Despite recent Russian military escalation against the Syrian National Army (SNA), negotiation remains an essential tool for all parties to draw the future map of control in northern Syria.
In the second half of 2021, Russian pressure on Turkey in Syria intensified. On September 1, Moscow targeted places far away from Idlib, in regions where Turkey is working on stabilisation. This is the first such escalation since Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA) took control of the Afrin region in March 2018.
This is all part of an ongoing pattern. The Turkish and Russian agreement on securing the M4 highway in Idlib did not prevent Moscow from carrying out numerous raids on infrastructure and civilian facilities in that area in 2020 and 2021. Moreover, it was rare for the Russians to target military groups whom they designate as terrorists, such as Hayat Tahrir al Sham, Ansar al Din, and Huras al Din.
Official statements from the Turkish government condemned the attacks in Idlib and called on Russia to stop targeting civilian facilities. As for Moscow, it consistently blamed Turkey, claiming that the government had not imposed any restrictions on the same military factions it regards as terrorists.
The perceived lack of firmness in Turkey’s response to the attacks in Idlib emboldened Russia to begin attacking new sites in northern Syria. With these attacks, Russia aims to increase pressure on Turkey and force the government to accept new conditions in future negotiations regarding Syria.
The September 1 attack took place about a month before a meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin. It targeted a Turkish-backed "al Sham Legion" camp near the city of Afrin, which is close to a base of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF).
The Russian attack did not cause any significant damage, but that wasn’t Moscow’s goal - it intended to send a clear message to Ankara that Russia is capable of attacking any military site in northern Syria, even if it is affiliated with the Turkish-backed SNA.
Moreover, Russia hopes these attacks will increase pressure on Turkey and create chaos in Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas. These include oil re-fuelling stations in al Bab, the internal crossing between SNA and regime-control area; and Jarablus, the border crossing between Turkey and Syria. Unlike Russia, Turkey does not attack nor respond to attacks in northern Syria as part of its counterbalancing strategy vis-a-vis Russia and the US.
Through these attacks, Moscow is demonstrating to Ankara that the external and internal border areas will not be safe and stable unless an agreement - one that no doubt serves Russia’s interests - is reached.
On October 26, 2021, the Turkish Parliament approved the extension of the government's authorisation memorandum to send troops to Iraq and Syria for another two years.
The approval came as the Turkish army intensified its artillery attacks on more than one site in Syria. They specifically targeted the positions of SDF forces that have at various times over the past two months posed a direct threat to Turkish forces.
The Turkish military escalation against SDF positions in northern Syria began even before the Turkish parliament's recent decision. The biggest TAF military escalation this year took place on October 7, when SDF forces in the al Shahba area shelled a TAF base east of the town Marea, killing one Turkish soldier and wounding three others.
Immediately, TAF responded by targeting six SDF locations in the al Shahba area. The irony was that a group of Russian military officers were visiting one of these bases and one was wounded by the TAF strikes. This was more than enough to give Russia an excuse to carry out several raids near a TAF base located 1.5 km south of Marea, making it the first time Russia hit an area so close to a Turkish base in the Euphrates Shield area.
The SDF’s October 7 attack also pushed TAF to deploy a number of its artillery and ground forces to some of the front lines, particularly in the areas of Tel Rifaat, Manbij and near the town of Ain Issa. Turkish officers also coordinated with National Army Corps leaders to deploy part of their forces to SDF locations.
During the same period, several Turkish officials issued statements stating that the northern region in Syria should be cleared of all military formations that threaten Turkey's national security and jeopardise the security of Syrian areas that Turkey has been working to stabilise.
Turkey's official statements, combined with the SNA military mobilisation, were enough to usher in a new reality in northern Aleppo - or at least lay the foundation that could see the SDF pushed away from SNA areas. This perhaps could even lead to a ceasefire between the SNA and the regime. Sometimes a military operation achieves its goals before it even begins.
This show of strength from Turkey was the main reason for the start of a new round of unannounced Russian-Turkish negotiations. If the points agreed upon are implemented, Russia will ensure the withdrawal of SDF forces stationed near the Turkish border and the Peace Spring and Euphrates Shield areas, which have been a constant threat to the Turkish side. Turkey will also guarantee a key role in securing most of the M4 international highway, which could evolve into securing the entire international road connecting the Kurdish-dominated regions, but this is a complex future scenario that would involve taking into account the US and its plans in eastern Syria.
As for the Russian side, it will secure the regime's control over the main international roads M4 and before that, M5, which connects northern Syria with the south and eastern Syria with the west,
In the end, if this agreement comes to pass, Russia will be the biggest winner since they have always managed to break every previous agreement and impose new ones.
The future of Turkish-Russian relations in Syria
Until both sides reach a solution in Syria, differences will always remain between Russia and Turkey. Namely, Russia will continue to use its military in an attempt to affect future negotiations in ways that will benefit Russia's interests in the region at the expense of Turkey’s.
As for the Turkish side, it is likely to continue its long-term policy, which favours limited military moves that nevertheless remind everyone of Turkey's military capacity in Syria.
Turkey prefers this strategy because it also has a complicated relationship with Syria and does not want things to escalate in Ankara now or even in the near future. With Russia already in Syria in a way, that affects the relations of the two countries in other regional files.
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