ISTANBUL—Russia’s distraction over the war in Ukraine has forced its military presence to decrease in areas that may soon face a Turkish offensive, Syrian opposition officials told The Daily Beast this week.
The officials, including in the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA), said Moscow has withdrawn from several areas in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, including Tal Rifaat, where Ankara has said it would carry out a military operation to combat the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The SNA, a coalition of rebel groups backed by Turkey, would take part in the possible operation, according to Yusuf Hammoud, an officer and former spokesperson for the SNA.
Hammoud, who is based in northwestern Afrin, Syria, said Russia has decreased 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 has said that his country will carry out a military operation in the northwestern cities of Tal Rifaat and Manbij near the Turkish border to create a “safe zone” where 1 million Syrian refugees could return.
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Tensions between Syrian refugees and locals in Turkey have been rising, putting domestic pressure on Erdogan, whose popularity has declined amid an economic crisis a year before national elections are due.
If there is an attempt to take these areas, it risks a direct confrontation between NATO member Turkey and groups allied with Russia.
Beyond engaging in conflict with possibly several armed groups, an incursion could also have a heavy humanitarian toll, leading to the death or displacement of people who have gone through 11 years of Syria’s civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Turkey’s 2019 offensive against Kurdish forces in the northeast led to the displacement of more than 150,000.
Erdogan has not said when the offensive will begin.
“Like I always say, we’ll come down on them suddenly one night. And we must,” the Turkish president stated at the end of May, according to the Associated Press.
Ankara insists the YPG, which has cooperated with the U.S. in its fight against ISIS, is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, leading to tens of thousands of deaths.
Turkey, the U.S., and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Ankara has carried out four previous incursions into Syria, including against the YPG.
Turkey’s presence in Syria has put Ankara at odds both with its NATO allies and powerful competitors, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While Erdogan has continued support for opposition rebel groups, he has had to placate the competing interests of Russia, a nearby nuclear power with a permanent UN security council seat and a crucial source of energy and tourism to Turkey.
After Moscow put economic sanctions on Turkey for downing a fighter jet in 2015 that Ankara said had violated its airspace, Russia said Erdogan had apologized for the incident.
If the Kremlin now tacitly accepts a Turkish incursion into areas it or its allies controlled, it could be seen as a sign of how the invasion of Ukraine has overstretched the Russian military and it can no longer enforce its interests or its allies, even against a country with less geopolitical weight and military power.
The Turkish government did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the possible operation.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has expressed concern over the possible operation, stating it would undermine regional stability, and put U.S. troops and the fight against ISIS at risk.
Moscow’s Syria envoy stated that Russia has tried to convince Turkey not to go ahead with the military operation, Russia’s state news agency Tass reported.
Still, Moscow-based analyst Kerim Has, who specializes in Turkish-Russian relations, said that Russia could give Turkey a green light to launch an offensive, despite its public comments.
Has stated that if Turkey, or groups it backs, take control over Tal Rifaat, that could lead to an attempt to take nearby Aleppo, controlled by Russia’s ally, Assad.
Has believes Russia’s war in Ukraine has made Moscow more dependent on Ankara, a NATO member that has not imposed sanctions on Russia and which could serve the Kremlin’s interests by delaying NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.
“Mr. Edrdgan’s hands are stronger now in regards to Russia compared to four months ago,” Has said.
He added that since Russia would want Erdogan to win the upcoming election, Moscow could allow the incursion to boost the Turkish president’s popularity among his nationalist base.
Hammoud, with the SNA, said that Iranian forces were taking over some of the areas the Russians have retreated from.
Ahmad Misto, a civil leader in northwestern Syria with a brigade in the SNA, stated that Iranian forces have taken control of areas around Aleppo and Idlib province in the northwest where Russia has withdrawn.
“The Russians still have political power over the [Syrian] regime but the Iranians have it military-wise on the frontlines,” Misto said.
He added that the pullback of Russian forces happened about one to one-and-a-half months after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mohammad Ismail, a senior leader of the Kurdish National Council, based in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, said the increased presence of forces from Iran would provide more motivation for Turkey to go on the offensive.
“Some [areas] have noticed a Russian withdrawal and it was filled by Iranian forces instead. If Iran is increasing their influence, then also Turkey has to get in,” he said.
Turkey and Iran are long-time rivals, battling for influence in the region and taking opposing sides in Syria where Tehran backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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Ismail added there was a noticeable decrease in Russia’s presence a month ago, specifically in areas around Tal Rifaat, going towards the west of the Euphrates river.
Soon after, Erdogan announced on June 1 that the military operation would be carried out in Tal Rifaat, along with Manbij.
Ismail believes Kurdish forces would hand over territory to the Syrian regime for protection against a Turkish offensive.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said earlier this month that it may cooperate with Damascus if Ankara carries out an incursion.
That would be another motivation for an operation by Ankara as the increased regime presence could push civilians fearful of Assad towards the border, potentially leading to more refugees in Turkey.
But civilians in Syria also fear Turkey and its allies, said Ismail.
In 2020, a UN war crimes expert stated that the SNA may have committed torture and looting in northern Syria.
“There’s no clean war,” Ismail stated. “International forces [are] going to decide everything on the ground.”
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