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Death trap for Russia in Northern Syria?

On November 18, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey will launch a new military operation in northeast Syria if the area was not cleared of what he called terrorists.

Cavusoglu claimed that the United States and Russia had not done what was required under agreements that halted a Turkish offensive against “terrorists” (i.e. Kurdish armed groups – the YPG and the PKK) in northern Syria. Under the Turkish-US and Turkish-Russian agreements Kurdish units had to remove from the area near the Turkish border.

“If we do not obtain a result, we will do what is necessary, just as we launched the operation after trying with the U.S.,” Cavusoglu said, referring to work with the US to remove the YPG from the area before Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring on October 9.

Turkey sees the YPG, the main component of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control the northeastern part of Syria, as a terrorist group with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that involved in a long-standing rebellion against the Turkish state.

The statement of the Turkish foreign minister came following a new attakc on a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in northeastern Syria by YPG-affilated radicals. YPG supporters threw petrol bombs at Russian and Turkish vehicles.

On November 19, the Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov commented on Cavusoglu’s statement describing it as surprising.

“The Russian Defense Ministry was surprised to hear Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statement about Russia’s alleged failure to fulfill its promises, as well as his threats about an operation in northern Syria,” Konashenkov said. “The Turkish top diplomat’s statement calling for military activities may raise tensions in Syria’s north instead of easing them in accordance with a joint memorandum signed by the presidents of Russia and Turkey.“

The surprise of the Russian Defense Ministry towards the statement of the Turkish foreign minister is surprising itself. Ankara has been providing a consistent foreign policy towards Kurdish issues and Syria as a state. The November 18 statement goes fully in accordance with this course.

It should be noted that the Turkish leadership has never seen Russia as a long-term partner. Rather, Ankara sees Moscow as a situational ally and aims to exploit the gullibility of this ally to achieve own goals.

The Turkish foreign course is an apparent demonstration that Ankara is not seeking to make ‘friendship’ with other regional and global actors. Turkey’s foreign policy is mobile and variable. However, it is always designed to defend interests of Turkey as a regional leader and the key state of the Turkic world.

Cavusoglu’s statement hint at a new shift of the Turkish foreign policy, which may undermine the Russian influence in northern Syria.

By November 19, Turkish and Russian forces had conducted at least 8 joint patrols in the framework of the reached ‘safe zone’ agreement. Most of them, excluding the very first ones, were marked by attacks and provocations carried out by YPG-affiliated Kurdish radicals. Initially, pro-YPG rioters threw stones. Then, they blocked patrols and attack vehicles. Recently, they started using petrol bombs. What’s next? Anti-tank guided missile strikes?

By these provocations, the Kurdish leadership are testing red lines of the Russians that are the main factor that limits Turkish response to such actions.

Attacks on Russian vehicles also demonstrate that at least a part of the local Kurdish population sees the Russian military presence as hostile. The main reason is Moscow’s open and active cooperation with Ankara in the region.