Turkish-backed Syrian fighters walk across the Roman bridge in the archaeological site of Cyrrhus, or Nabi Huri, northeast of Afrin city, after taking control of it from the YPG on Friday. Photo: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP
The prospect of a redeployment of Russian military police forces in the Syrian Kurdish Afrin canton could deescalate the increasingly more dangerous confrontation there between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian pro-regime forces on one side and the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy forces on the other.
Neil Hauer, an independent analyst focused on Russia's role in Syria, has seen some indication that this force, made up of Chechens, could be on its way back in soon. This could effectively deter any Turkish assault on Afrin city in ways the pro-Syrian government forces cannot.
"I think it would more or less put an end to Turkey's plans to possibly conquer Afrin city," Hauer told Rudaw English. "Essentially anywhere these troops deploy is somewhere Turkey can't go, they can fight their way through some pro-regime militiamen (like the 400 that have already been sent) but not Russian military police.”
It's clear that even a much larger deployment of pro-Syrian government militiamen to Afrin is unlikely to decisively shift the battle in favour of the Kurds if it's not backed up by either Moscow or a large deployment of Syrian anti-aircraft weapons. This means Ankara can run the risk of further antagonizing Damascus by targeting their paramilitary forces along with the YPG there without risking serious retaliation, at least in the short term.
Russia initially withdrew its military police force from Afrin on the eve of the Turkish Operation Olive Branch, launched on January 20. The Kurds responded to this by accusing Russia of betraying them. Hauer believes the Russian withdrawal was done “in order to allow Turkey to go ahead with its operation and put pressure on the Kurds.”
"My current theory is Russia is trying to push the Kurds closer to the regime," he concluded. "I think they'll basically try and partition Afrin between Turkey and Russia/regime, with nominal Kurdish presence in the latter."
The YPG has already vacated its positions in Aleppo, where they constituted the only non-regime force to retain an armed presence in the city after Damascus's infamous conquest of east Aleppo in December 2016, and handed them over to the regime in order to fight in Afrin.
Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, echoed Hauer on the significance of even a small Russian deployment to Afrin, which would provide "protection from Turkish shelling" to the Kurdish forces there.
Some in Turkey hinted that a Turkish attack on the city of Manbij – held by the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is an integral part – could result in the killing of US troops, if they remain there.
However, Ankara is unlikely to risk any such confrontation with the Russians having been previously put under economic sanctions by Moscow for seven months after infamously shooting down one of its planes over the Syrian border in November 2015.
"We can see that parameters of [the leading Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] PYD-Damascus deal are being realized," Akhmetov said, referring to the YPG's pullout from Aleppo. "But the process is gradual and can be disturbed by Turkey, which is concerned that developments would lead to greater challenges."
"Contacts of Russian and Turkish presidents several days beforehand may suggest that some preliminary agreements were made in regards to the PYD's status in Afrin," he added. "The real question is not whether Turkey eventually enters Afrin, but what or who would serve as a buffer forces between Turkish forces and pro-regime/YPG positions and where that kind of de-confliction zone would pass."
When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey in mid-February to mend relations, one Turkish proposal was to station US and Turkish troops together in the city to prevent any risk of confrontation between them there. In Afrin the Russians may well be working on implementing something similar which could leave the Turks with a buffer zone in Afrin's north – which is one of Ankara's objectives there, giving it some credibility if it claims the operation was successful at home – and the core of the enclave under joint regime-PYD control with a demarcation line enforced by these Russian military police.