The United States and Russia may now have some common cause in Syria, which could be detrimental to Turkey's ambitions in the region. U.S. forces in the Kobani and al-Hasaka cantons were recently deployed along the Turkey-Syria border to buffer between battling Turkish armed forces and Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). It appears Russia is planning similar measures in the Afrin canton, in effect blocking Turkey from pursuing its campaign against its Kurdish foes in Syria.
How did it come to this? On April 25, the Turkish air force carried out several strikes on YPG and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets in Syria and Iraq, highlighting Turkey's continued efforts to attack and disrupt the Kurdish forces it opposes despite the end of Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey's military maneuver in Syria. These strikes instigated a number of sharp clashes between the Turkish army and the YPG along the Turkey-Syria border, raising concerns in Washington that a large-scale fight could break out between its two regional partners. Such a fight would seriously undermine the battle against the Islamic State at a time when the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has large contingents of YPG fighters, is preparing to launch an assault on Raqqa. To avoid disruptive conflict, the United States dispatched its troops to stand between the two forces in an attempt to curtail the fighting.
Moscow seems to have come to a similar decision, albeit for different reasons. Russia is indeed going to use its forces to establish its own buffer zone between the YPG and the Turkish military. Russian convoys have been spotted over the last day in Afrin canton (controlled by the YPG, with no U.S. presence). Rumors are also circulating that Russia is finalizing discussions with the YPG to set up four buffer zones in Afrin similar to the ones established near Manbij in agreement with the Manbij Military Council.
Implementing buffer zones will deepen Russia's relationship with the YPG. The move enables Moscow to portray itself to Washington as a cooperative potential partner in preventing further Turkish-YPG fighting. It also provides Russia with more leverage against Turkey's expanding influence in the region. It even gives Russia considerable sway in an area of Syria where the Syrian government's authority has long been absent.
For Turkey, the fact that the United States and Russia are actively working to stop its efforts against the YPG is undoubtedly a hard pill to swallow. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia on May 3, where he will again have the opportunity to clarify Russian intentions and to ensure a deconflicted battlefield for Turkish and Russian forces in Syria. After successfully wresting al-Bab from the Islamic State, blocking the link-up of Kurdish forces in Kobani and Afrin in the process, the Turks became frustrated in their goals of pursuing further operations against the YPG in Manbij because of the presence of Russian and U.S. troops. While Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria was forced to an abrupt end, Ankara was by no means willing to discontinue all efforts against the YPG. But with additional Russian and U.S. forces now present in all the other YPG-occupied cantons, Turkey will be hard pressed to find a way to pursue its campaign. To that end, Turkey will likely try to find other ways to strike back at its Kurdish foes, including the PKK in Sinjar, Iraq.