In Syria, Turkey's Best-Laid Plans Go Awry

4 MINS READMar 6, 2017 | 23:21 GMT
Ankara's loss in Manbij could be Moscow's gain.

After the Turkish government spent weeks touting its plans to take the Syrian city of Manbij, Russia confirmed an unexpected deal to turn the city over to loyalist forces, complicating Ankara's plan.


The saying goes that all's fair in love and war. Turkey learned that lesson firsthand last Thursday when the Manbij Military Council announced that it had struck a deal with Russia to hand control of the villages in western Manbij to loyalist forces. For weeks prior to the revelation, officials in the Turkish government had been touting their plan to seize Manbij and had even started moving forces toward the city after capturing al-Bab. Just hours before Russia confirmed the deal on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained adamant that Turkey would take Manbij and drive the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) out of the city. Russia's arrangement with the Manbij Military Council, however, will seriously complicate that plan.

The announcement and its subsequent confirmation came as a shock to Ankara. Since 2016, Turkey has been steadily mending ties with Russia in the wake of a falling-out that occurred when Turkish forces shot down a Russian military jet in November 2015. Reconciling with Russia paved the way for Turkey's incursion into Syria, which enabled Ankara to prevent the YPG from connecting its Afrin and Kobani cantons. But the partnership had not yet run its course, at least from Turkey's perspective. Ankara was still counting on Russia to insulate Turkish troops from a direct confrontation with loyalist forces as they continue their efforts against the YPG.

Russia likewise benefited from better ties with Turkey. By targeting Kurdish forces, for instance, Turkey undermined the rebels' cohesion, helping Russian-backed loyalist fighters to seize the critical city of Aleppo. Turkey, moreover, has been vital in facilitating Russia's eventual exit from the conflict, not only by pressuring rebel forces to adopt a cease-fire but also by persuading rebel groups to join peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. In addition, Ankara's preoccupation with the Kurds diverted its troops from the fight against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's administration and created tension with the United States, the rebels' other main foreign backer.

For Russia, improving its relationship with the United States is a much bigger priority than improving its relationship with Turkey.

So why would Russia suddenly turn on Turkey with its Manbij agreement? The move, after all, could impede Moscow's agenda in Syria by shifting Turkey's attention toward al Assad's forces — now with the added motive of revenge against Russia. On the other hand, having thwarted Turkey's Manbij offensive, Russia has all but ensured that the United States can carry out its Raqqa offensive as planned without much interference from Turkey. And Ankara's loss could be Moscow's gain.

For Russia, improving its relationship with the United States is a much bigger priority than improving its relationship with Turkey. The uproar in Washington over alleged ties between U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and Moscow dashed the Kremlin's hopes for a swift end to the United States' sanctions regime. That means Moscow needs to find an important and attractive opportunity for collaboration with the United States to salvage its relationship with Washington. The Raqqa offensive fits the bill. Trump has long advocated staging a joint military initiative with Russia against the Islamic State. Now that the Manbij deal has more or less sidelined Turkey, Russia is in a better position to push for greater cooperation with the United States in Syria.

A rapprochement in Syria between the United States and Russia is far from guaranteed, though. The U.S. military, in particular, is still highly suspicious of Russia's motives. Nevertheless, by intervening in Manbij, Russia has demonstrated that it can be useful to the United States and that, in fact, it is willing to jeopardize other partnerships to help Washington out. And besides, its relationship with Turkey hasn't been damaged beyond repair; Russian President Vladimir Putin can use his meeting with Erdogan in Moscow this Thursday as a chance to clear the air.

Russia took a risk with its Manbij move, but the reward could certainly be worth it. Working with the United States in Syria could help Russia bring an end to the acrimonious streak in its relationship with the West that has wreaked havoc on its economic and security interests. Furthermore, Russia has an out even if the Manbij maneuver fails: It could always pull back from the agreement and facilitate a Turkish offensive on the city, giving Washington further incentive to maintain an understanding with Moscow on the Syrian conflict. 

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