Turkish troops are making sweeping territorial gains in northern Syria, fuelling speculation that Ankara and Moscow are secretly working together to establish greater control over the war.
Sections of the Turkish media reported that the center of Tel Rifaat city in northern Syria was encircled on Tuesday after up to 100 Russian police officers mysteriously pulled out of the area, allowing the soldiers and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter.
Although Ankara has yet to confirm this, Arab News sources said that Tel Rifaat’s collapse is imminent, with negotiations still continuing.
These latest developments have caused military analysts to suggest that Moscow is deliberately ceding control of the area, betraying Kurdish fighters it once protected, in a bid to stop Turkey from edging closer to the US.
They told Arab News it may be the clearest sign yet that the countries are secretly working together in a double game, swapping territory and selling out guerrilla factions that they had previously supported, in an attempt to improve their strategic footholds in the country.
Magdalena Kirchner, of the Istanbul Policy Center, told Arab News that while there was no definitive proof of a quid pro quo, the fact that Russian forces left Tel Rifaat “just hours before the operation started points to fairly close coordination and ongoing negotiations”.
Relations between Turkey and Russia have fluctuated wildly since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, which Ankara had vowed to help topple. In November that year, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane near its border with Syria, causing Russia to respond with sanctions.
In June 2016 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for downing the plane and relations began to thaw. Since early 2017 the two countries, together with Iran, have been cooperating in what they say is an attempt to bring about a political end to the conflict by establishing “de-escalation zones” throughout Syria. But Tel Rifaat’s targeting by Turkish forces this week may be a sign that both sides are more interested in furthering their geopolitical interests than keeping the peace, analysts told Arab News.
Kerim Has, a lecturer in Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow State University, said that there have been indications elsewhere in Syria that an unofficial, mutually beneficial arrangement, has been reached between the two countries.
This may have caused Turkey to smooth the UN-backed evacuation of fundamentalist insurgents from Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, to Idlib, southwest of Aleppo, he said. The evacuation, which remains ongoing, seems almost certain to allow the Syrian regime to claim a key victory in the war, following a ferocious siege that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Moscow has quietly allowed Turkish forces to press ahead largely unchallenged with a major military offensive in the north of the country. Operation Olive Branch began on Jan. 20 with the aim of seizing territory from Kurdish separatists in the region.
The Syrian city of Afrin fell to Turkish forces on March 18, with the UN estimating that 50,000 children in the surrounding area now need humanitarian aid.
Turkey has promoted Operation Olive Branch as an offensive against Kurdish rebels belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It claims to have killed more than 3,500 Kurdish fighters.
Has told Arab News: “Russia’s green light for Operation Olive Branch and Turkey’s apparent silence on Eastern Ghouta shows some of the parameters in the bargaining process.”
Tel Rifaat, which lies 13 miles southeast of Afrin, has been an important logistical hub for Kurdish fighters. It was one of the last areas under the YPG’s control and included a Russian airbase.
While officials have yet to confirm the city’s fall, the Turkish army recently used its Twitter account to claim that people wanted it “to be cleared of terrorist organizations.”
Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at the Middle East Foundation in Ankara, told Arab News that Russia had made significant efforts to involve the YPG in a political solution to the war.
He said Moscow gave up on this approach when it emerged that the US is training 30,000 personnel, including elements of the YPG, to secure the Syrian border, a move that has infuriated Ankara. The US denies that the YPG and PKK are closely linked.
On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan discussed plans for a Syria summit they are due to hold in Ankara next week. Iran will also attend the meeting.
Unlike much of the international community, Turkey has said it has no plans to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a Russian double agent in Britain earlier this month.