On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet, killing one of its pilots in the process. This was a key moment for both the Syrian Civil War and Turkey’s standing in the international community.
According to Patrick Cockburn at The Independent, the attack had “every sign of being a well-prepared ambush”. Turkey apparently warned the plane it was “approaching Turkish airspace”, but 17 seconds after allegedly entering Turkey, it was shot down. A Turkmen jihadi commander on the ground in Syria then claimed his forces had killed “both pilots”. This man turned out to be the son of a Turkish ultranationalist.
One pilot was rescued, but Moscow was not going to tread carefully in its critique of the attack. After Putin called the Turkish regime “accomplices of terrorists”, even the Guardian suggested he was right, while The Telegraph insisted the event proved “what a mess Syria is”. (In fact, there have even been claims that US helicopters have been downed by Turkey in recent months, but these have not been confirmed.)
Putin argued that the Erdoğan regime had been encouraging the growth of a chauvinist form of Islamism – blended with nationalism and neoliberalism – in both Turkey and Syria, and that this was the real problem behind Ankara’s aggressive actions. The Russian leader himself was not exactly a stranger to mixing political ideologies for his own political gain, but that’s not the issue at hand. The fact is that Russia has been very careful not to encourage international conflict in the Middle East in recent years.
As could have been expected, Moscow placed strong sanctions on Turkey following the attack, aiming to hit Turkish interests related to both tourism and business in general.
On 2 December, Erdoğan responded to Putin’s comments about the connection between Ankara and jihadis in Syria by dramatically vowing to leave office if any proof was provided to show that Ankara had been buying oil from Daesh. Moscow soon obliged, presenting proof of Turkey’s role in the Daesh-related oil trade.
From the moment Turkey downed the Russian jet, Moscow seems to have been considering how to get back at Turkey without engaging with Turkish forces militarily.
Russia turns to Rojava while Washington stutters
Back in October 2015, the Washington Institute insisted that:
The PYD will not hesitate to cooperate with Damascus and Moscow in the north if Turkey and the United States continue prohibiting the unification of Kurdish enclaves.
And on 5 January, the Washington Institute claimed there was “clear Kurdish coordination with Russian forces in northern Aleppo province” in Syria, suggesting that Russia was beginning to consider how the YPG/J militias in Rojava could serve its own interests. For example, Rojava would act as a barrier between Assad-controlled territory in Syria and the Turkish border, and it would also enrage Ankara by cutting off its links with jihadi-held areas. At the same time, Moscow’s reputation could indeed be improved by increasing relations with the secular democrats and anti-jihadis of Rojava.
On 1 February, meanwhile, Amberin Zaman spoke at the Wilson Center about how the USA’s lack of commitment to the Kurdish-led forces of Rojava was pushing them into increasing coordination with Russia. This was exemplified by the fact that Russia had called for Rojavan representatives to be present at the most recent round of peace talks in Geneva while Washington had not. Zaman insists that:
Washington’s unabashedly cynical policy of feting the Syrian Kurds as partners while treating their counterparts in Turkey as outlaws was flawed from the start.
And the 30 January visit of Brett McGurk, Obama’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, to Rojava was not enough to make up for the fact that Washington had not defended the right of Rojavans to have a presence in the peace talks. Zaman says that, while Rojavans “have no illusions about Russia” and realise it is “eager to exploit Turkey’s Kurdish paranoia”, the fact is that Russian forces can help them more effectively in their fight against jihadi rebels.
The only way the USA could stop the YPG/J from fostering an even stronger alliance with Russia, Zaman insists, would be by resolving its contradictory policy of claiming the PKK and the administration in Rojava are not just separate arms of the same movement. Washington may claim it can’t act to stop Turkey’s war on Kurdish communities, she says, but the truth is that “when the United States airdropped weapons to the YPG in Kobanê [in late 2014], Turkey grew instantly cooperative”. Therefore, she stresses:
It is time for Washington to recognize that Turkey’s relations with the Kurds are inextricably bound with its own national interests.
This is, of course, if the USA’s “national interests” are in fact related to democracy and peace (which they have not been in the past). In the meantime, Russia seems prepared to offer more and more support for the YPG/J:
On 10 February, a Rojavan diplomatic mission opened in Moscow, making it “the first of several foreign offices Rojava plans to open in Europe”. While not an official office, and technically regarded as an NGO, this was a massive step forward for Rojava on an international stage that has denied its existence since the establishment of autonomous communities there in 2012. A week later, after Turkey ludicrously blamed an attack in Ankara on the YPG/J, a diplomat in this representative office warned that Russia would defend Rojava if Turkey attacked, saying:
Russia will respond if there is an invasion. This isn’t only about the Kurds, they will defend the territorial sovereignty of Syria.
In an interview, meanwhile, former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, a Kurdish opposition leader based in Moscow and in close contact with both the Russian government and Rojavan forces, insisted that the Assad regime was now “working in tandem with the Syrian Kurds” to defeat jihadis in northern Syria. This in spite of the fact that Assad’s forces had hit a YPG/J-controlled district in Aleppo with barrel bombs on January 27, leading the YPG/J to retaliate by bombing a pro-Assad security checkpoint two days later.
The temporary and unofficial alliance in northern Syria may be based mostly on Russia’s resolve to defeat Turkish-backed jihadis in the country – and thus push Turkey into a corner. But how Ankara responds will be a decisive point in the resolution or escalation of the Syrian conflict.