ISTANBUL — Russia’s distraction over the war in Ukraine has forced its military presence to dwindle in areas that could soon face a Turkish offensive, Syrian opposition officials told The Daily Beast this week.
Officials, including in the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA), said Moscow had withdrawn from several areas in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, including Tal Rifaat, where Ankara said he would conduct a military operation to fight the US-backed army. Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The SNA, a coalition of rebel groups backed by Turkey, would participate in the possible operation, according to Yusuf Hammoud, an officer and former spokesman for the SNA.
Hammoud, who is based in northwest Afrin, Syria, said Russia had reduced its presence in areas around Aleppo and Tal Rifaat.
“It will make it easier for Turkey to win this war,” Hammoud told The Daily Beast.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would conduct a military operation in the northwestern towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij near the Turkish border to create a “safe zone” where 1 million Syrian refugees could return.
Tensions between Syrian refugees and residents of Turkey have risen, putting domestic pressure on Erdogan, whose popularity has waned amid an economic crisis a year before national elections.
If there is an attempt to take these areas, it risks a direct confrontation between NATO member Turkey and groups allied with Russia.
As well as engaging in conflict with possibly multiple armed groups, an incursion could also take a heavy humanitarian toll, resulting in the death or displacement of people who have endured 11 years of civil war in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkey’s 2019 offensive against Kurdish forces in the northeast led to the displacement of more than 150,000 people.
Erdogan did not say when the offensive will begin.
“As I always say, we’ll bump into them suddenly one night. And we must,” the Turkish president said in late May, according to the Associated Press.
Ankara insists that the YPG, which cooperated with the United States in its fight against the Islamic State, is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
Turkey, the United States and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Ankara has already led four incursions into Syria, notably against the YPG.
Turkey’s presence in Syria has put Ankara at odds with its NATO allies and powerful competitors, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As Erdogan continued to support opposition rebel groups, he had to appease the competing interests of Russia, a neighboring nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a crucial source of energy. and tourism for Turkey.
After Moscow imposed economic sanctions on Turkey for shooting down a fighter jet in 2015 that Ankara said violated its airspace, Russia said Erdogan apologized for the incident.
If the Kremlin now tacitly accepts a Turkish incursion into areas controlled by it or its allies, this could be seen as a sign of how the invasion of Ukraine has overburdened the Russian military and it can no longer argue its interests or its allies, even against a country with less geopolitical weight and military might.
The Turkish government did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the possible operation.
“There is no clean war.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed concern over the potential operation, saying it would undermine regional stability and endanger US troops and the fight against ISIS.
Moscow’s envoy for Syria said Russia tried to convince Turkey not to go ahead with the military operation, Russian news agency Tass reported.
Still, Moscow-based analyst Kerim Has, who specializes in Turkish-Russian relations, said Russia could give Turkey the green light to launch an offensive, despite his public comments.
Said that if Turkey, or groups it supports, took control of Tal Rifaat, it could lead to an attempt to take over nearby Aleppo, controlled by Russia’s ally Assad.
A believes that Russia’s war in Ukraine has made Moscow more dependent on Ankara, a NATO member which has not imposed sanctions on Russia and which could serve the Kremlin’s interests by delaying membership in NATO from Sweden and Finland.
“Mr. Edrdgan’s hands are stronger now when it comes to Russia compared to four months ago,” Has said.
He added that since Russia wants Erdogan to win the next election, Moscow could allow the incursion to bolster the Turkish president’s popularity among his nationalist base.
Hammoud, with the SNA, said Iranian forces were taking control of some of the areas from which the Russians withdrew.
Ahmad Misto, a civilian leader in northwest Syria with an SNA brigade, said Iranian forces have taken control of areas around Aleppo and Idlib province in the northwest where the Russia withdrew.
“The Russians still have political power over the [Syrian] regime, but the Iranians have it militarily on the front line,” Misto said.
He added that the withdrawal of Russian forces happened about one to one and a half months after Moscow invaded Ukraine.
Mohammad Ismail, a senior Kurdish National Council leader based in Qamishli in northeast Syria, said the increased presence of Iranian forces would further motivate Turkey to go on the offensive.
“Some [areas] noticed a Russian withdrawal and it was filled by Iranian forces instead. If Iran increases its influence, then Turkey must also come in,” he said.
Turkey and Iran have been longtime rivals, vying for influence in the region and taking opposing sides in Syria where Tehran backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ismail added that a month ago there was a noticeable decrease in the Russian presence, especially in the areas around Tal Rifaat, heading west of the Euphrates.
Shortly after, Erdogan announced on June 1 that the military operation would be carried out in Tal Rifaat, together with Manbij.
Ismail believes Kurdish forces would cede territory to the Syrian regime to protect against a Turkish offensive.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said earlier this month that they could cooperate with Damascus if Ankara made an incursion.
This would be another motivation for an operation by Ankara, as the regime’s increased presence could push civilians fearing Assad towards the border, potentially drawing more refugees into Turkey.
But civilians in Syria also fear Turkey and its allies, Ismail said.
In 2020, a UN war crimes expert said the SNA may have committed torture and looting in northern Syria.
“There is no clean war,” Ismail said. “International forces [are] will decide everything on the field.