By Arab News
By Sinem Cengiz*
While the Biden administration is still in the midst of a policy review of the Middle East, Russia has intensified its military deployments in Syria, in particular the northeast, to weaken the influence and interests of the US in the war-torn country.
Russian troops recently blocked an American convoy in northeastern Syria, accusing it of violating military agreements in the country, and forced it to turn around. Moscow has also been working to back into a corner a key US ally in the country, namely the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization that is destabilizing security.
Russia’s recent decision to briefly withdraw its forces and military equipment from two bases in Tal Rifaat, in northwestern Syria, alarmed the SDF given the advance of Turkish-backed opposition forces in the area, which would be likely to fill any vacuum created by the departure of Russian troops.
Following the Russian withdrawal, the SDF allowed Iran’s proxy forces to enter the area, which is something that neither Ankara nor Moscow want as it might threaten the delicate balance Turkey, Russia and Iran have achieved through the Astana/Sochi peace process.
The SDF also turned to Washington for help. Last week senior US officials met representatives of the YPG-led SDF and associated groups. The State Department said Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood, Acting Special Representative for Syria Engagement Aimee Cutrona and National Security Council Director for Iraq and Syria Zehra Bell met on Sunday with “senior officials of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian Democratic Council, ranking council members and tribal leaders from Raqqa, Coalition military counterparts, and humanitarian actors.”
In a message posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the SDF’s general commander said that the US-led coalition will remain in northeastern Syria, or the autonomous Rojava region, until complete victory over Daesh is achieved. He added that Washington will continue to support the stability of the “autonomous administration.”
This meeting displeased not only Moscow but also Ankara, which is at odds with Washington over the US support, despite strong Turkish objections, for PKK offshoots fighting against Daesh.
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According to several analysts, many of the current problems plaguing Turkish-American relations are structural and so persist regardless of who occupies the White House.
The issue of the YPG/SDF has bedeviled relations between the two countries; the election of Biden has not, and will not, change that. The view in Ankara is that successive US administrations have ignored Turkish concerns and consider terrorists an efficient force in the fight against Daesh.
This belief that Turkish concerns are falling on deaf ears led Ankara to launch three military operations in northern Syria to eliminate the elements it considers threats to Turkish security and stability.
Moreover, Washington’s pro-YPG/SDF policy has led Ankara to enhance its cooperation with Russia. Despite supporting opposing sides in the Syrian war, Moscow and Ankara have been motivated to work together to counter the influence of the US in northeastern Syria and its cooperation with SDF forces.
This ongoing Russian-Turkish cooperation alarms the SDF. Although for many years Moscow has weaponized the Kurds in pursuit of its own geopolitical interests, the Kremlin does not want to see the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria consolidated through US and Western support, which could pave the way for the establishment of a permanent US military and diplomatic presence there.
But when the Kurds have asked Russia to support an independent Kurdish state in Syria, Moscow has declined to do so due to its complicated ties with Turkey and Iran, which are strongly opposed to the Kurdish plans.
Although the Kurds have received a large amount of military support from Russia to help fight Daesh, they have not been confident about Moscow’s overall stance and have wondered whether this support is merely temporary. The enhancement of cooperation between Turkey and Russia in the northeastern region seems to prove that the SDF’s concerns about Russia’s long-term stance are valid.
The recent brief withdrawal of Russian forces from the area sounded alarm bells. They pulled out in mid-April from two military bases in the town of Tal Rifaat in the northern Aleppo countryside: the main Tal Rifaat base on the Gaziantep international road, and the Kashtar base near the town of Deir Jamal.
The latter is significant for the Russians and the SDF because it is adjacent to the front lines of the Turkish army and Turkish-backed opposition forces. According to a recent report, people in the area who were concerned about the possibility of the Turkish army advancing toward their homes in the absence of any Russian forces, took to the streets to prevent the Russian convoy from leaving by blocking the road with burning tires.
While Moscow is increasing its bases in Syria, its withdrawal from some parts of the country in which forces opposed to Turkey are dominant is likely to become a strategy in keeping with its current relationship with Ankara.
Developments in former Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which Russia considers its backyard, and Turkey’s growing influence in these two countries has had an effect on Moscow’s activity in Syria.
In light of these new developments, it is not only US ally the SDF that is likely to find itself increasingly backed into a corner by the tacit Turkish-Russian cooperation in northeastern Syria, but also Washington itself.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz