How Russia outplayed the US with Turkey in Syria

Russia, a long-time ally of Damascus, entered Syria in 2015 to back the regime of Bashar Assad.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during a video conference call, dedicated to the conflict in Syria, in Moscow, Russia July 1, 2020 (photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI DRUZHININ/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during a video conference call, dedicated to the conflict in Syria, in Moscow, Russia July 1, 2020
In the last days of August, a delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council arrived in Moscow for meetings. The group is linked to the Kurdish leadership of eastern Syria. Russian officials and the SDC met and Russia’s Tass news agency said that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had discussions with SDF co-chair Ilham Ahmed. Russia was able to meet with the council openly and also meet with Turkish officials, even though Turkey’s leaders consider the SDC linked to “terrorists.”
At the same time, US diplomats have generally given the SDC the cold shoulder and have been unable to work with Turkey on Syrian issues. Why has Russia succeeded where the US failed to work with its own NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish forces it backs in Syria?
Russia, a long-time ally of Damascus, entered Syria in 2015 to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Moscow has become friends with all sides in Syria – except with the Americans. Russia helped push the Astana talks and meetings in Sochi that were designed first to create ceasefires and “de-confliction” in Syria, giving the Syrian regime room to concentrate on defeating Syrian rebel groups bit by bit.
Meanwhile, in 2015 the US had also entered Syria to support the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to fight ISIS. The US was also involved in a billion-dollar program to back Syrian rebels from both Jordan and Turkey. The program was run by the CIA but also had some backing from the State Department under John Kerry. But Washington failed to corral rebel groups into a workable force. Instead, the rebels were a plethora of groups, many of them infiltrated by increasing religious extremism and infighting.  
THE US pursued three tracks in Syria. Through Central Command it helped create the Syrian Democratic Forces – the military counterpart of the SDC – based on the YPG to help encourage Kurds and other groups, such as Arabs and Christians, to all join under one banner to fight ISIS. Meanwhile, the CIA program to support the rebels fell apart.
After Syrian rebels almost clashed with the SDF in Manbij during a Turkish invasion in 2016, the US wrapped up its support for the rebels in 2017. Yet the State Department continued to back a Turkey-first track in Syria and in Geneva where it backed a political process. From 2017, the State Department and Central Command were backing opposite policies in Syria.  
Ash Carter, Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2017, recalled that “Turkey was less interested in fighting ISIS than in preventing Kurds in eastern Syria from linking up with those in the town of Afrin, less than 100 miles from Manbij.” Ankara nevertheless told the US it would take the ISIS capital of Raqqa. "Turkey claimed, in the absence of any evidence, that fighters it supported could take Raqqa.” But it never produced a plan, and the SDF liberated Raqqa from ISIS in 2017.
Turkey, ostensibly a US NATO ally, responded to the US-backed SDF success against ISIS by accusing America of “training a terror army” in Syria. Turkey claimed that the YPG was linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Between 2015 and 2017, Turkey had fought against the PKK in Turkey. In December 2017, it helped create the Syrian National Army or Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, a collection of Syrian rebel groups. It wanted to use them to fight the Kurds that were backed by the US. In January 2018, Turkey invaded Afrin and forced 160,000 Kurds to flee.  
Thus in 2017, Turkey – whose views were backed by the US State Department – began to train Syrian rebels that had formerly been backed by the US to fight the US-backed SDF. This sounds convoluted and strange. Why would an American ally take fighters the US had worked with and use them as cannon fodder against other fighters the US was working with, while the US State Department backed Turkey and the Pentagon backed the Kurdish fighters on the other side? Because US policy and policy makers are rarely on the same playing field – and some US policy makers even wanted to sabotage the success of others.
BACK IN 2017, the Trump administration had just come into office. Its first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was considered close to Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got an invite to Washington. But Flynn was pushed out and became the center of an investigation. In May, during Erdogan’s visit, Turkish security attacked peaceful US protesters.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia were working at Astana in Kazakhstan with Iran to hammer out an agreement to partition Syria. Ankara would buy Russian S-400 air defense systems in exchange for Moscow agreeing to a deal letting Turkey take over Idlib, Afrin and Jarabulus for some temporary, future period.  
The US responded to Turkey’s flirtation with Russia by bringing in former US ambassador James Jeffrey, who was known to be pro-Ankara. Appointed in 2018, he immediately set about trying to torpedo the US work with the SDF, telling Turkish and other media that the American role against ISIS with the SDF was “temporary, tactical and transactional.” Not long term, he said in 2018. He told the Atlantic Council the same thing in December 2018.
In November 2018, the US had also put a bounty on the heads of three PKK leaders. This was designed to force the SDF to break relations with the PKK. At the same time, however, US military officials told the SDF that America would stay to stabilize eastern Syria.
Turkey had signed a deal with Russia to let it bomb Kurds in Afrin in January 2018 during the Turkish invasion, which used the newly formed Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces. After that invasion, Turkey demanded that the US also enable more invasions. Ankara got the Trump administration to agree to withdraw from Syria in December 2018. In the summer of 2019, it got Washington to agree to a “security mechanism” that would allow the US European Command and Turkey to work on Syria policy. This ran counter to Central Command’s role, but Jeffrey and other US State Department officials were working closely with Turkey.
