Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay has recently confirmed the intention of Turkey's supreme military and political leadership "to clear northern Syria of the terrorist presence of the People's Protection Units (YPG) led by Sipan Hemo. Ankara considers this military organization of Syrian Kurds as terrorist, and its activity is banned in Turkey at the legislative level. The Turks consider the political program and its action as close to the ones of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan.
However, YPG is the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces founded and supplied by the Pentagon. They were invited as the main ground offensive forces into the US-led Western coalition. The total number of Syrian Democratic Forces, together with reserves, is estimated at 40,000-60,000 trained fighters. Since 2015, Syrian Democratic Forces units have been taking part in military actions to liberate northeastern Syria eastwards the Euphrates right bank from the Islamic States, a terrorist organization banned in Russia. Now, some units are deployed in eastern Deir Ezzor province, showing their readiness to eliminate the last large hotbed of Islamic extremists in a district adjacent to the border with Iraq.
In turn, Washington considers these Kurdish units as its military ally and is going to use them to preserve American military presence in Syria for an indefinitely long period of time. Despite Turkey's discontent, the Pentagon has continued supplying the Syrian Democratic Forces with arms, military and other equipment, as well as making payments to its fighters.
It is quite naturally that the Turkish leadership that is seeking its narrow national goals is indignant over such US activities in Syria. And Turkey declares the tasks of protecting its southern borders by destroying Syrian Kurds' military infrastructure. Turkey's supreme leaders have repeatedly and openly stated that. The Turkish General Staff has held two military operations, the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch, in the north of Syria's Aleppo province and in the Afrin region, respectively, since 2015. Starting from 2013, Turkey managed to create and arm loyal units consisting of deserters from the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Turkmen sided by some Kurds. There are now about 6,500 militants from the "Hamza division" deployed in the Afrin region, and its command claims that the division is preparing for "possible military action to the east of the Euphrates."
Saif abu Bakr, one of the division's field commanders, said in the town of Azaz, "We are training soldiers under the guidance of the Turkish command for military actions against People's Protection Units on the territory eastwards the Euphrates bank. We liberated al-Bab and Manbij, and we will liberate these districts too."
Turkey's Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, who took part in the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 16-18, said, "We expect the US to stop its cooperation with the YPG terror group as promised. We will not allow the establishment of a terror corridor on our southern border."
The Turkish leadership has now to choose either to start a large-scale military operation against pro-American Kurdish units in northeastern Syria, thus jeopardizing the level of relations with the United States, or to refuse from such a military operation agreeing to Washington's guarantees that the Americans will ensure security on the Turkish border in exchange for lifting the embargo on supplies of fifth-generation fighter jets and Patriot air defense systems to Ankara. Naturally, after giving up Russia's S-400 systems.
According to Turkish media leaks, Turkey's military and political leadership is discussing secretly ways to exit such a complicated situation. Turkish political analysts do not exclude that Recep Tayyip Erdogan may agree to US proposals and guarantees for the sake of preserving the level of relations with the United States. Ankara is capable of paying a penalty for cancelling the contract to purchase Russia's air defense systems with no threat to its interests. Moreover, Turkey is using its contract with Russia as a tool of exerting pressure on the United States.
There is an impression that Ankara is not going to accurately follow agreements reached in Sochi on September 17. The Turkish side has not secured any tangible results of separating illegal armed units in "the Idlib de-escalation zone," as so-called "moderate" anti-governmental units joined radical Islamist group forming a unified front of fighting against the Syrian government. At the same time, the Turkish leadership is torpedoing Russia's and Syria's proposals to use force in order to disarm them. This topic is expected to top the agenda of another conference of allies – Russia, Turkey and Iran - in Astana scheduled for late November.
As to Moscow, it has taken a rather reserved position and is seeking to preserve confidential relations with Ankara hoping to expand and to strengthen them. Both countries are tied by mutually beneficial economic interests.
However, protracting the issue of neutralizing the military presence and provocative actions of illegal armed groups in northwestern Syria is leading to further deepening of the crisis in the country. No doubt that Turkey's attempts to even partly foil military cooperation with Russia in exchange for improving relations with the United States will have a painful influence on the whole range of Russian-Turkish relations.