Turkish operation complicated by Russian objections and interests: analysts

"The Russians would presumably prefer not to have another flare-up in Syria at this moment."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Since late May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch a new operation in northeastern Syria to dislodge Kurdish-led forces there. However, such an operation might not be possible without a Russian green light. 

Turkey recently had several meetings with Russian officials over Ukraine and Syria. On Tuesday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk. 

Read More: US welcomes Turkish efforts with Russia to free Ukrainian grain

"Russia has a lot of reasons to go soft on Turkey right now. Turkey's position in the Black Sea and its reaction to the Ukraine War are really important to Moscow, and the Russians would presumably prefer not to have another flare-up in Syria at this moment," Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation think tank, told Kurdistan 24. 

"Also, if Turkey were to intervene, it would cause tensions with the United States," he said. "Problems in NATO are exactly what Russia wants more of at this moment." 

Russia has repeatedly voiced its opposition to any new Turkish operation.

On Wednesday, Russia's state news agency TASS reported that Russia views a possible Turkish military operation in Syria as an unwise move.  

"We believe that it [a Turkish military operation] would be an unwise move that may destabilize the situation, escalate tensions and cause a new round of hostilities in the country," said the Russian president's special envoy Alexander Lavrentyev.

Lavrentyev said Russia will convey this message to Turkey during the 18th Astana format talks on Syria between Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the Syrian opposition, which started Wednesday in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Read More: Russia, Iran, and Turkey reject Kurdish self-rule in Syria

The Astana talks, which began in 2016, are seen by analysts as an attempt by Russia, Turkey, and Iran to undermine the UN-backed Geneva talks on Syria. The three countries have repeatedly jointly condemned Kurdish self-rule in northeast Syria.

Earlier this month, Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urged Ankara to refrain from actions that could "lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria."

In early June, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov also told TASS that Turkish concerns should be discussed in the Astana format. 

"I think that all issues related to ensuring a ceasefire, the settlement of all issues in accordance with those agreements that have been reached before, should be discussed within their framework," he said. 

Moreover, on Wednesday, Lavrentyev also indicated that Russia would not turn a blind eye to a Turkish operation in exchange for Turkey blocking NATO membership of Finland and Sweden. 

"There is no such thing. We are not bargaining. We are not giving up on our allies in the region," he said.

Read More: Erdogan's objection to Finland and Sweden joining NATO: What does he want? Is US optimism justified?

Lund added that Russia also has a lot of Syria-specific reasons for why it doesn't want another Turkish attack. 

"Lavrentyev's statements are pretty clear and do not sound like Russia plans to roll over and let Turkey do as it pleases," he said. 

"Then again, everything tends to be a negotiation in the end," he added. "I imagine the ideal outcome from a Russian point of view would be if they could leverage Turkish pressure to force concessions from the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), improving Assad's position while also keeping the Turks happy."

"But it's a messy situation."

"Turkey could act unilaterally in Manbij, but that would be more difficult than having Russian acquiescence," Nicholas Heras, deputy director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Kurdistan 24. "Russia depends on stability in northeast Syria to allow it to have a role in an area where the Americans would otherwise be dominant." 

"The Russians could use Manbij in particular as part of a larger offering in a geopolitical bargain with Turkey on Ukraine," he said. "But, Russia does not gain much from a Turkish operation in Manbij, and the Assad regime, a partner that Russia relies on to stay in Syria, is opposed to any further Turkish land grabs inside Syrian territory."

Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst with Century International, said it's unclear whether Russia would consent to a new offensive in northwest Syria. 

Turkey has previously said it wants to capture the towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij, where there are both Syrian government troops and Russian military forces. 

"But when Turkey intervened around Ras al-Ain in 2019, the Syrian military was then deployed around the perimeter of the Peace Spring Zone and the length of the Syrian border, at least ostensibly restoring Syrian government writ to most of Syria's north and northeast," Heller told Kurdistan 24.

"The Russians have since seemed to imply publicly that they regard areas of the Northeast that are functionally under the control of Autonomous Administration and the SDF as being part of Syrian state-controlled territory nationally," he said. 

In October 2019, Syrian government forces entered Tal Tamr and other towns under a Russia-backed agreement with the SDF following a Turkish offensive in the area. As a result, Russia established new bases in towns like Kobani, Amude, and Ain Issa.

But when Turkey attacked Afrin in January 2018, Russia approved the Turkish operations and withdrew its forces from the area. The SDF at the time refused a Russian offer to hand Afrin over to the Syrian government to cease the fighting. 

"The question for me is whether that pro forma return of Syrian government control to these areas of the North, including Manbij and Kobani, is reversible, whether that can be undone, or if the Russians consider it sort of a one-way, unidirectional thing," Heller said.

"Previously, the Russians have agreed to cede territory that is beyond Damascus's control, including Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad," he added. "There doesn't seem to be precedent for Moscow agreeing to hand over areas that Damascus has recaptured." 

Moreover, Russia likely will not make such a decision without Damascus.

"It's a decision the Russians will have to make in consultation with their Syrian partners in Damascus," Heller said. "And I could imagine the Syrians being wary of conceding additional territory to the Turks, and believing that additional Syrian territory captured by Turkey and Turkish-backed factions could be lost to Turkish control, maybe forever." 

Read More: Syria will resist any new Turkish operation: Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his government would resist any new cross-border operation by the Turkish Army in Syria. Moreover, the Syrian parliament and Syrian Foreign Ministry have also voiced opposition to any new Turkish operation.