Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Russia yesterday to solicit support for his Syria strategy. As the U.S. prepares for its exit from the war-torn country, Erdogan is seeking to rid northern Syria of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that has been fighting the Islamic State, and replace them with its proxies. Russia, however, is looking to co-opt those Kurds on behalf of Damascus, bringing their territories back under regime control.
Despite Russia’s firm support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s cooperation with anti-Assad rebels – a disagreement that all but triggered a war in 2015 – Moscow has allowed Ankara to advance key Turkish interests in Syria over the last two years. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be terrorists due to the group’s ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization in both the U.S. and Turkey. With tacit Russian approval, Erdogan has launched two military operations against the YPG since 2016, and has been participating in the Moscow-led peace talks on Syria. With the U.S. looking to withdraw from northeast Syria, Turkey is now hoping to oust the YPG from its remaining strongholds there, again with Russian backing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has no enmity towards the YPG, which runs a foreign mission in Moscow and has previously offered to host a Russian military base in Syria. But he has been playing the Syrian Kurds and Turkey off of each other to bring YPG- and Turkish-controlled territories back under Damascus. The YPG has been negotiating with the Syrian regime for years, demanding autonomy for Kurdish-majority provinces, which Assad has refused. But the more vulnerable the YPG is to Turkey, the more dependent it will become on Putin and Assad’s protection. Tellingly, since the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Kurds have renewed their outreach to both Russia and the Syrian regime, seeking urgent protection from an impending Turkish intervention.
Ankara, still hostile to the Assad regime, prefers to replace the YPG with local councils that are amenable to Turkey. But Erdogan, too, has a weaker hand today, as his own Syrian proxies recently lost a large portion of Idlib province to al-Qaeda offshoots. Per an earlier deal Erdogan struck with Putin, Turkey was responsible with clearing the province of jihadists. Russia could use this as a pretext to push for a fresh regime offensive in Idlib, while refusing to let Erdogan take over additional YPG territories.
As the U.S. plans its exit from the Syrian stage, both its Turkish and Syrian-Kurdish partners have turned to Moscow to settle their scores. Putin, however, is eyeing an endgame that benefits its client in Damascus at the expense of both Ankara and the Kurds. The U.S. should not let Russia exploit the fallout from America’s withdrawal to prop up Moscow’s own ally. Unless Washington forges a deal that can placate Turkey and the YPG, and all three stand to lose.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Merve on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.