BEIRUT – Turkey’s latest offensive on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria has pitted two U.S. allies against each other and raised the risk of a confrontation between Ankara and Washington – a move that “is great for Russia,” Jonas Parello-Plesner, senior policy fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Syria Deeply.
Russia sees “the operation in Afrin as a chance to deepen the wedge between the U.S. and Turkey,” he said.
Turkey launched an operation targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin last week. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since threatened to expand the campaign further east toward the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are operating alongside the Washington-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey’s foreign minister on Saturday called on the U.S. to pull out its troops ahead of a potential attack. However, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the United States Central Command, said an exit from Manbij is not something Washington is considering.
Against the backdrop of heightened tensions, Syria Deeply spoke with Parello-Plesner about the implications of Turkey’s operation in Afrin on Washington, Moscow and, ultimately, Syrian Kurds.
Syria Deeply: What’s at stake for both Moscow and Washington in terms of Turkey’s operation in northern Syria?
Jonas Parello-Plesner: Washington has just rolled out its new Syria strategy, which maintains U.S. presence in Syria. Even though it’s a limited force of only 2,000, it’s still a military presence that’s going to try to prevent an ISIS resurgence and undertake stabilization efforts in areas liberated from the group. Stabilization efforts are being carried out to a large extent in collaboration with the SDF, which is under strong influence by Syrian Kurds. Therefore, for the U.S., it’s very inconvenient that you suddenly have Turkey with their proxies, the [Free Syrian Army] FSA, attacking the Syrian Kurds in Afrin.
When it comes to Russia, I think they see the operation in Afrin as an opportunistic chance to deepen the wedge between the U.S. and Turkey. Turkish troops and proxies attacking Syrian Kurds, who are the primary partners of the U.S. in Syria, is great for Russia. It means that the two major allies are suddenly at loggerheads in Syria, which would give Moscow more leverage as a potential power broker.
Syria Deeply: Washington is in a bit of a quagmire: Fully supporting Turkey’s operation will threaten its alliance with the Kurds, but condemning it risks endangering its ties with a NATO ally. What options does the U.S. currently have, and can it maintain this delicate balance?
Jonas: I think the U.S. will strike a compromise. They will allow Turkey to continue its attacks on Afrin, since it is not a zone of U.S. operations. This is why the statements from the White House have only called for restraint. In this sense, you can say the U.S. is giving Turkey a free run in Afrin, even though the SDF is publicly asking the U.S. to provide more support to the Kurds in the area. On the other hand, the U.S. is also making it clear that it will only accept a limited operation. Any move beyond Afrin, and especially on the town of Manbij, where you have U.S. troops, seems to be a red line. I think this is the balance they are going to try and strike.
Syria Deeply: If Turkey attacks Manbij, would Washington’s hands be tied or is there room to maneuver?
Jonas: For Turkey that would be a very, very high-risk gamble. You must be a very risky Turkish commander to recommend a strategy that involves shelling an area where there are American troops and risk killing U.S. soldiers, especially since there is such a high risk this could backfire completely. I would still think that Turkey will not start to shell an area where the U.S. is present on the ground because the U.S. and Turkey are NATO allies and because the U.S. remains the world’s only superpower.
Syria Deeply: The U.S. called on Turkey to exercise restraint and limit its operations in northern Syria, but fell short of condemning the offensive. How did this response impact the relationship between Washington and its Kurdish partners, who may already have been doubting the extent of U.S. support?
Jonas: The American response creates tension. You can see that in a recent SDF statement in which the Kurds called on the U.S. to show more support. This is why the Russians like this scenario because it exposes that the Americans are not going to do that much for the Syrian Kurds.
Unfortunately, the Syrian Kurds don’t have a lot of good options. The Americans haven’t come out as strongly to support them as they would hope, the Turks are attacking them together with the FSA, the Russians have green-lighted the Turkish operation, so they also are angry with Russia. Basically, it’s a situation where the Kurds are seeing that they have no friends but the mountains, a little bit like what played out in Iraq for the Iraqi Kurds around their independence referendum, where they also expected much more support from the international community, including the U.S., but didn’t get it.
