Six months ago, an endgame for the Syria war was on the table, tentatively agreed upon by the presidents of Russia and Turkey during their summer meeting in St Petersburg. Had it lasted, the deal would have been truly groundbreaking but it collapsed earlier this year, transforming the Syrian battlefield into a giant chessboard — and mailbox — used and abused by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president wanted his Syrian allies to march on the strategic city of Aleppo in the Syrian north, ending rebel presence in the country’s last opposition stronghold. Erdogan promised to help him achieve that, saying that he would look the other way only if the Russians helped him crush Kurdish statehood ambitions on the Syrian-Turkish border, preventing linkage of the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobani, in addition to helping create a buffer zone to relocate 2.3 million Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkish towns and cities since 2011. The zone would also clean the border area from militants of the Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Putin nodded affirmatively, silently approving the Turkish invasion of the border city of Jarablus last August, part one of Erdogan’s Operation Desert Shield. Additionally, the Russia-approved buffer zone was supposed to include the city of Azaz, 88km away from Jarablus, also on the Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan upheld his part of the agreement, doing absolutely nothing when Syrian troops overran Aleppo last December. He clearly needed Putin, and that need was mutual.
Something went wrong, however, shortly after Donald Trump entered the Oval Office. Erdogan seemingly saw promise in the new US president, distancing himself from his earlier commitments to Putin while marching on territory not agreed upon by the two men last summer, supposedly earmarked for Russia’s sphere of influence, not Turkey’s.
In November 2016, his proxies advanced on the city of Al Bab deeper into the Syrian heartland, 30km south of the Turkish border, much to the displeasure of Moscow. Three months later, a spokesman for the Turkish government said that the army would halt once seizing Al Bab, claiming that it had no further ambitions in Syria. Erdogan stunned the Russians by immediately dismissing the statement, snapping: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when Al Bab is secured. After that, there is Manbij and Al Raqqa.”
The first, Manbij, is located west of the Euphrates and was liberated from Daesh by a US-backed militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last August, while Al Raqqa, located on the north-eastern bank of the Euphrates River, has been the de facto “capital” of Daesh since 2014. Continued Kurdish presence in Manbij was a direct threat to Turkey’s national security, given that a major pillar of the SDF are the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian branch of the loathed PKK.
Last month, speaking from Bahrain, Erdogan said that the final goal of Turkish incursion into northern Syria was a 5,000-square-km safe zone, vowing that it would include Al Raqqa, which is deep inside Syria, more than 100km east of Aleppo. Last month his army took Al Bab and began preparing to march on Manbij and Al Raqqa.
The bear makes its move
Russia’s response came first came through the advancement of Syrian troops towards Al Bab from the south, taking Tadeh, about a mile from the city, awaiting orders to push forward. Then, Russian warplanes bombed a Turkish position in Al Bab, killing four soldiers, refusing to apologise or write it off as an “accident”. Instead, they blamed it on the Turkish Army, saying that they had provided Moscow with faulty coordinates of their positions in Syria, arguing that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The Turks struck back by proxy, attacking a Russian position in the deserts of the ancient city of Palmyra, killing four Russian soldiers, and letting their allies in the countryside of Aleppo fire rockets at the city, debunking all claims by Russian and Syrian media that the city had been “freed completely” from rebel presence.
They were sending a message to Putin that they remain strongly entrenched in the city’s suburbs and can attack at will, if Moscow continues to hamper the expansion of the Turkish buffer zone.
Taking the confrontation to new heights, the Russians hammered out an agreement with the Manbij Military Council, a branch of the SDF, whereby the Kurdish militia would hand over control of several villages west of Manbij to the Syrian Army. They called it the “transferred defence of the frontline,” to halt “Turkey’s invasion plan”, referring to the Turks as “gangs” in their official communiqué, and to the Syrian troops as “state forces,” driving Erdogan extremely mad.
Erdogan had spoken on the telephone with President Donald Trump, asking for US cover to prevent Kurdish advances on Al Raqqa or continued US presence in Manbij. Not only did Trump refuse to commit, but provided the SDF, at their request, with anti-tank weapons, mine detectors and other military equipment.
Making things worse for the Turkish leader was a meeting held at the CIA-led Military Operation Room in southern Turkey in late February, where US military officers told Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups that they had two weeks to unite or lose any form of American support. Among the groups included in the US freeze were the Sham Legion, composed of former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, active in the Aleppo countryside with 4,000 fighters, and Jaysh Al Nasr, a Turkish-backed militia of 5,000 fighters active in Hama.
The fact that the US was withdrawing support from these groups while continuing to bankroll and arm the SDF was bad news for the Turks. So was the fact that the SDF was now cooperating fully with Moscow and Damascus. Last August, their spokesman Talal Selo had said: “It is forbidden to negotiate with the Russians. Our alliance is with the United States and it is impossible to communicate with any other party.”
Putin was making a point — loud and clear — that this was now history, and that the Russians are now working openly with the Kurds to obstruct Erdogan’s buffer-zone, reminding him that it was the Kremlin, rather than Ankara, that was calling the shots in Syria, and that no scheme would ever pass in this war-torn country if not approved by Moscow.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is a Research Fellow at the Syrian Studies Centre at St Andrews University.