The recent standoff between the U.S. and Turkey over the Syrian Kurds is partly caused by Russia and demonstrates the lack of unity in the ranks of the Western coalition.
A Syrian refugee carries a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, June 14, 2015. Photo: AP
The Syrian crisis is a multilayered conflict with multiple difficult variables. Solving this conflict, then, requires solving for each of these variables.
The first layer consists of intra-Syrian opposition groups of different degrees of moderation, jihadists, Kurds and pro-government forces.
The second layer contains such regional actors as Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose interests clash in the form of their different type of support to the contending groups of the first layer and rivalry among each other.
The Western powers on one side and Russia on the other comprise the final layer of the conflict which affects all other layers below.
The opposing parties’ consistency in their positions on the conflict defines their overall strength. From this perspective, the recent standoff between the U.S. and Turkey, which was caused in part by Russia, is a vivid example of the lack of unity in the ranks of the West and their regional allies.
The disagreement among partners provoked a wave of suspicions that the U.S. and Turkey do not see eye-to-eye on some important problems of the Syrian crisis – a fact that can and will be exploited by the opposite side.
Syria is the cause for the U.S.-Turkey misunderstanding
The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for a long time. Their alliance has been institutionalized through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which made Turkey the biggest military ally of the U.S. in the Middle East. This naturally poses certain benefits and drawbacks for Turkey, which is trying to pursue an independent foreign policy with regards to its immediate neighbors. The war in Syria unveiled those drawbacks for Turkey.
The Syrian crisis, which quickly transformed into a civil war, has reshuffled the cards of the involved actors putting allies at a certain degree of misunderstanding. The recent U.S.-Turkey standoff over the Syrian Kurds is the last in the series of previous tensions.
Firstly, Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian bomber did not find any vocal support among the U.S. leadership and military staff. Downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber provoked Moscow to enhance its military infrastructure (deploying sophisticated S-400 air defense missile systems) in
Syria ,which de facto led to an establishment of a no-fly zone. Hence, it prevented the West and its regional allies from establishing their own no-fly zone – not what they really wanted.
Secondly, Russia’s accusations that Turkey is involved in the illegal oil trade with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which was backed by video footage of ISIS oil trucks freely crossing Turkish borders from Syria and Iraq, also raised uncomfortable questions in the West. President Barack Obama called the border between Turkey and Syria “a transit point for foreign fighters, [a place for] ISIL shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities.” The U.S. called on Turkey to close the border but it has refused to do so.
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And, finally, after the U.S. expressed its open support for Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS, Turkish President Erdogan questioned the U.S. adherence to its alliance and friendship with Turkey. He basically asked Washington to choose between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, which resulted in a very uncomfortable situation.
Importance of the Syrian Kurds
During the last several years of the terrorist insurgency in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds proved to be one of the most rigid and capable military forces on the ground along with the Syrian Arab Army. Syrian Kurds secured their position in the political future of Syria thanks to their fight against jihadists, protecting their lands (which are also inhabited by Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians and Turkmens) from ISIS and other terrorist groups and not fighting against the Syrian government.
Thus, Syrian Kurds have become a force which cannot be ignored and which is better to have as an ally in an attempt to solve the Syrian crisis politically. Doing otherwise will lead to a failure of any political process and to continuous instability in the country.
The U.S. has realized that emerging reality. In addition to that, another factor helped to tilt the U.S. position towards the Kurds and this factor is Russia.
Also read: "What to expect from Russia's Syrian policy in 2016"
The triangle involving the U.S., Russia and the Kurds
Moscow started openly flirting with the Syrian Kurds in the course of 2015 when it hosted several Kurdish delegations representing the major political force of Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the Kurdish leader of Turkey's Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas. According to Salih Muslim, who co-chairs the PYD, Syrian Kurds “have had relations with Russia for the past three years. We go back and forth to Russia, to Moscow.”
During 2015 Russia started to provide the Kurds with ammunition and arms as well as with air support, helping the Kurds to fight against jihadists. These ongoing communication between the Kurds and Russia resulted in the opening of the first foreign representation of Syrian Kurds in Moscow on Feb. 10, 2016. In return, Syrian Kurds always expressed support for the Russian airstrikes in Syria in the fight against ISIS.
“We have shared this view with the United States as well: We will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS). We will stand alongside whoever battles the Daesh mentality,” the co-chair of PYD Salih Muslim said in an Oct. 1 interview.
After Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, 2015 and the Pentagon acknowledged the failure of its train-and-equip program, the U.S. launched its support for the Kurds as well. It started to airdrop weapons and ammunition, also providing Syrian Kurds with air support. The U.S. declined Turkish demands to ban the YPG and PYD as terrorist organizations as Ankara considers them sister groups of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and insist on their exclusion from the intra-Syrian peace talks.
Despite that, the U.S. expressed its support to the Syrian Kurds’ participation in the talks, although they were not included in the High Negotiations Committee in the recent Syria talks in Geneva. However, there is a hope that the next round of intra-Syrian talks, which are planning to resume in the upcoming weeks, will include Kurdish representatives.
Therefore, joint U.S.-Russia support to the Syrian Kurds significantly contributed to their military successes against ISIS and contributed to their political weight. Also it is worth noticing that after Ankara refused to seal its border with Syria, Kurds took over that task. So, currently Kurds moving from the north and northeast and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from the south and northwest are sealing more and more sections of the Syria-Turkey border, cutting supply routes for the jihadists.
During the last several months, especially after the downing of the Russian bomber, a number of differences between Turkey and the U.S. have come to the forefront.
Firstly, their goals in Syria are different. Washington’s primary goal is to fight ISIS, although its demands for Assad to go are now in second place. Ankara’s primary goal is to oust Assad and suppress any Kurdish striving for autonomy on its borders, as it views the Kurdish PYD and YPG as sister organizations of the terrorist PKK, which Turkey considers a greater threat than ISIS.
This leads to the second cleavage: The U.S. considers the Kurds to be a part of Syria’s future political system and involved in the negotiation of the country’s future while Turkey does not.
The U.S views Russia as a partner in fighting ISIS as well as the Syrian Kurds. As a result of recent International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meetings on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 11, Russia and the U.S. agreed to set up coordination and cooperation of their military in Syria, so they would be able to jointly define terrorist targets for airstrikes to avoid misunderstanding and mutual accusations.
In this light, the recent visit of the U.S. special envoy to the Kurdish city of Kobani is quite an important gesture, which looks somewhat provocative for the Turks but could be construed as a positive signal for the Kurds and Russia. This move was made to confirm the United States' position vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds, and also to deliver a message to both Moscow and Ankara.
For the former it reads like Washington does not desire to see the Kurdish PYD entirely in Russian hands. For the latter it sounds like Ankara's policy towards the Kurds pushes them into Russian hands, which is not acceptable for Washington.
As the U.S. is quite reluctant to send ground troops to Syria, it can be fairly said that the Syrian Kurds have become a sort of U.S. proxy ground troops in the fight against ISIS. Even if such decision is made, the U.S. along with its anti-ISIS coalition allies, will not contribute a big number of troops but rather will limit the deployment of the relatively small special forces in the Kurdish-held areas. Therefore, tensions between Turkey and the U.S. rise when Turkey clashes with the Syrian Kurds.
Coordination with Russia is essential to the U.S., as Russia has good connections with both the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds. Without both of them, any political process is impossible. That was implicitly confirmed during yesterday’s ISSG meeting in Munich. Now we should see how future U.S.-Russia coordination is going to play out in Syria. It is set to become a major indicator for the behavior of other regional actors, including Turkey.