ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Analysts say that Russia is trying to benefit from tensions between Turkey and the US over American support for Kurds in northeast Syria, ignoring the Turkish military presence there since 2016.
Turkey, with Russian approval, launched the Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016, following President Erdogan’s apology to Russian president Vladimir Putin after Turkish forces shot down of a Russian jet on the border with Syria in late 2015.
When Turkey attacked Afrin in January 2018, Russia also approved the Turkish operations. Moreover, on 17 September, Russia and Turkey reached a deal on Idlib, although Damascus opposes the Turkish presence.
"The Russia-Turkey Memorandum on the Stabilisation of the Idlib de-escalation zone of September 17 is ongoing," Russia Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Thursday during a press conference, adding there are still "provocations" by rebel groups.
Zakharova avoided directly answering Kurdistan 24 reporter Khoshawi Mohammed's question on Turkish cross-border shelling, addressing instead Syrian forces’ activity in the area.
"As we know the Turkish artillery shells Kobani city and threatens the Syrian Kurdistan. How does Russia treat such actions taken by Turkey?" the Kurdistan 24 reporter asked Zakharova.
"You mean Syrian Kurdistan? Well, we proceed from the fact that Syria is an integral state, with the legitimate government controlling it. It is now conducting an anti-terrorist operation cleansing the territory from terrorist groups," she said.
She did not explain Russia’s official position on the Turkish cross-border shelling that started on Oct. 31, but confirmed that "hostilities flared up near the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates River," "with cross-border exchanges of fire between the Turkish military and the Kurdish self-defense units."
Zakharova did say that the Turkish cross-border exchanges had ceased after the start of Turkish-US military patrols in Manbij and US-Kurdish "joint patrols east of the river."
The spokesperson pivoted from the topic of Turkish military presence or actions in the north of Syria by calling the US presence in support of the Kurdish-led forces in Syria "illegal."
"Quasi-state administration bodies are being created in violation of Syria’s constitution and its sovereignty with the support of the illegal military presence of the United States and radical Kurdish politicians."
According to Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at Russian International Affairs Council, the Turkish presence in Syria "is regarded in Moscow as a necessary measure against terrorist threats to Turkish national security."
Therefore, he said, Russia doesn’t comment on Turkish shelling. "Russia has been following a consistent policy of not interfering openly into the conflict between Turkey and [the] United States. I think Russia wants to see how the dynamics of the standoff will play out in the end."
"But certain steps of US in direction of reinforcement of its presence, allegedly to contain Iran, worries Russia and makes it consider other options like Turkish operation," he said.
Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24 that Russia views Turkey's presence in Syria as something that can be bargained away with time.
"Turkey's desire to erase the SDF from existence undermines the U.S. position in Syria. Russia wants the United States out of Syria more than it wants Turkey to leave Syria," he added.
Moreover, he said that Russia sees Turkey's ambition in Syria as a product of "Erdogan's desire to solve his Kurdish problem, and not as part of a grand effort to overthrow Assad."
"Russians believe that over time the Turkish zone in Syria can be negotiated out of existence," he added.
This, he said, happens as the US undermines Russian goals and withholds funds as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
"The US brings a lot of firepower and hostile intentions toward Iran in Syria that could lead to action against the Iranians in Syria," he concluded, "that would prove catastrophic for Russia's position."
Editing by John J. Catherine