Syria Deeply: What does this say about Washington’s capacity as a mediator between the Kurds and the Turks?
Jonas: If you take actions as metrics, then, of course, the U.S. does not have a great track record, because Afrin is happening now. They have not been able to deter the Turks from this. It’s an unwanted escalation.
On the other hand, I know from my own contacts with the administration that Washington has been trying to do a lot of work to accommodate the Turks. They are being very clear about the collaboration they have with the SDF, about its limits and also about cooperating with Turkey over the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] threat. The Americans, I would say, have gone to great length to try to accommodate Turkey. Also, with the Syrian Kurds, they have been honest. They never promised them that their partnership was anything more than about fighting ISIS. They have never made any promises that they would ensure political participation of the Syrian Kurds or a long-term U.S. partnership.
Syria Deeply: In a recent op-ed, you claimed that for several years now Moscow has been reaching out to Turkey and the YPG simultaneously, hoping to replace the U.S. as the primary arbiter between the two parties. How is Russia trying to achieve this status and what does it hope to achieve?
Jonas: I think Russia wants to project itself as a great power with influence both in the Middle East and globally. And Russia wants to come out of the Syrian conflict as a winner. That’s why, I think, they have been cultivating the Syrian Kurds and trying to act as an arbiter on their behalf. This is why they invited them to participate in the congress in Sochi, when even the U.S. has not worked to include the Kurds in the Geneva format. Also, if you looked at Russia’s draft for the new Syrian constitution, a large-scale autonomy for the Kurds was included.
I think Russia has been doing that because they’re pretty used to cultivating frozen conflicts in Europe, including places like Donbass in Ukraine, Transnistria in Moldova, in Georgia as well. If you look at these frozen conflicts, in Donbass and so on, the Russians thrive on instability as long as they have influence over it. They can dial up and dial down tensions as they want to get what they want.
Syria Deeply: After Turkey’s attack on Afrin, the YPG accused Russia of selling them out. Do you think Russia can still reach this arbiter status after its perceived complicity in the Afrin offensive?
Jonas: It makes it harder. I saw reports that the Syrian Kurds now have no interest in participating in the Syrian national dialogue in Sochi with the Russians, which potentially spoils things for Moscow.
On the other hand, it could also be a short-term rift. The Syrian Kurds do not have that many options, so they know that if they want a deal with the Syrian regime over their future in Syria, they would need to go through the Russians. So let’s see. We have to wait until the fighting stops and the smoke settles to see how precisely some of these new calculations are made. But definitely they are angry right now at the Russians, and they’re expressing that publicly. That could spoil Russian influence. But the Russians are still the ones with the influence over the regime.
Syria Deeply: Eldar Khalil, who is the co-president of the governing body of Rojava, recently said that Russia had asked the Syrian Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian regime to be safe and far from Turkish attacks. What does this tell us about Russia’s ability to act as a mediator?
Jonas: It, of course, shows a relatively large capacity, at least, to sort of play around with things on the ground.
Syria Deeply: Do you think Russia might have a better ability than Washington to mediate between Ankara and the Kurds?
Jonas: I think so. Russia has less constraints and less concerns, and that makes it easier for Moscow to operate, whereas the U.S. has a lot of different constraints in its Syria policy. Washington doesn’t want mass-scale boots on the ground. Its military mission is primarily to go after ISIS, not to go after Assad or Iran or any other broader objective. In that sense, the U.S. is much more constrained. And it has, of course, a relationship with Turkey that it wants to stabilize. With all of this in mind, the U.S. is just trying to avoid too many bumps on the road. Meanwhile, the Russians can create bumps in the road, and it doesn’t matter that much for them.
So, yes, to answer your question more shortly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can read Parello-Plesner’s report “Rojava, Russia’s Next Frozen Conflict?” on the Hudson Institute website.