Russian Military Police arrive to deconflict between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces near Afrin canton. Photo: YPG media
Russia's decision to send in forces to deconflict recent clashes between Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forces, operating from the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin Canton, and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen in the vicinity, is another indication that the Syrian Kurds can retain their hold over territory they seized in prior battles against their enemies, while Russia is using the Kurds as leverage against Turkey.
“In order to prevent provocations and possible conflicts between the FSA units in the north of Syria and the Kurdish militia, the deconfliction zone in the Tell Rifaat area was established under the auspices of the Russian centre for reconciliation,” Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Syria, said in a press briefing on Wednesday.
Russia deployed military police to the area to enforce this new buffer zone between the two sides. This effectively solidifies the YPG's hold over Tell Rifaat, at least for now. The city is situated in the so-called al-Shahba region, the areas the YPG have captured outside of their territories between Kobani and Afrin Canton. The region includes both Tell Rifaat, just east of Afrin, and Manbij, on the west bank of the Euphrates River.
In February 2016, as a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive began to encircle the city of Aleppo, Afrin-based YPG forces advanced eastward against the Islamist Levant Front group, seizing both Tell Rifaat and the regime's Menagh airfield. Turkey opposed this move and targeted the YPG with cross-border artillery strikes, effectively stopping them from seizing Azaz. Ankara has failed to force them back from Menagh and Tell Rifaat.
Russia's move to deconflict the standoff between the Afrin YPG and Turkey/FSA ultimately leaves the YPG in de-facto control over Tell Rifaat. This isn't dissimilar to what happened in Manbij last March. The YPG-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition captured the city in August 2016. Before the end of that month Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield operation, removing ISIS from the territories between Kobani and Afrin and retaining forces there to this day. Turkey’s aim was to stop the YPG, who are the armed wing of Turkey's Syrian Kurdish rival the Democratic Union Party (PYD), linking up these two cantons as they had previously done with Jazira and Kobani in the summer of 2015.
As the Turkish-FSA operation ousted ISIS from the city of Al-Bab, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan constantly reiterated that an assault on Manbij would soon follow. Last March, following the capture of Al-Bab, Turkey's FSA proxies began clashing with the SDF/YPG in Manbij. The Americans immediately rushed in Army Rangers in armored vehicles to establish a buffer zone between the two sides. This move effectively prevented a Turkish takeover of Manbij and left the SDF's Manbij Military Council in control of the city.
This is essentially the same thing that has just happened in Tell Rifaat. After failing to mount a substantial operation against Manbij, Turkey shifted its focus to Afrin over the summer. Afrin is the most isolated and vulnerable Syrian Kurdish territory. Since June they've threatened to destroy the YPG in the tiny enclave and have bombarded it with artillery fire. Turkish media reported that Ankara aimed to first use its FSA proxies to force the YPG back from Tell Rifaat before then neutralizing them in Afrin itself. Clashes between the FSA and YPG around Afrin have been a regular occurrence over the summer, but without afflicting any major defeats on the Kurdish force. Now, with the Russians stepping in, any direct, or proxy, attack against the YPG will prove much more difficult for the Turks to execute.
“Ankara doesn’t have a consistent long-term strategy against the PYD and its actions against these Kurdish forces are situational and mainly shaped by developments on the ground,” Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English. “The Afrin Canton is seen by Turkey as the weakest link in the PYD-controlled polity and Russia seems to understand that Turkey wants to project its power at Afrin. But Russia fears that Turkey may be driven by more immediate concerns rather than long-term calculations.”
Turkey, he added, attempted several times “to disguise its attack on Afrin as an internal struggle between Syrian political forces by sending FSA armed groups from the Euphrates Shield territories to Azaz-Tell-Rifaat line, but Kurds proved to have an effective defense there. So, after having gained no success Turkey realizes that the only way to attack PYD is to deploy its own military troops.”
This is an outcome Moscow doesn't want to see unfold. To Russia “Afrin represents possibly the only effective leverage Russia has against Turkey in Syria. By using the Kurdish presence in Afrin Moscow may try to incentivize Turkey to be more cooperative during the settlement process in Syria.”
“Sending its own military troops to distant and unstable places poses great political risks for Moscow, that is why I think Russia will not allow any serious escalation in that region,” Akhmetov elaborated.
Therefore, “Moscow wants to prevent escalation of conflict between the PYD-led Kurdish forces, on the one hand, and Turkey and its proxies in the northern Syria, on the other.”
Instead Moscow wants Turkey to focus on Idlib, which was overrun completely by Haya't Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) Islamists over the summer. HTS is an Al-Qaeda offshoot which drove Ahrar al-Sham, a Turkish-backed group, out of Idlib in late July and in the process significantly weakened Turkey's hand there.
“Moscow wants to utilize Turkish assets in the upcoming Idlib operation where Turkey can establish a security belt along the Syrian border, where Ahrar-Sham and similar groups can be hosted to demarcate moderate opposition groups from terrorists,” Akhmetov explained.
“All in all, the presence of the Russian troops in Tell Rifaat may be seen as a buffer against unpredictable and hectic behavior of the Turkish decision-makers,” he concluded. “Russia's invitation to Turkey to participate in the Idlib operation and granting Ankara the status of a guarantor in the Astana agreements may also serve the same purpose.”