It's no coincidence that Turkish chief of staff Hulusi Akar and intelligence director Hakan Fidan travelled to Moscow late last week for talks with Russian military leaders. They were apparently there to fine-tune the Russian response to the Turkish offensive.

The added value that Russia sees for itself in the operation is obvious. Although Moscow has supported the Kurdish guerrillas in Syria and the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has expressed on multiple occasions Russia's sympathy for the Kurds' striving for political autonomy – to Ankara's chagrin – the YPG troops are also American allies, which by Moscow's zero-sum logic makes Turkey's fight against them a good thing, because it could cause a deeper rift between the NATO allies Washington and Ankara.

Waiting for America's reaction

Turkish attacks on YPG positions in north-western Syria (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
Redrawing the battle lines: the Turkish military have advanced into the northern Syrian province of Afrin to drive out the Kurdish YPG militia, one of America′s allies in the fight against IS. According to the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the aim of Operation Olive Branch is to establish a 30-kilometre-wide security zone

Russian comments from the past weekend suggest at any rate that the Turkish chief of staff's trip to Moscow was successful. The Russian defence ministry pronounced that the recent crisis had been triggered by "provocative steps" taken by the U.S.A and criticised "uncontrolled deliveries of modern weapons to pro-American groups in northern Syria".

Moscow also claimed that its military police as well as soldiers had been pulled out from the area around Afrin – an important precondition for the Turkish attack, because nothing would be more harmful to Turkey than being responsible for not only Kurdish but also Russian casualties. Ankara has not forgotten Moscow's drastic response to the shooting down of a Russian combat plane by Turkey in late 2015, which resulted in a tourism boycott, a ban on importing Turkish goods and the threat of military confrontation in Syria.

So now Russia can sit back and watch how the Americans respond to Turkey attacking their most effective local auxiliary units in the fight against IS in Syria. Media in Turkey are quoting a Pentagon spokesman as saying that the American-led coalition has no current operations in Afrin, as it is concentrating on fighting IS, which was understood in Ankara as an endorsement of the Turkish offensive.

Last week, however, American secretary of state Rex Tillerson said that his country was planning to remain in Syria for the time being to prevent the emergence of "IS 2.0".

Should such a resurgence of IS grow on the breeding ground of the Syrian war, the Kurdish units could again be important for the Americans.

But how will it affect the fighting morale and loyalty of the YPG toward its American and Russian partners stationed further eastward in Syria, when its outpost Afrin in the west is now left at the mercy of Turkey?

Michael Martens

© FAZ / 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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