A Turkish invasion of northern Syria is no longer an option. Moscow dictates the rules for future cooperation.
Yank goes home: US army vehicles in Manbij Photo: dpa
When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut cavusoglu announced the results of his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Turkish journalists traveling with him in Moscow late Saturday afternoon, he looked as if he had bitten into a lemon. He said that it had been agreed that the armies of the two states would "continue to cooperate closely and coordinate their actions."
The goal of the Russian-Turkish effort in Syria is said to be "to eradicate the terrorist threat" and to ensure that as many Syrian refugees as possible "can return home soon."
What sounds like a great agreement is a bitter disappointment for the Turkish delegation. The Turkish army, cavusoglu, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan were told, should be wary of acting in Syria without approval from Moscow. The new incursion into northern Syria announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a week ago is off the table for now.
The new reality was demonstrated to the Turkish leadership on Friday in the strategically important town of Manbij, some 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. Manbij was recaptured from IS a good three years ago by Kurdish YPG militias with American support and has since been controlled by the Kurds, although predominantly inhabited by Arabs. It forms a Kurdish bridgehead west of the Euphrates, as a forward position of their self-governing region "Rojeva", east of the Euphrates.
Buffer zone between Turkish troops and Manbij
The Turkish leadership, above all President Erdogan, never tires of emphasizing that the Syrian Kurds in association with the Turkish-Kurdish PKK are a "terrorist threat" to Turkey and that Turkey will drive the YPG from the 500-kilometer-long Syrian-Turkish border. The plan was to start in Manbij, the YPG’s western outpost. It had been agreed with the U.S. that Turkish troops and their Syrian aid contingents could take over Manbij as soon as the roughly 200 U.S. troops had withdrawn from the city.
On Friday, Turkey got a nasty surprise. Without the Russian leadership consulting Ankara, Assad regime troops, backed by Moscow, advanced west of Manbij and formed a buffer zone between Turkish troops and the city. Once U.S. soldiers have withdrawn, government forces loyal to Assad will enter Manbij. This, the Russian foreign minister said, should also happen in all other areas still controlled by the Kurds and the United States.
The Kurds have signaled that they agree. Better back under Assad’s rule than a war with the Turkish army. Even before the Turks, a Kurdish delegation was in Moscow on Thursday and Friday to reach an agreement. They were reportedly signaled that Russia would lobby Assad to grant the Kurds some autonomy in their settlement areas.
With Kurdish approval
While Ankara was debating how the area east of the Euphrates still controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds could be handed over to its own Syrian allies from the "Free Syrian Army" in the future, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he is not thinking of leaving this area to Erdogan.
Once U.S. soldiers leave, Syrian government forces will take over the area with Russian support and Kurdish approval. With the exception of the small areas controlled by Turkey west of the Euphrates and the adjacent rebel area of Idlib, Assad will then be master of the house again, thanks to Putin.