US, Russia counter Erdogan in Syria as Kurds get shield
By HENRY MEYER AND SELCAN HACAOGLU | Bloomberg | Published: March 8, 2017
The U.S. and Russia have found themselves teaming up for the first time in the war in Syria -- against a country both call an ally: Turkey.
The U.S. and Russia moved this week to block a threatened drive by Turkey to seize Manbij, a town in northern Syria about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Turkish border. A U.S. deployment and a Russian-brokered deal with Syrian forces created buffer zones that headed off any Turkish campaign against the Kurdish forces who hold the town -- seen by Washington as key allies against Islamic State and by Turkey as terrorists.
As the outside powers fighting in Syria step up the fight to crush Islamic State, the battle is laying bare their often-conflicting loyalties. With all sides pushing into terrorist-held territory, the potential for clashes between the players is rising.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a central player thanks to his military campaign, but he must keep allies like Syria and Iran on his side even as tries to cooperate with the U.S. and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes to Moscow on Thursday with his defense minister for talks with Putin.
"This is a unique circumstance when the U.S. and Russia have found themselves thrown together against Turkey because of the Kurds, who are directly sponsored by Washington and get Russian support too," said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Middle East Conflict Center at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, a government-run research group in Moscow.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country was seeking a "trilateral mechanism" to clear the area of "terrorist groups." In Manbij, "the U.S. is raising a flag, Russia is raising a flag nearby, things have turned into a flag competition," Yildirim said in an interview with ATV television.
Later on Tuesday, Yildirim said countries operating in Syria must coordinate their actions to eliminate all terrorist groups. Last week, Turkey vowed to capture Manbij if the U.S. didn't clear out the Kurdish fighters who control it.
"Turkey told its counterparts that no terror group can be destroyed by using another terror group," he said in Ankara. "If coordination can't be established, then there could be a risk of confrontation, which we do not wish for."
The standoff has emerged as Russia has taken the diplomatic lead in seeking to resolve the war in Syria after its air campaign that started in 2015 bolstered President Bashar Assad.
Under pressure in Washington over allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election, President Donald Trump has backed off his campaign pledge to cooperate on fighting terrorism in Syria with Putin. Still, U.S. warplanes helped indirectly in the Russian-backed Syrian offensive to recapture the historic city of Palmyra last month, carrying out 23 strikes over nine days, as much as during the rest of February. Now, on Turkey, the two powers appear to have taken a tactical joint stance.
In a bid to lower the tensions, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Turkey's Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya on Tuesday.
"It is a measure of the success that forces are having in countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that the conversation is necessary," the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement. It noted that areas like Manbij have become "a crowded battlespace" and the proximity of the various forces had created "a dangerous situation."
Turkey sent troops across the border into Syria in August, backing Free Syrian Army rebels in battles against Islamic State. The army has also clashed with Kurdish forces that the government in Ankara regards as terrorists with links to separatists in Turkey, who took control of Manbij after expelling Islamic State just before the Turkish incursion.
Turkey has sought the support of the U.S., its NATO ally, to lead a ground offensive against Islamic State's main Syrian stronghold of Raqqa that would advance through areas controlled by Kurdish fighters, a Turkish official said last week. But the U.S. views the Kurds as an essential element of the battle against the radical Sunni group that's waged a global campaign of terrorist attacks from its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Full-scale hostilities between the Turks and Kurds would deal a major setback to efforts to capture Raqqa, according to Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "It's important to get a buffer between the Turks and Kurds so ISIS can be beaten," he said.
The U.S. has moved 500 soldiers to the outskirts of Manbij, according to Ilnur Cevik, chief adviser to Erdogan. The U.S.-led coalition "has taken this deliberate action to reassure coalition members and partner forces, deter aggression and keep the focus on defeating ISIS," spokesman Col. John Dorrian said on Twitter.
The U.S. and Russian moves leave Turkey with "no more room to maneuver," said Faysal Itani, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Washington. That will enable a Kurdish-led operation to capture Raqqa and the Syrian government to deploy its forces, too, in the area, he said.
"What Turkey is experiencing with its allies in the West is traumatic," Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said Wednesday as he lashed out against the U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurdish forces. "We do hope the Trump administration will have a better understanding of Turkey's concerns."
Bloomberg's Taylan Bilgic contributed