In Syria, which has been engulfed in civil war since 2011, people are dying every day and the country is plunged into a humanitarian crisis. Experts from the Center for Eastern Studies estimate that Russia and Turkey are using the conflict to play out their long-term geopolitical goals as well as short-term gains. The activity of these countries increased in connection with the war in Ukraine and the accompanying tensions in international politics – assessed.
Powered by Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces now control most of the southern and central regions Syria. The northwestern part of the country is occupied by the troops of Turkey and the Syrian rebels it supports, opposing the Assad regime. Located in the north and east, the Rojava region is under the control of Kurdish groups. Each of these forces is made up of many smaller groups and factions. There are also Islamist organizations in the country, including the remnants of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Fighting these groups and training local allies – mainly Kurds – is the most important task of the US troops, which has around 900 soldiers in the country.
While Syria no longer conducts regular, large-scale warfare, people die every day in a divided and conflict-ravaged country. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory (SOHR), 116 civilians were killed there in June. Some of them in the explosions of unexploded bombs and traps, some in shootings and skirmishes, which still take place between opposing forces. In Idlib’s northwestern province, regular shelling is carried out between Assad’s troops and the Russian air force supporting them, and anti-government rebels.
Turkey’s involvement in the conflict
Turkey became directly involved in the military in Syria in 2016 to pursue its long-term goals of demonstrating power in the region and securing itself against Kurdish groups. Ankara recognizes as a threat not only the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), representing the Turkish Kurds – an organization recognized as terrorist also by the EU and the US – but also the People’s Self-Defense Units (YPG) operating in Syria and their political superstructure – the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The YPG are the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the forces controlling the Rojava, inhabited mainly, but not exclusively, by Kurds. SDF played a key role in defeating IS in Syria in 2019. However, the jihadist organization that once occupied a vast territory of Syria still maintains clandestine cells in the country and carries out attacks. In late January, a battle broke out between the SDF and the IS after jihadists tried to take control of the Al-Hasaka prison that has imprisoned many IS fighters. More than 500 people died on both sides, according to the SOHR. It was the biggest IS attack in three years.
President of Turkey on May 23 Recep Tayyip Erdogan he announced another offensive by the Turkish army on the southern border of the country, aimed at “combating terrorism”. The authorities in Ankara have accused the YPG and other Syrian Kurdish groups of close ties to the PKK and thus also recognize them as terrorist organizations.
OSW expert on “great opportunity” for Turkey
– This military operation has not yet started, its aim would be to capture the Kurdish areas around the cities of Tall Rifat and Manbidz, explained in an interview with PAP Adam Michalski, a specialist at the Warsaw Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) who deals with Turkey.
As he emphasized, the announcement of a new offensive should be linked to Ankara’s willingness to take advantage of the international situation changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as Turkish domestic policy and the election calendar.
– Ankara has a very calculated, transactional foreign policy. Of course, in Syria it wants to achieve its goals, that is, first of all, to crack down on the Kurds, but it also uses the threat of invasion as a bargaining chip in relations with both the West and Russia, the researcher said.
– This issue is a great opportunity for Turkey to push through its demands, i.e. impose on others NATO countries definition of terrorism and permanently include the issue of the fight against the PKK in the agenda of the Alliance – assessed Michalski. – Ankara will therefore test its allies by presenting the new offensive as a fight against terrorism, and Turkey as a loyal NATO member, which is the only one to actively fight terror – he added.
“Anti-refugee moods have been growing in Turkey for years”
Run by the Kremlin war in Ukraine prompted Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership. Turkey was the only ally to raise its objections. The expert noted that the signing of a non-binding memorandum – a document in which Ankara agrees to accession in exchange for Sweden’s and Finland’s vague commitments to fight terrorism – does not close the case at all, because consent to the enlargement has yet to be approved by the Turkish parliament. Erdogan has already announced that whether the motion is put to the vote at all will depend on the implementation of the provisions by Sweden and Finland. It can be expected that Turkey, in exchange for agreeing to NATO enlargement, will try to obtain support or at least approval for the invasion from NATO, especially the USA, which cooperate with the YPG in the fight against IS, the OSW expert assessed.
