Russia and Turkey hold in their hands the fate of the strategically important northern Syrian town of Ain Issa, nominally controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but overseen by the Russians. Faced with a possible attack by Turkish-backed forces in the form of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), because of an important highway nearby, the Kurds have sought help from the Russians. Instead, Moscow wants the Kurds to hand over the town to Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian army. The inevitable result will be that the Kurds are set to be betrayed by foreign parties in the Syrian civil war for the second time in two years. As tragic as that is, however, what is more significant geo-strategically is how this deadly chess game illustrates the complicated relationship between Moscow and Ankara – at times opponents, at others partners and often both. This is a case of the latter.
First, some history. In 2018, threatened by the Turks and the FSA, the Kurds in Afrin sought protection from the Russians. The Kremlin refused, even though Russian troops were located nearby. Instead, Russia said the Kurds should hand over the district to the Syrian regime. Two months later, Turkey-backed forces captured Afrin.
In 2019, the Kurds in northern Syria held hopes that the United States would protect them against another Turkish assault. Instead, the US withdrew from the area and Donald Trump essentially gave Turkey a green light to start Operation Peace Spring and capture Ras Al-Ayn, Tell Abyad, Manajir, Suluk and Mabrouka. At the same time, Russia-backed regime forces entered Raqqa, Manbij, Al-Tabqah, Kobani and Tell Tamer.
Despite all that, some among the Kurds today cling to the hope that foreign powers will help them retain control over Ain Issa. Fueling this are speculations that the US might reimpose control over the town by establishing a military presence nearby. This, however, is highly improbable, given that there is little appetite in Washington for further military engagements in Syria and elsewhere, especially in the waning days of the Trump administration. Besides, Russia already has a presence in this town.
Indeed, the region has been divided up between Moscow and Ankara, and the apparent personal inclination of Trump is to not inject the US between the two. For example, the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, supported by Russia and Turkey, respectively, was notable for the deafening silence from Washington. (More on this below.)
Local Kurds in Ain Issa have demonstrated outside the Russian military base, demanding that Moscow act to prevent a Turkish-led offensive on the town. The Kremlin, on the other hand, has responded the same way it did in Afrin in 2018, telling the Kurds to hand over the town to the Syrian regime.
While Russia portrays itself as a guarantor of peace, its primary interest in Syria is to protect its military bases, including its Mediterranean naval port in Tartus, and to secure its influence in the region. The Syrian adventure, in addition, has been instrumental in helping the Kremlin nurture a domestic narrative of Russia being a resurgent global power. For all these reasons, it does not matter too greatly to Moscow that the FSA should add Ain Issa to its territorial assets.
Ankara, on the other hand, has not been shy about its primary goal of neutralizing the SDF and others in Syria and Iraq affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, outlawed in Turkey. To this end, it would not be entirely unhappy to see more Kurdish territory come under the Damascus regime’s control. However, if Turkey and the FSA were to triumph in Ain Issa, that would give both control over sections of the strategic M-4 highway – an important economic artery that stretches from the Iraqi border to the coastal plains on the Mediterranean. Either outcome, then, serves Ankara’s interest.
So, in short, the Kurds have no true friends or supporters on the ground. Instead, the Kurds’ predicament, however it should end, advances the goals of both Russia and Turkey.
For Ankara and Moscow have been “cooperating” in a complicated geostrategic game. In the Libyan civil war, each support opposing sides to deadly effect, but have a mutual interest in the warring factions maintaining the status quo in the city and oil-rich region of Sirte.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia, although an ally of Armenia, strong-armed Yerevan into agreeing to a peace deal with Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. This preserves Moscow’s energy relationship with Baku. Meanwhile, Turkey pushes east into the south Caucasus with its influence and adds to its prestige.
For the Kurds in Ain Issa, there is no hint of anything positive in their likely fate – control by the Turks and the FSA or by the Damascus regime. Their ultimate role, it would seem, is merely to advance the cause of Russia and Turkey on a playing field that is far larger than the territory of Syria.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”