ACCORDING TO former US National Security advisor John Bolton, it was Jeffrey who presented a “color-coded map” showing areas Turkey would be allowed to take over in Syria. In October, after more Erdogan phone calls with Trump, the US said it would withdraw from the border. The American work on a “security mechanism” had been an illusion whereby Turkey used patrols with the US to chart its invasion of Syria in September 2019. US officials said they had been deceived by Turkey.  
As America withdrew in October 2019, the Russians swept in for another victory. Just as they had brokered deals in Idlib and Afrin, they now brokered a deal to “save” the Kurdish cities of Qamishli, Kobani and Derik from invasion by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel extremists. The death of the Kurdish leader Hevrin Khalaf had embarrassed the US, watching its NATO ally cheer the murder of an unarmed Kurdish woman. Now Russian troops swept into US bases.
Meanwhile the SDC finally sent Ahmed to Washington as disaster unfolded in Syria. But the US State Department continued to give the council the cold shoulder, despite years of US soldiers and the SDF fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. As Jeffrey had said to the Atlantic Council, the US doesn’t work with “sub-state” entities and its SDF partners were sub-state.
But Washington was still working in Geneva with sub-state Syrian opposition groups. The US diplomats in Geneva and Ankara had excluded the SDC and any groups linked to the SDF from Geneva. America's goal was to isolate its own partners in eastern Syria and force them to work with the Syrian regime.
On its face, it seems odd that while the US armed and trained 80,000 members of the SDF via CENTCOM, American diplomats were quietly telling their Turkish colleagues that the US didn’t want to work with the SDF – and it was only temporary and that they accepted Turkey’s view that the SDF is linked to the PKK. But the goal was to isolate the CENTCOM role and win back Turkey.
Meanwhile Russia had already won Turkey, with the S-400s and numerous agreements. One US diplomat, William Roebuck, went to eastern Syria to see if he could salvage things by getting the SDF to patch up relations with Kurds in northern Iraq.  
IT IS IN this context that the SDC sent a delegation to Moscow. The council said it was also working in Europe and with other Syrian opposition figures – the ones that the US had made it so difficult for the SDC to work with in Geneva. Bizarrely the SDF’s own American partners in Washington wouldn’t coordinate SDC meetings with Syrian opposition, forcing the council to do it themselves – or via Moscow, a US adversary.  
For Moscow, this is yet another win because its policy in Syria has been clearer. It supports the regime. Moscow’s military and diplomats don’t work against each other. They work to sell S-400s to Turkey – while also supporting the Syrian regime, while also being open to talks with the SDC, while also acknowledging Turkey’s views.
Ankara prefers Moscow to Washington. It also prefers Iran to Washington. While Turkey accuses the US of supporting terrorists and demands US officials never meet the SDC, it doesn’t mind when Russia does the same.  
Russia’s Lavrov, according to Tass “has reaffirmed Russia’s readiness to continue aiding the promotion of inclusive, constructive inter-Syrian dialogue – in the interest of the fastest recovery and reinforcement of Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity; the formation of conditions for harmonious co-existence; and development of all ethnic and religious parts of the Syrian society.”
Tass also notes that “members of the Syrian opposition have informed the Russian top diplomat about the memorandum of understanding between the Syrian Democratic Council and the People’s Will Party, signed on the outcomes of the talks in Moscow.” Oddly, US diplomats have never given the SDC the same treatment, despite the fact that the US military works closely with the SDF, the council's military counterpart.  
BACK IN Washington, the pro-Ankara lobby is pleased. If the SDC can be forced to work more closely with Russia, then they can argue that US partners are working with Moscow and get Washington to pull the plug on Syria. A small US oil deal is in the works, but the Trump administration says it might leave Syria and is working on a decision “fairly soon.”
This would be an ideal ending for some in the State Department: to see Central Command leave Syria and a Turkey-first strategy put back in place. But this isn’t the Turkey of 2010: it is the Turkey that is buying Russian S-400s and working with Russia and Iran on Syria – the Turkey that has slammed the US and worked to undermine US deals in Syria and its efforts against ISIS.
However, some in America believe that the US mission in eastern Syria was flawed because of its links to former president Barack Obama and because it coincided with the 2015 Iran deal. Washington shouldn’t be working with “terrorists” in Syria, these voices say. There is no evidence the SDF has ever engaged in “terrorism,” yet they say Turkey has a grievance. Turkey's demands that the US not meet the SDC don't extend to its new partners in Moscow.
The US may have undermined its own successful anti-ISIS partners to appease Turkey – and ending up not getting anything out of it, losing eastern Syria, losing regional confidence in US policy, losing the Iran arms embargo and also letting Turkey get Russia’s S-400s. But even with all of this, some US officials may feel they won because they defeated other US officials’ pet projects. Russia’s Lavrov, on the other hand, has not spent the last half decade working against his own defense officials.