Michalski added that for the success of the operation in northern Syria, Turkey must also come to an agreement with Russia, which also maintains a military presence in Kurdish territories and controls Syrian airspace. Here, Ankara can use the ongoing talks with Moscow on the export of grain from Ukrainian ports as an element of a political bargain that could possibly help Russia bypass global sanctions in exchange for allowing the Turkish offensive to proceed, he stressed.
The OSW expert also noted that another important aspect of the planned operation is the willingness to settle in the occupied territories of Syria some of the more than 3.5 million refugees from this country who took refuge in Turkey. – In the country, anti-refugee moods have been growing for years, causing Erdogan’s support to decline, especially in the ultranationalist electorate, which demands action in this matter – the researcher noted. He added that this is an important issue for the rulers of Turkey, because presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for June 2023, and the polls were not in favor of Erdogan and his party.
“It is obvious that Russia is trying to put pressure on the Americans here”
Russian troops have also been present in Syria since 2015, the ongoing conflict there is now of secondary importance for the Kremlin, but there are signals suggesting that Russia is interested in aggravating the situation in this country, which would serve to put pressure on the US, he said in turn. Dr. Witold Rodkiewicz, chief specialist of the OSW Russian Team. – It is obvious that Russia is trying to put pressure on the Americans here, to let them know that if they continue their support for Ukraine, they can expect an escalation of the conflict in Syria, perhaps elsewhere – he added.
Rodkiewicz assessed that for the time being it seems to be ineffective, the Americans do not give in to this pressure, but it is also known that the US government is afraid of destabilization in Syria.
In mid-June, the media began reporting that the American authorities were recording more and more “provocative” behavior by Russian forces in Syria, which could even threaten an unintended direct clash between the two countries’ troops stationed there.
– The Russian presence in Syria has always had a purely instrumental character and was to serve other political goals of the Kremlin, not related to Syria itself, as can be seen now – emphasized Rodkiewicz. “First, it was about showing the West that Russia is an important actor in the Middle East that cannot be ignored and must be talked to,” he explained. He added that it was also important to achieve maximum benefits in the regional policy of the Middle East. – Russia tried to normalize the situation in Syria through trilateral negotiations with Turkey and Iran [tak zwany format astański – przyp. red.] – that is, to implement your vision of a new international order, in which the situation of individual parts of the world will be determined by such local concerts of powers, but without the participation of the USA – he explained.
OHCHR: Over 300,000 civilians died during the 10 years of the war
As Rodkiewicz noted, another ideologically important reason for the Russian intervention on the side of the Assad regime was to prevent another authoritarian leader from being swept away by a grassroots revolution. This could encourage a large Muslim minority in Russia and, more broadly, in areas recognized by Moscow as its sphere of influence, e.g. Central Asia, the researcher noted. He added that the underlying protests against the Assad rule were also perceived by the secret services section of the Kremlin elite as a US-controlled and triggered process that would continue through Iran and into Russia.
Therefore, efforts were made to keep it as far away from Russia as possible, which basically succeeded, the Assad regime was maintained, but now it practically no longer needs the military support of Russia, which was actually necessary in the earlier phase of the war, the expert assessed. He added that the Syrian government is militarily much more dependent on Iranian aid than Russia, and that Moscow must nevertheless maintain its troops in Syria, although it is now a small contingent consisting mainly of aviation, to use this situation instrumentally and, for example, to exert its influence indirectly. pressure on the US to help Ukraine – concluded Rodkiewicz.
According to a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), published on July 1, over 300,000 civilians had died in Syria over 10 years of civil war by April 2021. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 6.6 million people left the country with 22.5 million inhabitants in 2011 and a further 6.7 million became internally displaced persons. More than half of the Syrian population needs humanitarian aid to survive. The humanitarian crisis in the country will continue to worsen along with the rise in food prices in world markets and a decline in grain imports – the result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – assessed the UN.
Main photo source: Reuters Archive