Russia recently expanded its air campaign in Syria, challenging Turkish interests.
By: Guido Weiss
Russia launched a military campaign in Syria on September 30, largely targeting Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS positions threatening the Assad regime. However, after the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian SU 24 warplane on November 24, Russia expanded its campaign, attacking Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) adversaries in northern Syria. This new approach challenges Turkish interests in Syria and will likely continue to embolden the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Since launching its campaign in Syria, Russia has primarily conducted airstrikes in concert with the strategic interests of the Assad Regime. Specifically, Russia has targeted rebel groups bordering Assad controlled territories in Idlib, Aleppo, and Latakia and ISIS positions in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour.
However, after November 24, Moscow began targeting territories more strategic to the PYD. In particular, the focus of its airstrikes shifted to regions outside of the Syrian regime’s front lines, close to the Turkish border and YPG positions. Reports from late November suggest that Russian airpower bombarded Jabhat Al-Nusra and other rebel factions in the Azaz region, while YPG forces affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, and Turkmen militias, simultaneously attacked on the ground. This cooperation allowed the YPG to take control of Azaz and other neighboring towns such as Miremin and Anab.
Russia’s new efforts conflict with Turkey’s policy of establishing a no-fly zone in the northern Syrian regions of Jarabulus and Azaz. Moreover, its activities also contravene Turkey’s policy to prevent a contiguous PYD controlled territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey fears PYD administration in this region because of the latter’s historical connections to the Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Talal Ali Solo, an SDF spokesman, underscored differences between the SDF and Turkey on December 3rd, speaking positively about the “liberation of the so called Turkish safe zone, between Kobane and Azaz”.
Additionally, Russia has targeted many Syrian Turkmen, who live in Jarabulus and Azaz and maintain positive ties with Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, blasted Russian bombardments on Turkmen positions in Azaz on December 9, claiming that such actions aid ISIS. Russia has also attacked Turkmen outside of the Jarabulus andAzaz, striking Bayirbucak and Turkemndagi, Turkmen areas adjacent to the Turkish border.
RUSSIAN MEDIA ATTACKS
Russia and the PYD have also increasingly employed similar anti-Turkey rhetoric. PYD leadership has consistently accused Turkey of providing assistance to Sunni jihadist groups in Syria. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has followed suit, stating on November 25, “Turkey’s actions are de facto protection of Islamic State”. Additionally, Medvedev accused Turkish officials of having a financial interest in oil delivered by ISIS. On December 5, the Russian Ministry of Defense took the accusations to another level claiming, “US officials say they don’t see how the terrorists’ oil is smuggled to Turkey… it smells badly of a desire to cover up these acts”. In June 2015, YPG spokesman, Redur Xelil, criticized Turkey in an online forum saying, “We do not confirm or deny that ISIS entered from Turkey to Kobani”, paralleling Russian accusations that Turkey turns a blind eye to ISIS activities.
A CAUTIONARY NOTE
Robust Russia-PYD relations may not survive in the long run because Russia still views supporting the Assad regime as its main objective in Syria. PYD Co-Chair Salih Muslim recognized this reality when he told Al-Monitor in October, “[Russia] will prevent Turkish intervention not to defend us but to defend Syria’s border.” Furthermore, Russia must consider the US and its relationship with its NATO ally, Turkey. Thus, a de-escalation of tensions between Ankara and Moscow remains possible. In the meantime, the PYD has benefitted from positive diplomatic relations with the United States, the Russian Federation, and to a lesser extent the Syrian regime. For the PYD, Russian intervention equates to increased attacks on rival factions, a mitigated threat of a Turkish no-fly zone, and a significant power publicly denouncing Turkish policies in Syria.
Photo Credit: Flickr Commons
Guido Weiss worked as a risk consultant for American and European companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa. He also holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the American University in Washington, D.C.