Vicken Cheterian

In Syria, Russia, Turkey and the others

The Afrain attack was no blitzkrieg. It was in September or early October last year on the margin of Astana negotiations, when Syrian opposition media circulated a map of northern Syria showing an agreement between Turkey and Russia: all the territories east of the railway linking Aleppo with Homs – the famous Ottoman Hijaz railway – would go under Russian influence. In return, Turkey would be allowed to overrun Afrin. While Astana was formally discussing to “decrease tension” in various areas, great powers were dividing Syria into zones of influence, some Syrian activists claimed.

Following those rumors Turkish army did deploy into northern Idlib province, on strategic positions around Kurdish controlled Afrin area. This was followed by Syrian army offensive in the areas south of Aleppo, supported by the Russian aviation. As Syrian loyalist forces overrun Abu Duhour military airport, the entire area east of the railway is practically fallen to regime forces (with the exception of a bulging pocked under ISIS control). Was this the price to allow Turkey attack Afrin?

The developments in northern Syria raise a number of questions, and sheds light on the nature of the on-going Syrian conflict. First, that the Syrian actors have no autonomy in what is happening in their country. Syrian rebel groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are taking part in the attack under Turkish leadership against Afrin. To open a new front against the Kurds while Syrian rebels are under heavy attack in Idlib and east Ghouta is militarily absurd. The Syrian loyalist forces in Abu Duhour are at less than 50 kilometers from the Idlib city. It shows that FSA has no capacity to take decisions outside the will of the Turkish government. It remains an open question, then, what is the sense of continuing an aimless war? 

In case the Syrian actors have resigned from managing the war that is taking place in their own country, and on behalf of them, then the aims and investment of their sponsors is what really counts. Here, the two major players are not on the same footing: Russia already received what it wanted; after eastern Aleppo, now we see ground forces advancing under the shadow of the Russian air force to take the rest of southern Aleppo province and enter Idlib province. In return, it seems, that Russian troops have allowed for Turkish air force to take part in the attack over Afrin. Yet, while the Russian side have already received the territories they wanted, the Turkish side is in front of a serious challenge: it still has to overcome the 8 to 10 thousand Kurdish fighters who might not evacuate their territory in the same speed as FSA fighters abandoned dozens of villages in the last three weeks.

The comparison between the Russian and Turkish performance gives to contrasting conclusions. Although the Russians were out of the Middle East for many years now since the collapse of the USSR, yet they revealed remarkable capacity to articulate strategic objectives and translate them into effective victories on the ground – in spite of the high price of those political choices on civilians as well as on the fighting sides. Turkey, on the other hand, has continuously put forward strategies that failed. First, Ankara called to overthrow the Asad regime; then it called for “no-flight-zone” in northern Syria; then its goal was to eliminate the Kurdish military presence in northern Syria; and now, Ankara’s objective is to eliminate Kurdish armed presence in the Afrin pocket, while in north-east Syria we know that Turkey is unable to stop the US from preparing force of 30’000 fighters for “border security”. 

The Turkish-Russian cooperation, which is giving the tempo of the war in Syria, does not seem a stable one. On the last day of December, after drone attacks on the Russian airbase in Hmeimim and naval facilities in Tartus, Putin said they were results of well planned “provocateurs, but they were not Turks.” In the aftermath of the Afrin attack, a Kurdish YPG source was quoted saying “Russia betrayed us in Afrin.” Nor the US-led coalition that used Kurdish fighters against ISIS has taken any steps to defend its (Former?) allies from the Turkish attack. How many more provocations and betrayals can the Syria conflict still hold?