Two close US allies, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, traveled to Moscow on Thursday and Friday (March 9-10), to press very different cases relating to Syria before Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu chose to tackle the Russian leader on Iran, although he was recently welcomed at the White House as a close friend of US President Donald Trump and leader of a country strongly supported by the United States. He is regarded by the administration as the only Israeli politician capable of taking Israel through to a breakthrough in ties with the Arab world and a deal with the Palestinians. Whether this support will survive the personal attacks on Netanyahu and the investigations conducted against him remains to be seen.
Erdogan’s case is quite different. Trump originally viewed him as a partner in his plans for Syria. But the removal of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser – and strong pro-Turkey advocate – undercut Erdogan’s influence in the White House. Flynn now turns out to have acted as a paid Ankara lobbyist licensed by the Justice Department during the Trump campaign.
In any case, the Turkish president lost much of his value as a useful partner when US generals awarded the Turkish army’s operations against ISIS in northern Syria a low grade, specifically its prolonged four-month siege on Al-Bab.
It was on the US generals’ recommendation that the Turkish army was substituted as spearhead for the main US offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa by the 55,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces. Two-thirds of the SDF are fighters of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has exhibited exceptional prowess in winning battles against ISIS.
After this change of partners, the Americans embarked on a build up of the SDF’s weaponry. The Russians quickly followed suit. Erdogan was incensed. He tried arguing that the YPG was a terrorist group, a branch of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, and US-Russian backing would bring about the rise of an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria next door to Turkey.
When this complaint fell on deaf ears, Ankara threatened Thursday, March 9, to attack the Kurdish emplacements at the northern Syria town of Manbij. Washington reacted by stressing US support for the SDF, although the threat was hollow: Turkish troops were not about to confront the wall of US and Russian troops in their path.
Erdogan’ traveled to Moscow for a last attempt to persuade the Russian president to at least promise to prevent Kurdish self-rule. Although Putin lavishly praised their deal for jointly brokering a ceasefire in Syria and a peace conference, the Turkish president’s journey was wasted. He was fobbed off by Putin whose first priority at this time is to keep in step with the Trump administration’s head-spinning decision for direct military intervention in Syria – rather than look after Turkish interests.
Saturday, Kremlin sources confirmed: “The Russian-Turkish talks resulted in almost nothing.” They disclosed that the Turkish leader’s main concern was the Manbij standoff in northern Syria.
A day earlier, the Israeli prime minister may not have fared much better when he taxed the Russian president with security concerns about the entrenchment of Iranian and Hizballah forces in southern Syria ominously close to the Israel border. Putin greeted him with affection, but made it clear that his overriding concern was coordinating with Trump’s new initiatives in Syria and Israel’s security concerns were a side show. He advised the Israeli leader to look at the big strategic picture now unfolding in the war-torn country.
From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, a large-scale US-0Russian-Krudish military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria would additionally frustrate Iran’s main objective, which is to create a land bridge through northern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Putin believes that, once Tehran realizes that Trump will never let this plan take off, the Iranians will pull their forces out of Syria, because their only link with home base would still be by air or sea, both of which routes are exposed to Israeli attacks.
Netanyahu appears to have indicated to Putin that, for want of any other options, Israel would consider a direct attack on the Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria. The Russian President listened but did not comment. Judging from the past, the prime minister would almost certainly bid for a green light from Washington before going through with such a plan – unless, of course, Netanyahu decides that the IDF can go it alone.