Turkey’s moves against Kurds in Syria give Putin a new headache
Ankara sees Syria's Kurds as terrorists; Russia views them as crucial to any settlement. The path to peace looks rockier than Putin may have anticipated
Turkey said on Monday that its maneuvers in northern Syria – where it has been shelling Kurdish YPG targets since Saturday – will be completed quickly.
Turkey’s actions have come in defiance of US demands that it desist. President Tayyip Erdogan will be equally conscious of Russia’s displeasure, however.
Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies are attempting to push US-armed YPG fighters from the northwestern enclave of Afrin. In doing so, they risk opening a new front in Syria’s civil war a mere month after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared “victory” in the conflict.
Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization with ties to Kurdish militant separatists within Turkey, and it has been infuriated by US support for the fighters. Washington, which has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, said on Sunday it was concerned about the situation.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to crush the YPG in Afrin and then target the Kurdish-held town of Manbij to the east, part of a much larger swath of northern Syria controlled by YPG-dominated forces.
After helping Bashar al-Assad reassert control over much of the country, Russia is determined to underscore its triumph by brokering a diplomatic resolution
That raises the prospect of protracted conflict between Turkey and its allied Free Syrian Army on one side and, on the other, the Kurdish YPG.
Mehmet Simsek, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, played down the potential for a damaging and drawn-out military campaign. “Our investors should be at ease, the impact will be limited, the operation will be brief and it will reduce the terror risk to Turkey in the period ahead,” he said.
Turkey’s actions will add, however, to Putin’s sense of events going awry in Syria. After helping Bashar al-Assad reassert control over much of the country, Russia is determined to underscore its military triumph by brokering a diplomatic resolution to the seven-year conflict.
Complicating that objective, Western-backed opposition groups are refusing to join peace talks hosted by Russia. That means a congress scheduled for next week in Sochi seems likely to be a talking shop for Assad allies. Russia’s swagger has also been dented this month by attacks on its air and naval bases in Syria by swarms of satellite-guided drones, the perpetrators of which remain a mystery.
Last year, Putin scored a diplomatic coup when he persuaded Erdogan to sign up to his plan to stabilize Syria. That came as something of a rapprochement following a protracted fall-out over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military plane near the former’s Syrian border in November 2015.
Disagreements remain, however. For one, Putin sees the Syrian Kurds, who continue to hold sway across large areas of territory, as crucial to arriving at a settlement that is likely to hold. Erdogan, by contrast, will not shift from the view that the Kurds are the enemy. However swiftly his current military escapade is concluded, that bodes ill for a Russian-led transition to peace.
With reporting from Reuters.