According to a senior Russian official who spoke to TRT World, Moscow believes the US might militarily intervene in Syria against the regime. But when the war ends, Russia is pushing for a federal system for the country.
A senior Russian official, who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity, said that Russia is taking very seriously the possibility of a US attack on the Syrian regime, and preparing for it. The official hasn’t given any details on any additional military deployments or on the timing.
In addition to a possible US attack, he said that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been trying to cross the de-confliction line in Deir Ezzor, which has led to confrontations between the Russia-backed regime forces and the SDF.
The SDF is a YPG-led group, which was founded by the US in October 2015. The US has been co-operating with the YPG in Syria in its fight against Daesh since 2014, and the YPG has used the opportunity to consolidate its power in the areas where it defeated Daesh giving it control of nearly a quarter of Syria.
Russian-backed forces retaliating against the US-backed YPG in Deir Ezzor hasn't stopped Moscow from giving diplomatic support for the YPG’s political wing, the PYD, creating disputes with Turkey.
Russia’s push for ‘federalism in Syria’
During the Astana talks in January 2017, when Turkey had barred the PYD/YPG from participating, Russia invited various groups from Syria, including the PYD for a meeting about a draft constitution for Syria.
The document included a provision on “autonomy of Kurdish regions”.
The senior Russian diplomat told TRT World that Moscow proposed the draft constitution to see the reactions. And Russia still believes a federal system might be possible in Syria’s future “if the Syrian people agree with that kind of a governing system”.
When asked about the PYD’s representation in any of these federal ruling bodies, his answer was, “If the Syrian people want that, why not?”
Turkey strongly opposes any kind of YPG/PYD representation in Syria since it considers the group to be a direct threat to its national security. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, a group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU. It has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years, killing more than 40,000 people, including civilians.
The draft constitution was not the last cause of dispute between the two countries. In November, Russia invited the PYD to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which was also opposed by Turkey. “We cannot consider a terrorist gang with blood on its hands a legitimate actor,” Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in November. Turkey’s objection caused the meeting to be postponed to January, when the PYD wasn’t included. During the Sochi talks in late January, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Syrian opposition and the regime agreed on establishing a constitutional committee. The names are set to be decided by Stefan De Mistura, the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy for Syria.
Russia’s plans for federalism in Syria, and Turkey’s fight against the YPG, will be discussed on April 4, when Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will hold a trilateral meeting in Turkey.
Turkey’s Afrin operation and the situation in Tel Rifat
Turkey’s military operation in Afrin against the YPG, which started on January 20, led to the defeat of the YPG in about two months. The Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) continue to clear the area of mines and explosives and to secure the town for civilians who want to return.
The only part of Afrin in which the Turkish military hasn’t conducted operations is the southeast, where the strategic Minnagh Airport and mostly Arab populated Tel Rifat town lie. According to a Turkish senior diplomat who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity, Russian troops are still based in the area. Both Turkish and Russian diplomats said that talks between military and foreign ministry officials are continuing on the future of southeastern Afrin.
Russian and Syrian regime troops were based in Afrin under YPG control, and they withdrew to Tel Rifat before Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin.
The south of Tel Rifat is a regime-held area and mostly controlled by Iran-backed Shia militas. YPG militants, who withdrew from Afrin used that route to reach the east of Euphrates River, to join the US-backed YPG in northeast Syria.
Co-operation on de-escalation zones
The Russian official, who pointed out that Iran-backed militias are on the ground while Russia is active in air operations, said that Russia also needed to be on the ground in Idlib, which is why the three countries agreed on establishing observation posts in the region. He underlined that the posts don’t include combatting forces, their function is only to monitor and report if necessary the confrontations between the regime and opposition forces.
In January, Turkey prepared for its fourth observation post in the east of Idlib, a week after it started its military operation in Afrin. But the Turkish convoy came under rocket and mortar attacks from an area controlled by Iran-backed militias.
A day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin called his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to discuss the situation in Idlib. After a second attack on a Turkish convoy in western Aleppo on February 5, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu visited Tehran. After their meeting, the Iranian president's office released a statement, saying that Cavusoglu had told them that Turkey aimed only to fight against terrorist groups in Syria, and had underlined the importance of the country's territorial integrity.
Iran and Turkey have backed opposing sides in the Syrian war since the beginning, but have co-operated under the Astana talks, which started at the end of 2016, along with Russia, to help bring an end to the war.
Turkey has established six observations posts so far, three in the north and three in the east. The Russian official said that across each post, there is a Russian observation point so that they can work together.
The Russian diplomat said that Russia's co-operation with Iran has continued since the beginning of Syria's war in 2011, and now they are both focusing on Idlib. He added that Russian air strikes and the regime’s move towards the south of Idlib, especially on Jisr al Shughour and Maarat an-Nouman, will continue, claiming they are fighting against former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al Sham in those areas.