[OPINION] Russia and the West stand by Kurds in the face of Turkish incursion into Syria

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Türkmen Terzi 

The United States and major European countries have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia over its Ukraine invasion, and they are continuing to arm Ukrainian forces. On the other hand, the US and Russia, the two states that have been active players in the Syrian civil war for a decade, together with the UK and France, are united in disagreeing with Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled on May 23 that the Turkish army would launch a new operation in northern Syria against Kurdish militants and set up a 30-kilometer “security zone” along the Syrian border.

“We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria and, in particular, its impact on the civilian population,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price, warning Turkey about the consequences of a new round of military operations in the region, Reuters reported. And Agence France-Presse quoted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as saying on Wednesday that “the concern that we have is that any new offensive would undermine regional stability [and] provide malign actors with opportunities to exploit instability.”

Russia also opposes Turkey’s Syria operation. “We hope that Ankara will refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria,” Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement on Thursday, Reuters reported.

The United States backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led multi-ethnic force comprising Kurds, Arabs and Christian fighters, against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The SDF was created in October 2015 with the financial and military support of the US and major European countries such as France and the UK.

The SDF is currently operating through the local Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and is a key powerbroker in northeastern Syria.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst of Kurdish politics and a journalist living in Erbil who is the co-author of a book titled “The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts,” wrote for the European Council on Foreign Relations that “Ultimately, the SDF hopes to gain international recognition for its autonomous region similar to that of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.”

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed group that has been trying to create a separate state in Turkey since 1984, and its Syrian branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG) criticize the SDF for making oil deals with the US, but many YPG fighters hold leadership positions within the SDF.

As far as Turkey is concerned, all these Kurdish groups are terrorists since Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the PKK.

The Bashar al-Assad regime also rejects any form of autonomy for the SDF in Syrian territory.

Many EU states have refrained from building a direct relationship with the SDF because of the group’s alleged ties to the PKK, which the European Union, the United States and Turkey list as a terrorist organization.

However, France is one of the few European countries to have had high-level political contact with the SDF.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron hosted a senior SDF official at the Elysée Palace in October 2019. Former US President Donald Trump largely abandoned the SDF, but his successor Joe Biden pledged last year in October that the US would not abandon SDF forces. US military officials met with the SDF leadership following Biden’s comments of support, and the US keeps 900 troops in Syria to support anti-ISIL operations.

The Trump administration’s announcement of a withdrawal from Syria in 2019 left the SDF forces more vulnerable to attacks from Turkey, the government in Damascus and Russia, all of whom have taken advantage of the plight of the Syrian Kurds.

The administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed the Assad regime since the civil war broke out in 2011.

Ankara has been trying hard to convince Russia of the need for a safe zone since Erdoğan and Putin agreed in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in October 2019 that Assad’s forces would move to the border alongside Russian troops to replace the US-backed Kurdish forces. Russian and Turkish forces jointly patrolled 10 kilometers inside Syrian territory on a strategic highway in Syria’s northwestern region in March 2020 amid Kurdish protests.

However, Russia has never recognized the PKK or other Kurdish armed groups as terrorists, and Moscow’s priority is to keep the Assad regime in power since Russia has a navy base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Tartus is a key naval base for the Kremlin in the Mediterranean, with the Russian military keeping dozens of warships, including nuclear-powered vessels, at the port in Syria.

Putin’s deal with Assad allows Russia use of the Tartus naval facility — the Kremlin’s only base outside the former Soviet Union — free of charge for 49 years. Russia has military centers in the SDF-controlled regions, including Manbij, Ayn Isa, Kobane and Qamishli and is promising mediation between the SDF and the Assad regime since the Kremlin has established ties with the Syrian Kurds. The SDF forces do not openly target Assad’s forces, and Assad’s main aim is not to eliminate the SDF forces but to end Turkish invasions of northern Syria since Turkey has conducted three major military operations in Syria.

Turkey successfully conducted Operation Euphrates Shield from August 2016 to March 2017 and captured the areas between Jarabulus and Azaz north of Aleppo. Ankara’s second operation was Olive Branch, which was carried out from January 20 to March 24, 2018, during which Afrin fell to Turkish forces and allied militants. Turkish-backed jihadists such as Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly the Al-Nusa Front, established several military bases in Idlib during the operation. The Assad regime is trying to push Turkish forces out of these areas. Turkey’s last major operation, Peace Spring, was the most strategic one as Turkish forces entered the eastern Euphrates on Oct. 17, 2019 in order to target the SDF in the border areas of Raqqa and Hasakah. Ankara is planning to take control of the strategic cities of Manbij and Kobani to eliminate the Kurdish threat on its border with Syria.

Erdoğan is determined to launch a cross-border incursion against Kurdish militants in Syria to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) deep buffer zone. He is planning to send 1 million Syrian refugees to this safe zone as the growing anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in Turkey threatens Erdoğan’s position in the presidential election scheduled for 2023.

The United States and EU members continue backing Ukraine with financial and military support and they punish Russia with heavy sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, but the West and Russia both oppose Turkey’s operation in Syria.

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