Why Russia could agree with another Turkish operation in northern Syria?

When Trump announced his plans in late December to withdraw the US troops from the Northern Syria, Russian officials must have noticed the enthusiasm of their Turkish counterparts about the news. Now, several weeks later, although the US military and political establishment diverted from Trump’s initial plans on the withdrawal, the move is still viewed as a good opportunity by Ankara to further expand its influence in the neighbouring Syria and tackle its own security issues.

It is no secret that Turkey’s Syrian policy in the last year heavily tilted in favour of Russian diplomatic lead. This also means that before entering northern Syria, Turkey would need to take the endorsement of all major stake holders to the conflict, including Russia. Despite all the potential benefits that Turkey-proposed security zone may bring to the Russian-led settlement process, Putin seems to be unsatisfied with the Turkish insistence to follow the plan. Russian leader has neither full trust in Turkey`s real intentions nor is he comfortable with the possibility of a Turkish-American protectorate in Syria.

Since the beginning of Astana process in January 2017, Russia has been evaluating Turkish actions in Syria according to the terms of agreements, negotiated and endorsed by all guarantor states, including Turkey itself. Turkey`s stand for a military operation seems to be more understandable by Russia as a necessary measure to confront threats from PYD. In that regard, Turkey comes off confident and determined to solve its issue with PYD militarily: Syrian Kurdish forces are bound to become an easy target once the US carries out the withdrawal and limits their security guarantees to their allies.

However, according to the accords mutually agreed with Russia, Ankara is obliged to solve its security concerns in Syria through a closer dialogue with Moscow and also indirectly with Damascus. Such consultations would ensure no parties explicitly violate Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is why Turkey found it necessary to consult with Russia upon receiving the news on the US withdrawal.

One can see that Russia today neither can afford nor be willing to alienate Turkey, an integral part of the Astana mechanism. First of all, cooperation of Turkey allowed Russia to successfully reduce number of opposition-held territories in Syria. Dialogue over Idlib and arrangements between guarantor-states allowed Russia to stabilize the conflict within a single enclave, putting opposition under unfavourable conditions and channel the armed conflict into political competition. 

Secondly, sincere support from Turkey to the work on constitutional committee contributed to Russian plans to bring about the solution with the terms of Astana and Sochi agreements. Finally, Turkey seems to become a primary delivery route for materials necessary for reconstruction and rebuilding of Syria.

Potentially, Turkish military operation may play a positive role in Russian long-term plans in Syria. A limited operation may be further linked to the situation in Idlib where Turkey has so far failed to constrain terrorists from violating the Sochi agreement. Due to its limited resources, Turkey will have to invite Syrian and Russian forces for assistance.

As a result of a Turkish operation Syrian border will be in control of a state which enjoys good relations with Russia, rather than in control of non-state organizations neither with legitimacy nor demonstrating adequate level of predictability stemming from organizational structure. Diplomatic relations with Turkey would guarantee that Russia indirectly controls situation along the Syrian-Turkish border. 

Operation will eventually impose pressure on the Syrian Kurds into tailoring of their demands. Renewed activity of alternative Kurdish factions in northern Syria would be another contributing factor that would facilitate PYD’s uneasy dialogue with Damascus and further reinforce positions of the central government within reconciliation process in general.

In midterm perspective Turkish control over border regions in northern Syria may extend terms of Astana agreements to new territories limited with the Euphrates river.

Finally, Russia may allow Turkey to enter Syria to further strain the relations between Turkish political leadership and the US military and foreign policy establishment. Turkey will obviously attack the Syrian Kurds, which is a clear violation of US demands to withhold from any attacks against their Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS.

It is, however, important to note that limited Turkish operation in northern Syria will be of great utility to the Russian perspective only if two crucial conditions are dully met. 

First, Turkey should promise that invasion into Syria should be limited in scope and in goals. Destabilization of security situation along the Turkish border would be detrimental to internal security in Turkey. Destabilization would require Turkish leadership to request NATO for a military assistance in Ankara’s fight against terrorist organizations. 

Secondly, Turkey should ensure Russian counterparts that military operation will not evolve into any attempts to create a separate political entity filled with anti-Assad forces. In other words, Turkish initiative against terrorists should be carried out within the Astana de-escalation agreements with their emphasis on Syrian sovereignty.

The fact that Putin evoked Adana agreement, signed by Turkey and Syrian in 1998 and partially renewed by AKP government and Assad in 2011, means that Russia wants to hold Turkey within the framework of cooperation developed by the Astana and Sochi agreements. On the other hand, Putin’s emphasis on a cooperation between Turkey and Syria may be due to his concerns over Erdogan’s statements about possible cooperation between Turkey and US in the to-be-liberated territories. Without a doubt, the latter would mean a clear violation of the Astana spirit.

So far, Russian government has been trying to follow a pragmatic line. Russia declined to openly endorse or oppose Turkish plans for a military cooperation. On the other hand, Russia underlined that Damascus should be a primary interlocuter if Ankara wants to solve its security problems. In other words, every time Putin meets Erdogan, he hopes to find some hints of pragmatism that would contribute to stabilization of the Syrian conflict.

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