Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:
Russia is moving aggressively with its mediation between Damascus, the SDF Kurds and Turkey to stop Ankara from carrying out a major military operation in northern Syria and convince it to reduce the escalation. However, all efforts did not yet reach a sufficient level of compromise despite the US’s announcement that it stands against any Turkish attack. The US position was, in fact, a timid declaration that angered their Kurdish allies and certainly did not convince President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is deploying his cards skilfully in multiple domestic and external directions and not yet fully ready for the ground operation.
President Erdogan is investing his political manoeuvres to capitalise on the presidential elections due next June 2023, when the inflation rate has reached its highest level in 24 years, amounting to 84.4 per cent (down from 85.5 per cent last month). The Turkish population is hugely discontented with the rising prices of first necessities and the deteriorating living situation.
Moreover, President Erdogan inevitably does not like seeing many Turkish soldiers returning home in body bags before the presidential elections. Indeed, any military operation – no matter how successful – will inevitably cause casualties in one’s own army. Consequently, the geographical gains do not serve him much in his upcoming electoral battle. Moreover, Turkish human losses could somewhat weaken his chances to win against his opponents when Turkish voices rise from within regarding the necessity to reduce the escalation with Iraq and Syria. Many Turkish politicians encourage the possibility of Erdogan meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad to end the wars on the Turkish borders and return the displaced Syrians (4 million in Turkey) to their country to reduce the economic burden.
In the international arena, Ankara plays a unique strategic role between Ukraine and Russia, as it is the link to host attempts (unsuccessful so far) to reduce escalation, allow the export of Ukrainian grain to the world, and remove tension in the Black Sea. Turkey also has a role in the Russian and Iranian economic opening to the world despite western sanctions on the two countries, with Ankara remaining unaffected by western sanctions.
Ankara also prevents the flux of large numbers of migrants from the Middle East to Europe. Furthermore, under its membership within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – NATO- it has the final say in accepting new members if all other countries agree. Therefore, America does not want to anger Turkey and expects it to assist Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO. In addition, America is hoping for President Erdogan not to use the big military stick against the US-Kurdish allies in northern Syria or at least to refrain from using disproportionate military force.
Washington announced that it stands against any comprehensive Turkish military operation inside Syrian territory and does not agree to Ankara’s request to establish a buffer zone 32 kilometres deep along the Syrian border at the expense of the US and its NATO allies. However, as a preventive measure, the US occupation forces deployed in north-east Syria have reduced from 15 to 4 the routine joint patrols with the Kurdish militia to avoid potential collateral damage by Turkish strikes.
So far, Washington has turned a blind eye to more than 400 (four hundred) Turkish attacks against Kurdish militia targets since the start of its military operation, “Claw-Sword”, on the 20th of last month of November. Consequently, it has fuelled the anger of its Kurdish allies, who resent the fact that Washington has abandoned them or is not doing enough to stop the continuous Turkish threat and the daily bombing. After all, Turkey is fighting against the Syrian branch of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known in Syria as the SDF, which is still on the US-EU-Turkish terrorist list.
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The Turkish drone strikes are not targeting only static Kurdish military positions but also individual Kurdish leaders, as well as oil and gas resources and refining, considered enormous resources that generate millions of dollars a month for the Syrian Kurds.
The Syrian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Bassam Tohme, confirmed: “the Turkish air strikes caused severe damage to the oil facilities, stopped the production of domestic gas, paralysed the power stations of Hasakah, hit the electricity networks and caused significant environmental pollution.” He stressed that “Syria’s oil losses amounted to 91.5 billion dollars thus far.
Before 2011, Royal Dutch Shell, French TOTAL, India Oil and Natural Gas Corp, China National Petroleum, Russian Gulfsands Petroleum and Canada Suncor worked in Syria, in the north-east where the primary oil and gas fields are located. Canadian Energy, British Petrofac, Russian Gulfsands Petroleum and Tatneft oil and engineering extracted about 353,000 barrels per day (200,000 in al-Hasaka and Deir-Ezzour alone) before 2011. Today, Syria produces 89,000 barrels, and Iran supplies the shortfall of its domestic need for energy regularly.
Many foreign oil companies withdrew at the beginning of the war following the western sanctions on Syria. Those who did not suspend their contract with the Syrian national oil company accused the Kurdish forces of stealing the oil and selling part of it to Damascus and Iraq Kurdistan to export to Turkey or Israel. Another share of the oil is extracted by US Delta Crescent energy (approved by the Pentagon) and taken by the US for its forces deployed in Syria and Iraq. The oil and gas revenues are one of the main reasons why the Kurdish militia leadership refuses to allow the return of the Syrian administration control to the northern provinces. But Russia is not giving up on keeping the line of negotiation between Qamishli and Damascus.
The commander of the Russian forces in Syria, Colonel General Alexander Chayko, arrived Monday morning at Qamishli airport and held talks with the Kurdish SDF (PKK) forces, Mazloum Abdi. Chayko aims to follow up on the negotiations that Russia began years ago and intensified in the last two weeks when the Turkish troops began hammering the Kurdish militia positions in Syria.
Colonel General Chayko failed to convince Abdi to reach common ground and to withdraw 32 kilometres (20 miles) from the Turkish-Syrian borders to allow the regular Syrian army to deploy in the designated areas, as agreed upon in Sochi in 2019. Under the Sochi agreement, Russian-Turkish would conduct regular patrols to ensure no Kurdish militia are deployed in the area.
But Mazloum Abdi wants the Syrian army to limit its role as border guards with no power over the administration of the provinces and the energy and food revenues. Turkey announced that it did not agree to the symbolic presence of the Damascus forces and that the Kurds militia should leave the approved area (32 km) immediately. Damascus understands that it is improbable that the SDF will hand over Manbij, Tal Rifaat and Ayn al-Arab in the northern countryside of Aleppo to the Syrian government or the Turkish forces without a fight, even if this leads to the defeat of the troops and Turkey’s control of them. This is precisely what the Kurds did in Afrin canton in 2019 when they refused to hand over the province to Damascus and preferred to evacuate it when the Turkish forces and their Syrian allies overpowered.
According to the latest information from northern Syria, Ankara did not ask its Syrian allies from the forces of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” – experienced in wars and which supported the Turkish advance in north-western Syria in 2019 – to prepare for the ground operation. This is a tangible indication that the timing of the ground operation is still not imminent as Ankara is advertising and that Turkey is still considering its options without stopping its aerial targeting with its advanced drones. The Turkish drones are inflicting severe damage on the Kurdish militia as they did in Libya, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and even in Syria in the battle of Idlib and its surrounding area two years ago against the Syrian army and its allies.
There is no doubt that President Erdogan has excelled in using his foreign winning cards and has exploited all the possibilities to his advantage thus far. The Turkish president knows that many powerful regional and international countries need his geo-political role, even the superpowers warring on Ukraine, the US and Russia. All leading players involved would wish to see Ankara holding the stick from the middle. Consequently, abandoning this equilibrium and engaging in a war in eastern Syria will deprive Erdogan of a privileged position.
The Turkish president has succeeded in pushing his role to the limit and is playing on the Kurds’ nerves. However, waiving the possibility of a Turkish invasion is not expected to reap the desired result from the Syrian Kurdish militia, who maintain their hostility to Turkey and will not give up their control of the north-eastern provinces to Damascus. The flexibility of the Kurdish militia can only be obtained when the US withdraws its occupation forces from Syria, a decision which seems to have no foreseeable solid ground as long as President Joe Biden is in power. All players are aware of the reality of each side’s involved position. Turkey may very well be content with the results so far and give up occupying other Syrian territories.
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher