Turkey Squeezed by Russian-backed Offensives in Syria

By Robert S. Ford | Senior Fellow - The Middle East Institute | Feb 19, 2016
Turkey Squeezed by Russian-backed Offensives in Syria

The cessation of hostilities was to begin in Syria on February 19. As was the case with the late 2011 and mid-2012 ceasefire efforts, this one is likely to fail. Instead of halting fire, the Syrian government is currently trying to isolate and assert dominion over the rebel-held portion of Aleppo, and, just as importantly, to block armed opposition supply lines extending down from Turkey. The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies want to impose surrender terms on the armed opposition, not negotiate a compromise political deal.

The comments of the Russian ambassador to the United Nations noting a point of difference with President Bashar al-Assad notwithstanding, there is no other way to explain the Russian military operations which weeks ago stabilized the Assad government's military situation. If Russia sought a genuine compromise deal, it could have suspended its operations against the armed opposition long ago. Whatever Russia’s intentions now going forward, the Assad regime has no intention of making serious compromises; the Russians have empowered the regime to take a hard line, and strong Iranian backing for Assad personally enables him to slow roll any Russian pressure. Assad could have forestalled the crisis with select compromises early in 2011, and he chose not to do so. He won't now either.

This is, of course, not 2011 again. Notably, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has exploited the Syrian-Russian offensive to seize control of much of northern Aleppo. It is close to realizing its goal of a contiguous Syrian Kurdish autonomous region along the Syrian-Turkish border. Syria's U.N. ambassador on February 16 called the PYD an Assad government ally; the Syrian government, faced with army manpower shortages, is delighted to have the PYD fight its rebel enemies in its place.

A strong autonomous Kurdish region along its southern border is a serious irritant to Ankara. Of greater concern is the close kinship between Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Kurdish protests in Turkey supportive of PYD fighters at Kobani in the winter of 2014/2015, and the longstanding social and political ties across the arbitrarily drawn border—it largely follows the pre-World War I Berlin to Baghdad rail line—that had separated clans and families make the relationship between Turkish and Syrian Kurds starkly different from that of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds. Ankara perceives the growing Kurdish nationalism in Syria as a more serious threat to Turkish territorial integrity than ISIS. Moreover, the likelihood of either the Syrian army or Kurdish rebels cutting the important supply line from Turkey to Aleppo adds to the prospect of thousands more Syrian refugees flooding into Turkey—there are queues at the border—on top of the 2.5 million already there.

Going forward, the Turks are at a huge disadvantage. After their virtually unconditional support to the PYD over the past year, the United States doesn't have great influence over the PYD, much less control it. The PYD ignored American pleas to halt attacks against the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels immediately north of Aleppo around the hotly contested town of Azaz. Russian air support to the PYD militia attacks makes rejecting the pleas from Washington easier. Likewise, Turkey ignored American bleats to stop shelling Kurdish forces assaulting Azaz. Turkey will continue its largely ineffective attacks of Kurdish forces operating around Azaz and might even shell Syrian government forces if they attack the town. Turkey will also keep injecting arms into the faltering Syrian rebel groups in a desperate effort to slow the Syrian Kurdish advance and that of the Syrian government forces.

But for all the bluster from Turkey and Saudi Arabia about sending ground forces entering Syria ostensibly to fight the Islamic State, no such thing will come to pass without American cover. That cover has yet to be offered, as the Obama administration will not risk a confrontation with the Russians over Syria.

Within weeks, the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo and other towns in northern Syria will likely be surrounded. The United Nations will have to negotiate additional aid access requests with a triumphant Syrian government. The United Nations might gain that access in some locales, but the armed opposition will not bow to Assad in any case. Instead, the fighters will revert to the insurgency they had in late 2011 and early 2012, aided by the Turks and Saudis. Only the fighters' enmity toward Assad, the Russia and Iran will exceed their anger at the Americans.

The biggest winner out of all of this is the Assad government, which, despite its overconfidence and string of recent victories, lacks enough strength to subdue and hold eastern Syria. The regime’s ability to hold the territories it captures from the rebels is questionable long-term, given the likely insurgency to come. However, even in its weakened condition, the regime will firmly hold the western third of Syria with Iranian and Russian backing. There will be no political deal for a new government arrived at through negotiations and mutual compromises. The regime, steered by Russia and Iran, is prioritizing the military option to establish faits accomplis that render the thought of compromise obsolete.

The other winner ironically is ISIS: two of its enemies, the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government, are decimating its third enemy, the Syrian armed opposition. As the Syrian Kurds won't fight ISIS beyond their newly autonomous region, soon it will be just the Syrian government and its Iranian-backed Shiite militias on the ground against the terror group. Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will be getting the perfect recruiting tool for his ‘we fight the apostate Shiites’ narrative; the prospect of Iraqi Shiite militia surrounding Sunni Arabs from the east and west will enhance the Baghdadi’s appeal. Annihilating the Syrian armed opposition will not conclude the war, but rather send the droves of vanquished Sunni militants into the arms of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The American-led fight against the Caliph, not the Russian intervention, will be the real quagmire in Syria.