US-Russia-Turkey Dynamics in Syria After ‘Olive Branch’: One Door Closes, Another Opens
In recent months, the Kremlin’s priorities in Syria have shifted from fighting a long war to seeking a quick peace. This change has been dictated largely by domestic political considerations and by Russia’s success in propping up the Assad regime on the battlefield, and it has increased Russia’s vulnerability to fellow regional actors whose cooperation is crucial for Moscow to maintain the appearance of political progress in the war-ravaged country. Nothing has highlighted this new trend more vividly than Turkey’s Jan. 20 attack on the neighboring Syrian province of Afrin, launched with Russia’s grudging acquiescence. It is not yet clear how long the operation will last or how expansive it will be. But some of the non-military damage is already obvious: Turkey’s offensive has hurt Moscow’s chances for casting itself as the lead player in Syria’s transition to peace.
More broadly, Ankara’s operation, paradoxically called “Olive Branch,” is testing the resilience both of Turkish-Russian rapprochement and of U.S.-Turkish relations. With both Moscow and Washington eager to dissuade Ankara from triggering a lengthy conflict with the Syrian Kurds, could Turkey’s gamble in Afrin create an unexpected opportunity for some U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria, and perhaps even give Washington a chance to strengthen its hand in shaping Syria’s political future?
How It All Began
While Turkish officials have long threatened to target Kurdish groups in Afrin—accusing them of links with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK—the final decision to invade was precipitated by a U.S. announcement that Washington plans to create a 30,000-strong Kurdish “border force” in Syria. The force would have drawn heavily from the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdish insurgency it has been fighting for decades. While the U.S. has been supporting Kurdish groups for years and this is widely known, the announcement about the border force sounded like a strategic move and it enraged Turkey; attempts to walk it back by both the State Department and the Pentagon did not help. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of the United States in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”
Russia’s New Priorities in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin has two immediate goals in Syria: to significantly scale down Russia’s presence on the ground—in December he declared a military “victory” and announced troop withdrawals—and to foster the perception that Moscow is leading the peace initiative there. In part, these stem from Russia’s upcoming presidential election. Though it’s hard to imagine any result but a fourth term for Putin, the Kremlin does care about turnout and other signs of legitimacy in the public eye. This means it can’t altogether ignore the declining public support in Russia for the continuation of its military entanglement in Syria: According to an August poll, only 30 percent of Russians want the operation to continue, while 49 percent want Russia to withdraw. On a geopolitical level, Putin’s goals reflect Moscow’s failure to convert the impressive demonstration of its power-projection capabilities in Syria into a strategic bargain with the West, which would have acknowledged Russia’s interests in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe.
Moscow has focused its peace-promoting efforts on a Congress of Syrian National Dialogue that it is convening Jan. 29-30 in Sochi. Russian officials have declared ambitious plans of gathering all key players—including Turks and Kurds—around the table to agree on a new constitution, facilitate new elections and orchestrate a “lite” version of power transfer, which would keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime firmly in control of the transition process. The conference was postponed once before and it would be an embarrassment for Moscow to delay a second time. Few, if any, informed Syria watchers have faith in the meeting’s ability to produce a political solution at this time, so the best Russia can hope for is a “Potemkin” process to benefit Putin domestically ahead of the March 18 presidential polls.
But Turkey’s offensive in Afrin undermines the perception that Russia is leading the march to peace—both because it is a major military operation and because it has forced Russia to choose between the Turks and the Kurds, two powerful stakeholders indispensable to any legitimate-seeming peace process. Before the Olive Branch offensive Moscow seemed on track to get Turks to sit down at the same table—or at least at the same event—with moderate Kurds in Sochi; since the attack, the chances for that have gotten drastically slimmer. Erdogan has insisted the congress can go ahead as planned because Russia had agreed prior to Afrin that the YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, would not be among the participants. However, Moscow can ill afford to hold such a conference without any Kurdish participation, given the Kurds’ power and influence in northern Syria following their success in spearheading international operations against the Islamic State. It seems that, in recent months, Putin had negotiated at length with Erdogan to persuade him that some Kurdish representation is indispensable. Moscow reportedly reiterated its invitation to Kurds on Jan. 22, but influential Syrian Kurdish public figures in both Syria and Russia say Kurdish groups are more likely than not to skip Sochi. Strong statements from the PYD claiming that Russia has betrayed its promises to the Kurds by allowing Turkey to enter Afrin further indicate that Moscow may not be able to count on Kurdish support at the conference.
Moscow’s acceptance of Ankara’s operation has not been enthusiastic, but Turkey’s hand was strengthened by Russia’s fear of alienating a key tactical ally ahead of Sochi. Moscow has had a military presence in Afrin since March last year and no Turkish military offensive would have been possible there had Russia strongly opposed it. Russia’s Defense Ministry ran a regional Syrian Reconciliation Center in Afrin and maintained good relations with local Kurdish groups, including the PYD. In December Moscow held a high-profile military meeting with the YPG and discussed possible military cooperation after the defeat of IS.
Turkey has always viewed Russian-Kurdish links with irritation. Ankara has tried unsuccessfully to block Russian military presence in Afrin and had tried on several occasions to pressure Moscow to abandon its cooperation with the Kurds, including calling for the closure of the Kurdish representative office in Moscow. In all these previous cases Moscow had stood firm.
This time, although Russia needs the Kurds’ cooperation in Sochi, it decided that it needs Ankara’s more. Turkey’s ire over the prospective border force—shared by Moscow, which fears that it could undermine Syria’s survival as a unified state—proved so intense that Russia decided it could not stand in the way without poisoning its larger bilateral relationship with Ankara. This relationship now spans cooperation on a vital energy project (TurkStream) and arms sales. Moreover, Russia needs Turkey’s acquiescence to continue its operations against the remnants of the Al-Nusra Front (Tahrir al-Sham Hay'at) in the Idlib de-escalation zone, which is under Turkish control. Moscow is now backing the Assad regime’s offensive there after a major drone attack on the Russian military base in Khmeimim this month; the attack, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, originated from Idlib. Meanwhile, Russia leaned on Damascus to allow the Turkish air force to access airspace over Afrin.
The media reports and official statements about Russia’s response to the Afrin offensive show, however, how tepid Moscow’s support for the operation has been. A day before Olive Branch was launched, the Turkish press reported that Russian troops were being withdrawn from Afrin, a claim quickly denied by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russian Defense Ministry later confirmed that it had moved its military police forces, which ran the Reconciliation Center, out of the region to ensure their safety. On the day of the invasion President Erdogan announced that the operation had been cleared with Moscow; however, Russian official statements call on Ankara to limit both the duration of the offensive and the damage it may cause to local residents. A Kremlin spokesman emphasized that Russia is monitoring the situation, maintains contacts with both Ankara and Damascus (which reacted angrily to the incursion) and continues to regard the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity as a key priority. At the U.N. Russia predictably blamed the U.S. for provoking the Turkish intervention and called for restraint, but, crucially, offered no strong backing to Ankara.
What’s In It for America?
The U.S.-Russia-Turkey triangle in Syria has largely shifted to and fro in a zero-sum game: Deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years—for instance, due to irritants like the failure to extradite Fethullah Gulen and allegations of Erdogan’s assistance to Iran in evading sanctions—has helped drive Russian-Turkish rapprochement. This has worried Washington and particularly the Pentagon: They fear that a disgruntled Turkey can undermine NATO cohesion and even open the door to intelligence breaches (Russia, after all, will have to service those S-400 missile systems Ankara is buying). On the flipside, the U.S. benefitted from closer ties with Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian jet over Syria, plunging Turkish-Russian relations into a deep crisis.
But did Russia agree to the Afrin operation in order to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey, as some Russian commentators claim? In this particular instance, that’s unlikely. Moscow was simply up against a wall. While its big goal geopolitically may be to fracture NATO and poison relations between allied member-states like Washington and Ankara, its more immediate need is to promote a veneer of harmony in Syria. America’s border-force statement delivered a huge blow to the U.S.-Turkish relationship without Russia’s meddling.
Turkey’s Afrin offensive was not a product of Moscow’s geo-political maneuvering, but rather a demonstration of Moscow’s waning influence in Syria as it seeks to convert its strong military muscle into a more complex role of peace-broker. The big question now is how the U.S. chooses to react to this growing Russian vulnerability: Will it choose to exploit the Afrin operation to drive a wedge between Moscow and Turkey? Or will it seek to insert itself more visibly into the political transition process, not only in Geneva but also in Sochi and Astana?
Because of the strong U.S.-Kurdish relationship, Russia needs Washington to make the case to moderate Kurds that they should still participate in Sochi. Four days after Turkish forces crossed the Syrian border, the U.S. finally confirmed it had received a formal invitation from Russia to take part in the congress. Is this a chance for the Americans to voice their arguments and gain greater influence over what the Russians are doing?
The answer depends on two factors. First, will the Americans be prepared to give their blessing to a Russia-led political process that puts Assad in the driver’s seat and boosts Moscow’s geopolitical clout in the region? This, frankly, does not look likely. The U.S. military community, which now seems to hold sway in Washington, would probably prefer not to empower Moscow in any way at all and would rather see it fail in Syria.
The second factor relates to the evolution of U.S. strategic objectives in Syria, which have remained ambiguous. During his presidential campaign Donald Trump vowed to help defeat the Islamic State, while explicitly denouncing any U.S. involvement in helping to end Syria’s bloody civil war or in the post-war reconstruction process. How much do these policy objectives still hold now after IS has been effectively defeated in Syria, and the civil war has once again moved to the forefront of the Syrian tragedy?
One can argue that U.S. plans for a Kurdish border force did not only put Turkey on a war footing, but also set U.S. policy in Syria on a path to mission creep. If Turkey, for example, follows through with its plans to expand its offensive to Syria’s Manjib district, which is de facto controlled by the U.S., that could put Washington into a direct military standoff with Ankara and force the U.S. to expand its military presence.
The above-mentioned significant constraints on U.S. policy rule out any strategic U.S.-Russian rapprochement in Syria on the back of the Afrin offensive. Yet tactical cooperation aimed at preventing the further escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish war in Syria should be considered.
The forthcoming Sochi congress has become important not so much as a platform for a Syria-wide political settlement—which remains practically inconceivable at this stage—but as a window of opportunity for direct dialogue between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, which both the U.S. and Russia can help to mediate. Russia can ensure Turkish cooperation as payback for its support on Afrin, while the U.S. can ensure that serious Kurdish players take part, even while Olive Branch continues.
If the opportunity to leverage the Sochi process to restart Kurdish-Turkish dialogue is missed, it is hard to see any alternative to conflict escalation, which could plunge northern Syria—thus far an island of relative stability—into violence. A purely “bilateral” Turkish-Kurdish process will not be accepted by Ankara for political reasons, as it may legitimize Syrian Kurdish nationalism. And, equally, Turkey’s hopes for a definitive military victory in Afrin and beyond also appears overly optimistic. At the same time, Turkish-Kurdish talks may be more palatable for all sides if they are embedded within a multilateral diplomacy—such as the Sochi process—which declares the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity among its key objectives.
Visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.