Will Russian air power solidify de-facto Syrian Kurdish autonomy?

by Paul Iddon.

When the United States began its bombing campaign in Syria last year, America’s jets notably packed anti-radiation (HARM) missiles — likely in case the remnants of Syria’s air defenses tried to shoot them down, or accidentally opened fire on them, while they were preoccupied with bombing the Islamic State (ISIS). That was not to be, but the inclusion of such armaments clearly indicated why it was better for them to be safe rather than sorry.

Russian Air Force Su-30's at the Russian base in Latakia (Photo via mil.ru).

Russian Air Force Su-30’s at the Russian base in Latakia (Photo via mil.ru).

Similarly, more than a year later, Russian military forces deployed Su-30 Flanker multi-role fighter jets and Pantsir-S1 (a.k.a. SA-22 ‘Greyhound’) short-range air defense missiles to its western Syrian air base at Latakia. These are ideal weapons to confront any other potentially hostile aircraft.

Additionally, the United States has deployed F-15C Eagle jets to northeastern air bases in Turkey — jets which are built solely for air-to-air combat. The twin deployments show that the Americans, like the Russians, are preparing for an assortment of contingencies in case they have to readily combat aerial adversaries when targeting various militias across war-torn Syria’s crazily congested air space.

Following the Turkish downing of the Russian Su-24 Fencer ground attack jet on November 24, Russia deployed one of its largest air missile defense destroyers, the Moskva (the flagship of the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet) off Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. Furthermore, Russian state-owned media has stated that the Russian military has recently deployed a highly advanced and sophisticated long-range S-400 air defense missile system to Khmeimim airbase near Latakia. In addition to this, recent reports indicate that Russia may be preparing to cross a “red-line” Turkey has drawn in northern Syria.

Hence establishing a de-facto aerial umbrella over Syria Kurdistan – which could be done by having Su-30’s escorting Su-24/25/34 aircraft on their attack runs to the north – while giving close air support to the 40,000-or-so strong Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, that Turkey staunchly opposes, in their fight against ISIS which will likely take them outside of their current territories. Which would enable them to further secure their autonomous territories while increasing the risk any Turkish attempt to hinder their efforts would pose to Ankara.

Remember right from the get-go of Russia’s build-up in Syria Russian President Vladimir Putin singled out “Assad and the Kurd’s” as representing the only viable on-the-ground forces to work with against ISIS and other such Islamist groups in Syria. So increased Russian-YPG coordination would not at all be surprising. Especially in light of recent events.

Female and male Syrian Kurdish YPG/J (Peoples Protection/Women's Protection Units) fighters (Photo: via Kurdishstruggle on Flickr).

Female and male Syrian Kurdish YPG/J (Peoples Protection/Women’s Protection Units) fighters (Photo: via Kurdishstruggle on Flickr).

The aforementioned U.S. bombing campaign against the Islamic State in northeast Syria has seen air power coordinate with the YPG. However, the United States is sensitive about Turkey’s vehement disapproval to such support since Ankara sees the YPG as little more than the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – with which it has gone to war once again with renewed intensity and violence in its own southeast and in the north of neighboring Iraq.

That’s why Washington officially backs the upholding of Ankara’s aforementioned “red-line” whose primary purpose is to ensure that the YPG are forbidden from entering the Azaz Jarabulus areas, a 60-mile stretch of northwestern Syrian border territory (the official “red-line” stretches west of Jarabulus to Mare, a small town which is a sub-district of Azaz). The Islamic State has a presence there, as does the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and it constitutes the only part of Syria’s northern border which hasn’t been closed off to such terror groups. As of last summer, Syria’s Kurds effectively control all of the northeastern part of the border stretching from Syria’s border with Iraq to where the Euphrates River flows from Turkey into Syria. If they kick the Islamic State out of Azaz-Jarabulus they could then potentially be in control of all of Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey.

So Turkey’s alternative proposal is to establish its long sought after “buffer/safe-zone” on that stretch of territory making it both ISIS and YPG-free. Both Washington and Moscow support closing that border, knowing it will further cut-off and pressure the Islamic State. That being said, most talk of a buffer-zone has just been that — talk. Neither Turkey nor any of its allies have yet to act. Neither wants to send in ground troops to do the job, but hope instead to have Free Syrian Army fighters do so with close coordination and air support.

But the Kremlin isn’t waiting. Russia is rumored to have given supporting air strikes to YPG Kurds in Syria’s northwestern Kurdish canton of Afrin ahead of a reported YPG advance against Islamists in Azaz. One recent Russian air strike reportedly bombed the road connecting Azaz to the Syrian-Turkish Bab al Salameh border crossing. Russian bombing around the area where the Russian Su-24 crashed has also displaced approximately 7,000 ethnic Turkmen who have fled over the border into Turkey.

Given these recent developments it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a Russian-YPG effort to clear out those Islamist’s — one which could well be supported by Russian air power. Unlike a NATO effort, this would likely see the Kurds enter the Azaz-Jarabulus region, and instead of it becoming a buffer-zone, Russia would likely prefer to reinstate the Syrian regimes sovereignty over it, which is diametrically opposite Turkey’s desires to make it an Assad-free zone.

Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters (Photo via Kurdishstruggle on Flickr).

Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters (Photo: via Kurdishstruggle on Flickr).

The longer NATO stalls on closing off Azaz-Jarabulus the more likely such an outcome will be. And not only would such an outcome further bolster and secure the Kurdish entities in northern Syria, the presence of Russian air power could further solidify the de-facto autonomy they have received from Damascus over the course of the past three years. While Moscow insists that the main Kurdish party in Syria Kurdistan, the PYD (whose armed branch is the aforementioned YPG) should work closely with Assad, that party sees his regime as illegitimate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are separatists, they just want autonomy within a greater democratic and federal Syrian state. Something which the Kurds of Iraq (whose autonomy was garnered after the imposition of the northern Iraqi no-fly zone after the 1991 Persian Gulf War) sought after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003.

Such autonomy could well be bolstered by a Russian-supported effort to completely seal off Northern Syria from Islamist groups. Remember many of Russia’s targets in northwestern Syria – parts of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib especially – are aimed at an Islamist coalition force called the Jaish Al Fatah (Army of Conquest) which, with Saudi and Turkish logistical and intelligence support, successfully seized large parts of the strategically-important province of Idlib last May. Russian strikes have sought to setback these gains on behalf of Assad, much to the consternation of Ankara. That coupled with a Russian-YPG effort to close-off Azaz-Jarabulus border regions would seriously undermine any further Turkish efforts aimed at supporting such groups while simultaneously empowering a group Turkey despises.

This entry was posted in English, International, Paul Iddon, Russia, Syria.

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