15 Jan, 2018
Active U.S. and Russian engagement in Syria over the past few years has crowded out Turkey's ambitions for and pursuits in the country, but now its patience is wearing thin. Turkey's primary goal in Syria is to make sure that the two cantons controlled by Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) remain isolated from each other. Turkey had halted military operations toward this goal to avoid clashing directly with U.S. and Russian forces embedded with the YPG, but now evidence is mounting that it is planning a full-out military assault on the YPG, which would undoubtedly damage its relationship with both Russia and the United States.
Turkey had been hoping to wait out the American presence in Syria and to gain Russian authorization for a military assault on the YPG. In exchange it was willing to compromise on its desire to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad and to work with Russia on a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war through peace talks known as the Astana process. But now after several years of waiting and amid a battlefield flare-up that has pitted Russian-backed forces against Turkish-supported rebels, Turkey looks to be abandoning this plan.
War with Friends Now that the Islamic State has been degraded as a conventional fighting force in Syria, the focus of the war has shifted to the west, where Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalist forces are attempting to eradicate the last of the rebel groups, which Turkey still supports even as it engages in diplomatic talks. Over the past few months, Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran have launched a series of interconnected offensives to drive rebels from key terrain in the northwestern provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. Rebel forces, including several groups heavily armed and supported by Turkey, have met the latest offensive, spearheaded by the Syrian army's Tiger special forces unit to capture the rebel-held airport at Abu al-Duhur, with a fierce counterattack.
The offensive and counteroffensive have heightened tension in the Turkey-Russia relationship. Idlib, after all, is supposed to be part of a de-escalation zone according to parameters set out by Russia, Turkey and Iran during the Astana talks in Kazakhstan. Turkey blames the Syrian government for violating the de-escalation agreement most often and has demanded that Russia do more to prevent further loyalist attacks.
Russia argues that the operations in Idlib target terrorist groups and are necessary, and it blamed Turkey for a drone attack on its air base in Latakia.
To confront the deteriorating relationship, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Jan. 11. After the call, Putin announced that Turkey was not guilty of the drone attack and that it was staged to frame Turkey and undermine its relationship with Russia. Despite how adamant the two leaders are to put their differences aside and work together, the Syrian conflict will strain their relationship. As Turkey-backed rebels engage Russia-backed loyalist forces in vicious battles in northern Syria, it is clear that Russia and Turkey are engaged in a full-blown proxy war.
War with Enemies A major reason Turkey signed on to the Astana process was to reach an understanding with Russia to exert more pressure on the YPG, but Russia has been uncompromising on the issue. Far from allowing Turkey to wage a military attack on the YPG, Russia has maintained forces in positions blocking Turkish access to Kurdish positions in Afrin and has demanded that the political party representing the YPG, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), be involved in future peace talks in Sochi, Russia. The Kremlin believes that the YPG must buy into any peace agreement for Syria, considering that the group has emerged as a key stakeholder in the conflict and has U.S. support.
Turkey, however, is just as uncompromising on the issue and is growing increasingly impatient with the strengthening of the YPG along the border with Syria. It is growing so impatient, in fact, that it may be ready to move against the YPG without Russian consent. Turkish artillery fire directed at YPG positions in Afrin increased over the weekend, and signs that Turkish forces are moving from other parts of the border to Afrin have been reported. Meanwhile, the United States has announced that it will help train and establish a Syrian border force of 30,000 fighters, including many members of the YPG. Turkey is furious at the prospect of a U.S.-YPG collaboration even after the conventional defeat of the Islamic State and will not idly accept it.
As Turkey prepares for an attack, concerns are rising that an errant Turkish strike could cause Russian or American casualties and lead to a dangerous escalation of the conflict. This danger and the assumption that U.S. support for the YPG was temporary have prevented Turkey from waging full-out war on the YPG. But now as the United States bolsters its support for the YPG and the relationship between Turkey and Russia tightens, Turkey is appearing more and more willing to assume the risks inherent in a strike.