SLEMANI, Kurdistan Region of Iraq – Syrian Kurds suspect that the heavy U.S. response to an apparent attempt by Syrian government forces to take an oil field from the Syrian Democratic Forces played a role in convincing Russia to give Turkey the green light to resume airstrikes on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
After Turkey-backed rebels shot down a Russian Su-25 jet in Idlib province on February 3, Turkish airstrikes unexpectedly stopped for several days. Russia coordinated with Turkey to retrieve the body of the pilot who was killed, and heavy Turkish airstrikes resumed on Thursday, the same day the pilot was buried in Russia.
Kurds now say Russia briefly stopped Turkish airstrikes in Afrin, but things changed after the U.S. prevented the pro-regime push on the SDF base in Khusham, located next to important oil and gas fields that the SDF captured last year from ISIS.
“The U.S. troops of the international coalition bombed the Syrian regime in Deir Ezzor, this is why Russia again gave a green light to Turkey to bomb Afrin with approval of the Syrian regime,” Hussein Feqe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Europe told The Defense Post on Thursday.
The complex battlefield situation and geopolitical competition shows that Kurds in Syria are struggling to balance relations with Russia and the United States now that Islamic State has lost most of its territory in northern Syria.
“Russia has been increasingly critical of American activity in the SDF-held territories aimed to carve out parts of Syria and deny Syrian government access to oil fields,” Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council told The Defense Post.
For some Kurds, the Russian position was a shock, since they considered the Russians friends and a counter-balance to Turkish influence in Syria. But now Russia is using the Turkish-Kurdish conflict to push the Syrian Kurds to accept a full Syrian government authority over the areas they control.
“SDF was a U.S. ally and a part of the American coalition. So, for Russian government it was very important to show that the protection of SDF is a duty of the United States,” Leonid M. Issaev, an Associate Professor at the Department for Political Science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow told The Defense Post.
— Cahida Dêrsim (@dersi4m) February 10, 2018
“Russia’s frustration is mostly over SDF’s ongoing cooperation with the U.S. in Deir Ezzor. Russian military generals had previously met with SDF commanders in this region, trying to convince for enhanced cooperation with Russia and the Syrian regime,” Ceng Sagnic, Co-editor of Turkeyscope and Coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center in Israel said.
“SDF was initially – but briefly – expected to withdraw forces from Deir Ezzor or at least make the job harder for the U.S. in Deir Ezzor after the Turkish incursion into Afrin. Hence, continued alliance with the U.S. indicated deeper levels of agreements with Washington,” he told The Defense Post.
“Therefore, Russian accusations against SDF should be viewed as verbal attacks to the U.S., but after Moscow confirmed that the SDF will remain a U.S. ally,” he said of recent Russian criticism of the SDF.
Pro-Syrian government attack on the SDF
The Coalition said on Thursday that it responded to an “unprovoked attack” on a well-established SDF headquarters by forces aligned with the Syrian government.
Military officials said Coalition aircraft including F-22A Raptors, MQ-9B Reapers, F-15E Strike Eagles, AC-130 gunships, U.S. Army Apache helicopters and U.S. Marine artillery ground forces engaged the pro-regime fighters.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested that Russia may not have had control of the pro-regime forces that attacked the SDF base.
“I have no idea why they would attack there, the forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew. We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of,” he told reporters on Thursday.
The Coalition strikes reportedly killed more than 100 pro-government forces.
Some U.S. officials also confirmed they suspect Russia allowed Turkey to carry out airstrikes again in reaction to the U.S. strike on regime troops in Deir Ezzor.
“I think it’s possible that the Russians allowed the Turks to resume airstrikes on Afrin as a response to the U.S. strike on regime troops” in Deir Ezzor, one U.S. official told The Defense Post, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I do not have accurate information about the resumption of the Turkish bombing on Afrin, but the important thing is that they did not stop and continued to bomb and there are civilian casualties,” Hussein al-Kayed, Deputy Head of Foreign Relations in Al Jazeera canton told the Defense Post.
“Russia and America have interests and the region of East Euphrates which rich in oil and there is SDF now there and the regime also has interests and looking for these riches,” he said.
“We consider that this wealth is national and is for all of Syria, but there may be Russian and American ambitions for the oil wealth in Syria, but we are looking at a political solution and a political dialogue with Damascus to invest this wealth.”
Heva Arabo, a senior official and co-head of the local administration in the Al Jazeera canton said the Kurds are becoming a victim of the Russian-U.S. competition in northern Syria.
“We saw that the Americans responded to the attacks on the SDF in Deir Ezzor, and the 100 persons linked to the regime have been killed in these attacks yesterday day night,” she said during a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Slemani on Friday.
“After that the attacks increased in Afrin, and as we said before Turkey has taken the permission to launch these attacks. The increase in these air strikes is linked to the U.S. attitude in Deir Ezzor,” she said.
Arabo told the conference that Russia was allowing such attacks as a reaction to the continued U.S. presence in Syria.
“Russia is not satisfied with U.S. presence in many places in Syria such as in Manbij, Tabqa and Deir Ezzor, and Russia is part of the Turkish attacks. Russia cannot face America, so they attack in other ways, such as the attack on the SDF in Deir Ezzor. These countries to not face each other, but they face each other through Turkey, the regime and other forces,” she said.
— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) February 9, 2018
In an interview on Saturday, Arabo said that officials have not seen any real change in the Russian position after Turkish-backed rebels shot down a Russian jet.
“Russia accepted the Turkish attacks on our land, withdrew its forces from Afrin the first day of the fighting and opened the roads for Turkish planes to enter,” she told The Defense Post.
“Since the beginning we have been with the coalition against Da’ash,” she said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “There were tensions between Russia and America and attacks have targeted us. Russia is now talking to us in a strong tone. We had relations with Russia in the past, and Russia helped us in fighting ISIS, but now Russia wants to be the owner of the largest part of Syria.”
“Russia’s relationship with Turkey is good, and gave permission to Turkey to attack us. The whole world knows it was Turkey were ISIS came from and entered Syria, why they don’t accuse Turkey of embracing ISIS. The Syrian regime attacked Deir Ezzor because of oil, and Russia has interests there,” she concluded.
Operation ‘Olive Branch’
Turkey along with its Syrian rebel proxies launched heavy attacks on the Kurds in Afrin last month with Russian permission after it became clear that the U.S. would not stop supporting the Kurds in northern Syria. Russia silently withdrew its forces from Afrin just hours before the assault began.
Turkey suspects the U.S. will stay in Syria longer to counter Russian and Iranian influence, not just to fight ISIS, Turkish Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told France24 in November.
Now it seems Turkey wants to push out the Kurds from Afrin and force them to withdraw east towards Manbij. But the Kurds say if they do not defend Afrin, Turkey will not stop its attacks until their attempts to build a multi-ethnic federal region in northern Syria are completely destroyed.
In late January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s attacks on Afrin could be extended all the way east to the border with Iraq.
The Syrian Kurds see the Afrin battle as an existential fight that will either mean the downfall of the Kurds in Syria, or a victory over Turkish-led Islamist proxies and the Turkish army.
Despite increasing Turkish casualties, a withdrawal from Afrin would damage Erdogan’s reputation in Turkey amidst talks of early elections. Currently, elections are planned for November 2019.
Therefore, it’s unlikely that the battle for Afrin will stop anytime soon amidst geopolitical competition between local, regional and international actors and Turkey’s domestic politics.