The move could see an end to the slaughter of Kurdish fighters by Turkey after the Kurds were effectively abandoned by the United States. Desperate for a new protector, the Kurdish administration struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - Putin's close ally. But after Donald Trump's order to withdraw US troops, Moscow's hold on the entire region is now all but unchallenged.
If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people. Even the Kurds feel uneasy about the unlikely alliance - which demonstrates how desperate the situation is for the US-loyal Kurdish forces.
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Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, admitted Washington is "deeply concerned" that Russian troops are patrolling between the two sides. Turkey's offensive against Kurdish fighters - its longtime enemies in the Kurd's struggle for nationhood - has displaced tens of thousands. It has also upended alliances and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the 8-year-old war.
On Sunday, Assad's Russian-backed Syrian government forces swept into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.
Syria becomes a testing ground as Russia revives its defence industry
Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into the flashpoint town of Manbij- which that Turkey had been aiming to capture. Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insists it would capture Manbij - setting up the potential for a bloody battle to come. Mortar fire from Manbij killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded seven others on Tuesday, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. Later, a battalion of around Turkish troops along with armoured vehicles crossed near Manbij and Kobani.
Kobani, a border town, is not yet secured by Syrian forces - and could act as a stronghold from which Turkey plans to attack. Farther east on the border, Turkish and Kurdish forces were in heavy battles over the town of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkey days earlier. US troops had outposts in Manbij since - when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters.
Now Russia has taken on that role - with Moscow's troops patrolling front lines between Turkish and Syrian army positions. Alexander Lavrentyev, Moscow's envoy for Syria, said on Tuesday that "no one is interested" in fighting between Syrian and Turkish forces. In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed. Erdogan blamed Fethullah Gulen for inciting the protests, sparking a rift between the two that never healed.
When Turkey looked around the region, what it saw only fueled its fears. A brief thaw in Turkish relations with Israel was dramatically cut short in after Israeli forces stormed a Turkish ship sent to aid Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
For Turkey, a seemingly existential foreign-policy crisis was just beginning—exacerbated, in Turkish eyes, by the U. And that focus was especially on the Islamic State, which used the war in Syria and a breakdown in security in neighboring Iraq to create the first caliphate since just after the end of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century earlier.
- As the U.S. withdraws, Assad and Putin are emerging as the winners in Syria.
- How Russia Uses Israeli-Designed Drones in the Syria War.
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For Washington, the fight against the Islamic State took absolute priority; for Turkey, the biggest threat coming out of Syria was not jihadis but armed Kurds who were steadily carving out territory in northern Syria, on the border with Turkey. Casting about for a reliable fighting force on the ground to complement U. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Erdogan during a bilateral meeting in Ankara on April 6, Obama had to weigh his desire to tackle the Islamic State against the desire not to alienate Turkey or Erdogan.
Obama felt he had no choice. Supporters wave a Turkish national flag during a rally at Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul on July 21, Supporters of Erdogan turned out to protest a coup attempt that sought to unseat the president the week before. If mistrust and misunderstanding between the United States and Turkey were already at a fever pitch by , they were about to get a whole lot worse.
On July 15, , elements of the Turkish military staged an abortive coup against Erdogan. Turkish F jets taking off from Incirlik trailed the presidential plane after Erdogan narrowly escaped capture at his coastal villa.
Another one bombed the parliament. For agonizing hours, it was unclear whether the generals had ousted Erdogan or not—and when an opportunity arose to publicly back Erdogan as the coup plot unfolded, Washington and other European powers balked. As they hesitated, Russian President Vladimir Putin jumped into the vacuum, becoming one of the first foreign leaders to call Erdogan and denounce the coup attempt. After Erdogan emerged from the botched coup attempt unscathed, he set out on a nationwide campaign of reprisals, firing more than , public servants, arresting more than 40, people, and expanding his presidential powers to root out dissent.
The prospect of joining the EU—even as Turkey bore the brunt of the European refugee crisis amid the Syria conflict—became all but a pipe dream. Many in Turkey believe the United States either played a role in the coup or knew about it in advance—charges that U. Justice Department has refused to bow to Turkish demands to send him to Turkey to face charges, saying Turkey has not produced enough evidence to justify any extradition request. With the surprise election victory of Donald Trump in , prospects of better U.
Trump and Erdogan shared a fondness for authoritarianism, a disdain for a free press, and a willingness to reach out to Russia. Flynn even reportedly sought to arrange the extrajudicial extradition of Gulen from the United States—something Turkey had sought in vain for years. Months after the abortive coup, Turkey had detained a U. In , Erdogan sought to swap Brunson for Gulen, whom the since-ousted Flynn had failed to deliver, but the United States refused. Coming amid the continued crackdown on democracy in Turkey in the wake of the coup attempt, the misunderstandings between Erdogan and Trump mirrored the broader breakdown in a relationship that had already gone off the rails in Syria.
Those misunderstandings have been on full display during the crisis over the S Turkey, which had for years sought to acquire U. Eventually, it turned to Russia for arms, hoping to force the United States to reconsider.
But for U. Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon have all been clear about the consequences of a missile purchase from Russia. So why did Turkey press ahead, regardless? Even this week, the Trump administration went silent for four days before announcing on Wednesday that it would cut out Turkey from the F program as the first response. Beyond geopolitics or animosity toward Washington, Erdogan simply wants to survive should another coup attempt arise.
After facing down U. Naturally, the answer lies with a Russian-made system. Even if Trump manages to soften or delay those, Congress is in no mood to be conciliatory. And Congress could, as it has in recent years regarding Russia, draft tougher, more specific sanctions legislation to close any loopholes the president might exploit. Is the lurch toward Russia a marriage of convenience—or a permanent shift? Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Sign up for free access to 1 article per month and weekly email updates from expert policy analysts.
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