The Obama White House sounded uneasy after the President got off the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin yesterday. In announcing that the two had agreed to the terms of a ceasefire in Syria, which is set take hold this upcoming Saturday and will not apply to ISIS or the Nusra Front, White House press secretary Josh Earnest warned that “this is going to be difficult to implement.” Indeed, though Assad appeared to be falling in line (after a public rap across the knuckles by Russia’s special envoy to Syria), and the badly battered opposition sounds resigned to give it a try, important questions remain.
Many analysts are focusing on whether the Russians will use the intervening five days to make a decisive push to hobble the opposition in Aleppo and thus further cement the Assad regime’s gains on the ground. Others are wondering whether Russia might use the fact that Nusra forces are operating in Idlib, southwest of Aleppo, as an excuse more broadly to target opposition figures in the area.
But a third, potentially even thornier, issue is coming into view. Here’s British FM Philip Hammond addressing the British Parliament earlier today:
What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds’ role in all of this.
The reason this is such a troubling issue is Turkey. Just last week, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu demanded that the U.S. support Turkey “with no ifs or buts” in its fight against Kurdish separatists. He blamed the Syrian Kurdish group, the YPG, for working with the outlawed PKK in Turkey to plan last week’s bombing in Ankara. The YPG is, however, being backed by the United States as its proxy ground forces in fighting ISIS. Even after an 80 minute call between President Obama and Turkey’s President Erdogan, the U.S. State Department obliquely indicated that it would continue to support the YPG.
The YPG denied involvement with the bombing in Ankara, but raised the stakes significantly last week. Speaking from a newly-established special interest section in Moscow, a YPG spokesman warned of a “big war” if Turkish ground forces directly intervened across the border. “Russia will respond if there is an invasion. This isn’t only about the Kurds, they will defend the territorial sovereignty of Syria,” the spokesman said. The Kremlin did not directly endorse the sentiment, but it also did not bother to talk it down—potentially a significant signal, given that the statement was made in Moscow.
Hammond’s concerns, therefore, are warranted. Turkey is a NATO member, and Russia’s foreign policy for the past two years has had the undermining of the NATO alliance as one of its persistent goals. While bright minds in the White House are focusing on securing what they hope is a lasting peace in Syria, there’s plenty of mischief to be made over the division within NATO over the YPG. We certainly won’t be surprised in the slightest if President Putin chooses to rise to the occasion.