias drawn from rebel factions once focused on ousting Assad.
On Sunday, a Turkish airstrike killed 11 and injured over 70 when it hit a civilian convoy.
“The SDF has responded with dignity and courage resulting in the death and injury of its fighters, in order to save the Syrian integrity, however Turkey is continuing its assault.”
The statement added: “As a result, we had to deal with the Syrian government that has the duty of protecting the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty, so that the Syrian army can enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to support the SDF to repel this aggression and liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army and its hired mercenaries.”
Kurdish-led forces established control over a swathe northeastern Syria soon after the country plunged into civil war in 2011, setting up their own government but always saying their goal was autonomy rather than independence, in order to avoid the ire of Damascus, which in large parts of northeast withdrew its forces without any fighting to concentrate on defending the Assad government from Arab Sunni rebels.
Despite mutual enmity between the Kurds and Damascus, where the Baathist government systematically persecuted pro-independence Syrian Kurds, the SDF has seldom clashed with the Syrian government forces during the war. Qamishli, the largest Kurdish city in northeast Syria has always had a Syrian government sector and the Syrian military was able to operate a military airport from there. Both sides maintained trade links and Damascus continued to pay government workers. Although they had to travel outside Kurdish-controlled northeastern to receive their salaries.
At times, the Syrian government and the SDF appeared to coordinate military campaigns when it was in their mutual interests against common enemies.
Top Kurdish commanders, often linked themselves to Turkish Kurdish separatists, frequently explained to reporters that geo-politics required them to maintain a “balance of power” with President Assad. One top SDF commander told this reporter in 2013: “The Assad regime knows we are strong, so it chooses not to attack us now. And we choose not to attack Assad now, despite the fact that he is not our friend.”
The lack of open conflict with Damascus prompted the charge from anti-Assad Syrian rebels that the Kurds have been in cahoots with the Syrian government all along. This view is shared by Iraqi Kurds, who at various times, accused their Syrian compatriots of dancing to Assad’s tune.
But Kurdish leaders argued that the conflict between the rebels and Assad was not their war and was one increasingly between Arab Sunnis and Shiites. And they emphasized they did not want to see their cities and towns end up razed like much of the neighboring province of Aleppo.
That appears to have been their motive now in striking a deal with Assad.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine Sunday, SDF commander-in-chief Mazlum Abdi said: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.” He acknowledged the Kurds will have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad.
The big question now, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is whether Turkey will halt its incursion or be prepared to clash with Syrian government forces and wreck its warming ties with Moscow. He says the Syrian government will be determined to secure get oil and gas fields controlled by the Kurds bur which are crucial for Syrian reconstruction.
While Russian officials in conversation with VOA seem confident Turkey will abide by Putin’s red lines, Landis says he’s still trying to identify the extent of Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria. “Erdogan also believes that Turkey has a unique mission as the heir of a great empire, a nation founded by men of courage,” he tweeted.
Erdogan said earlier on Monday that he didn’t anticipate any problems would emerge in the town of Kobani Syrian army units arrive. Erdogan praised President Vladimir Putin for his “positive approach” to Turkish actions.