Russia’s new move: ‘A conflict free zone’ in Afrin!
What is the meaning of the move by Russia to create a 'conflict-free zone' in Afrin?
Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s statement during the Astana talks that a ‘conflict-free zone' in Afrin is on the agenda brings to mind the question: "Is Russia stepping in?" As known, Russia opening the airspace to Turkish fighter jets and the ‘go ahead’ given to Turkey made intervention in Afrin possible.Nevertheless, it cannot be said that Russia gave unconditional support to this operation. On the contrary, Russia had certain expectations from this operation and therefore agreed to a Turkish operation in Afrin based on pre-determined limitations.
So what is the meaning of the move by Russia to create a 'conflict-free zone' in Afrin?
First of all, the agreement to create a ‘conflict-free zone’ in Syria was agreed in May 2017 in Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran. According to the agreement, four ‘conflict free zones’ were decided upon – Turkey took responsibility of the Idlib are controlled by jihadist groups - under guarantee of these three countries in order to achieve a political solution in Syria.
So it can be said that Russian attempts to create a 'conflict-free zone' in Afrin is a move to end the conflicts there. More specifically, this initiative is a step towards curbing the advance of Turkey’s operations into Afrin city centre. Since Turkey is a part of the conflict there, the ‘guarantor’ here is most probably Russia. Following discussions, before the Turkish intervention, with the PYD regarding transfer of control of Afrin to Syrian forces, which were unfruitful; Russia will have a somewhat limited opportunity to achieve its goal. On the other hand, acting as the ‘guarantor’ in Afrin, Russia aimsto increase its influence over the Kurds that are in strategic cooperation with the US.
Russian plans are not limited to increasing influence on the Kurds and forcing them to a solution under its guardianship. Turkey justifiesthe offensive as “security along its borders and creating a security corridor” and also made it clear that it will not be limited to just Afrin; Turkish focus will be shifted to Menjib. The US rebuffed Turkish statements that the offensive will extend to Menjib with a statement that its forces will not be removed from Menjib; therefore Turkey and the US will be in direct conflict. US Foreign Secretary Tillerson will soon visit Turkey to discuss these issues. Hence, as well as increasing its influence on the Kurds, Russia will also push Turkey to a position that will complicate the US attempts toestablish a foothold in Syria.
It is clear that, despite statements by the Turkish leadership that the Afrin offensive is “local and national”, it seems to be an operation that needed the Russian ‘go ahead’ and they seem to steer it to serve Russian interests. Furthermore, in the name of ‘security’, Turkey is drifting into a conflict between the two imperialist Powers of Russia and the US. The decision to continue the offensive under these conditions shows that the operation cannot be separated from the domestic aims of the Turkish government; they are trying to use this operation to shape domestic politics before the election in 2019.
Another important point that should not be overlooked, in terms of Russian calculations, is this: the Russian ‘go ahead’ was not an attempt to defeat the Kurds but to increase the pressure in order to win them over to a solution of its own design. It is inevitable that Russia, in discussions with the Kurds for a solution based on sovereignty, and Turkey, perceiving all Kurdish gains as a threat to itself and trying to eradicate it, will clash at some point.
In short, Russia believes that it is time to intervene in Afrin. It also encourages Turkish focus to shift to Menjib. Nevertheless, not everything goes to plan in a region (Middle East) where a many dimensional struggle to rule-share continues. Recent Israeli attacks in Syria,and Syrian retaliation by downing an Israeli fighter jet, followed by increased tensions between Israel and Iran could lead to fighting to spiral out of control and all calculations to be overturned.