Russia and Turkey Act in Unison to Pre-empt Kurdish States in Syria and Iraq
Last-minute breaking news: In the footsteps of the Putin-Erdogan summit, a large delegation of Turkish foreign ministry, military and intelligence officials landed in at St. Petersburg Wednesday night, Aug. 10, to discuss following up the two presidents agreement to pre-empt Kurdish statehood, which was reported exclusively hereunder by DEBKA Weekly. We have just learned that they also agreed that Russian and Turkish forces would launch a joint offensive to smash the Syrian Kurdish Forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It is not clear whether the assault will be carried out by air or land, but intelligence sources expect the Russians to undertake the aerial assault, while Turkish troops will cross the border for the ground offensive.
Even before Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down to talk In St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Aug. 9, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Moscow and Ankara reveal the Russian and Turkish rulers had come to a deal that will almost irreparably damage the US war on the Islamic State. They decided to work together to thwart Kurdish aspirations for military and political independence in both Syria and in Iraq.
The fallout on the US-led war on ISIS was direct and instantaneous, in view of the indispensable combat role played by Kurdish fighters.
In Irbil, the autonomous Kurdish Government of Iraq (KRG)’s president Masoud Barazani discovered what was afoot when an ultimatum was slapped down from Ankara to shut down without delay any agency linked to the exiled Turkish opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, whom Edrogan accuses of plotting last month’s abortive coup against him.
Long before the coup, many of Gulen’s Turkish supporters found shelter in the KRG capital of Irbil and set up a center for political activism.
Although the 150,000-strong Kurdish Peshmerga is the largest army in Iraq, Barazani complied, fearing that if he defied Erdogan, the Turkish army would surge across the border and invade his republic.
He also understood that he could not expect much help from Washington. The Obama administration is in no position to cool the Turkish president’s temper so long as it stands by its refusal to extradite Gulen, a US citizen, to Turkey to face charges of orchestrating the coup, which he firmly denies.
The Iraqi Kurdish president went so far as to offer Erdogan a peace offering: He shut his border with Syria in the hope of calming the fiery Turkish president – with disastrous consequences.
It completely choked off military movements between Iraq and Syria of the Iraqi Peshmerga, the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, and the Syrian-Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), along with reinforcements and weapons supplies for the Kurds battling ISIS in Syria.
Our sources report that the closure of this vital border has also blocked US supply routes of arms and logistical assistance from Iraq to the Syrian Kurdish fighters, whom the Americans see as the spearhead of the war on the Islamic State.
The US was forced in the past week to airfreight essential hardware to the YPG – from Sulaymeniyah, an air base in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by Barazani’s opposition party – to Rmeilan, the only US airbase in Syria.
Rmeilan is located in the northern Syrian Kurdish province of Hassaka.
The new Putin-Erdogan deal has therefore thrown a large spanner into the creaking but still working arrangement from early in 2016, whereby Russian forces in Syria joined the Americans in backing the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, to lead the war on ISIS. Moscow was even willing for a time to give the Kurds the arms held back from the militia by Washington.
With the two world powers at their back, the Kurds began to entertain hopes of attaining an independent state in northern Syria as their reward for leading the ground campaign against the jihadists.
However, Russian backing now turns out to have been short-lived, lasting only so long as Moscow was intent on punishing Turkey for shooting down its warplane. Now that Putin and Erdogan are burying the hatchet, the Turkish president’s extreme hostility to the Kurds is weighing in strongly to melt their dream.
The only leverage the Syrian Kurds still own, say DEBKA Weekly counterterrorism sources, is their unmatched military prowess and willingness to fight ISIS.
By resorting to stop-go tactics, they can still hope to influence the course of events as the only competent military ground force capable of tackling ISIS available to either the US or Russia.
But Putin appears ready to gamble this resource away for the sake of his entente with Erdogan. His calculus is simple: By throwing the Kurds to the wolves, he wins not only Ankara, but also Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus as partners in a solid new bloc. (See also lead article in this issue.)