Operation Olive Branch: A Misstep in Russia’s Syria Strategy?

By: Katie Earle, Columnist

Photo by: thefuldagap.com

Despite Russia’s complicated relationship with Turkey and its prior cooperation with US-backed Kurdish forces, known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Moscow consented to a major Turkish offensive against the latter. So far, that decision looks to be a misstep for the Kremlin.

At the end of January, Turkey opened up a new front in the nearly seven-year conflict in Syria. Dubbed Operation Olive Branch, Ankara’s air and ground offensive in the Afrin province of northwest Syria targets the YPG. Turkey seeks to prevent an independent Kurdish region from forming on its southern border that it believes would serve as a base of operations for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an armed group that has waged a bloody insurgency within Turkey for over three decades.[i]

Because Russia controls the airspace over Syria’s Afrin province, the Turkish operation required at least tacit Russian approval. In fact, the green light may have been explicit: Turkey’s military chief was sent to Moscow days before the operation’s kick-off for consultations.[ii] Russia has two main reasons for supporting the offensive. First, President Vladimir Putin would like to make strides toward reaching a resolution to the Syrian conflict ahead of the Russian presidential election this March to validate Moscow’s 2015 intervention. Russia estimated a crushing blow against the Syrian Kurds and a reduction in Turkish support to other anti-Assad rebel groups might force anti-Assad elements to the negotiating table on an accelerated timeline. Second, if Turkey’s offensive pressured the United States to turn its back on the YPG, its main ally in Syria, all the better. So far, Moscow appears to have miscalculated on both counts.

Russia’s Strategy in the Middle East

It is worth taking a step back to examine Russia’s broader strategy in the Middle East, where Moscow adheres to a ruthlessly realist approach. Moscow’s relationships are transactional, and ebb and flow according to self-interest. Unlike the United States, which tends to condition its support on a partner’s commitment to Western values and human rights, Moscow prefers to engage with all parties to a conflict, leaving the door open to pick sides opportunistically. In Afghanistan, for example, Moscow funds and arms not only Kabul in its fight against Taliban, but also the Taliban itself.[iii] In Syria, excluding the Islamic State and groups associated with al-Qaeda, Russia has maintained relations with all the major players. The Kremlin counts this non-ideological, wait-and-see approach as a strength that allows it to choose the most advantageous partner when the moment is ripe.

The strategic ends Moscow seeks in the region include new markets for arms sales and joint energy projects; stable conditions that forestall the development of power vacuums that international terrorist groups can exploit; and international prestige at the expense of the West, primarily the United States.[iv]

Flexing its great power status while snubbing Washington has taken on increased importance ahead of the Russian presidential election, which is less than two months away. In the face of a struggling Russian economy battered even further by Western economic sanctions, the Kremlin has resorted in large part to patriotic mobilization to legitimize the Putin regime.[v] While Putin’s electoral victory is not in doubt, a significantly low turnout would be an embarrassment for the president. A foreign policy success could help motivate an increasingly indifferent electorate.[vi] Moscow, therefore, has been working diligently to position itself as the main peace broker to the conflict, pushing the narrative that, unlike the West, its involvement in war-torn regions, from Syria to Libya and Yemen, could engender stability. Syria was to be its principal case study.

The Love Triangle between Russia, Turkey, and the Kurds

In an effort to ensure its influence in a postwar Syria, Moscow has maintained relations with both the Syrian Kurds and Turkey. Last year, Russia invited representatives of Syrian Kurdistan to open an office in Moscow, floated the idea of autonomy for the Syrian Kurdish regions in a post-conflict Syria, and sent Russian forces (withdrawn at the start of Operation Olive Branch) to Afrin province to train the YPG in counter-terrorism.[vii]

At first glance, Russia and Turkey are strange bedfellows. Turkey is a member of NATO, which tops the list of threats in Russian military doctrine. At the outset of the Syrian conflict, Turkey supported anti-Assad rebels, including those with ties to Islamist extremists. Russia, on the other hand, has backed the Assad regime. The nadir in bilateral relations came in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syria border. Relations have since normalized, however, and Russia, Turkey, and Iran – largely bonded by their distrust of the West – have deepened their cooperation, launching the “Astana format” in early 2017 as an alternative to the Western-led Geneva process to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict.[viii] The relationship has continued to consolidate with the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems and recent progress on the Turkstream natural gas pipeline.

Operation Olive Branch: A Russian Perspective

Why did Russia greenlight Turkey’s offensive? First, while the Syrian Kurds had once served as an extremely effective force in ISIS’s destruction, now that the extremist group is all but defeated, the question of Assad’s fate and the future of the Syrian government loom larger among the final obstacles to peace. As such, the suspected secret deal ahead of the offensive was that in exchange for concessions from Ankara in the rebel-held strongholds in Idlib, Russia would support Operation Olive Branch.[ix] Moscow likely deduced – inaccurately so it seems – that by weakening the remaining anti-Assad groups by cutting off Turkish support as well as enabling Turkey to pressure the US-backed Syrian Kurds, it could compel these key factions of the Syrian opposition to come to the negotiating table, and accept some level of control by the Assad regime.

Second, the Russian decision to sanction Ankara’s offensive came just days after the United States announced its intention to extend its military presence in Syria in support of its Arab and Kurdish allies on the Turkish border.[x] Both Russia and Turkey would prefer that the United States pack up and go home, relinquishing influence over postwar decision-making and leaving the YPG without its strongest ally. Russia might have believed it could exploit the Trump administration’s past complacency in ceding the initiative to Russia in Syria (exemplified by decisions such as ending the CIA train-and-equip program in Syria)[xi] seeing that Ankara’s offensive could put Americans special forces and advisors supporting the YPG in harm’s way.[xii] This logic backfired: Earlier this month following the initiation of Operation Olive Branch, the US-led coalition didn’t shy away. Instead, it conducted air and artillery strikes against pro-Assad forces that attacked a headquarters for US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces.[xiii]

The lackluster conclusion at last month’s Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, a personal initiative of President Putin, underscores that Moscow’s decision to support the Turkish offensive is not panning out.[xiv] The Kremlin surely appreciates the pre-election optics of Turkey, a NATO ally, choosing to work closely with Russia and Iran, rather than cooperating with the United States and its Western allies. Still, the conference failed to produce decisive progress, and the Syrian Kurds and most other opposition groups boycotted the talks rather than make any concessions to the Russian-backed Assad regime.

To date, Russia’s decision to back Operation Olive Branch has neither pressured the Syrian Kurds and other anti-Assad rebels to come to the negotiating table nor driven a wedge between the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies. Meanwhile, the recent downing of a Russian plane over Syria serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of a protracted intervention.[xv] In the absence of progress toward a Russian-brokered resolution to the conflict, the rising death toll of Russian soldiers would be the quickest way to turn Russia’s great power status into a disaster for domestic audiences. This is a troubling prospect with a presidential election in the offing.



[i] “Syria: Turkey war planes launch strikes on Afrin.” BBC News. January 20, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42759944.

[ii] “Syria: Turkey war planes launch strikes on Afrin.” BBC News. January 20, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42759944; Solaker, Gulsen and Tuvan Gumrukcu. “Turkey seeks Russian approval for air campaign against Afrin.” Reuters. January 18, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-denial/turkey-seeks-russian-approval-for-air-campaign-against-afrin-idUSKBN1F70VN.

[iii] Sarwar, Mustafa. “Russia Plays Both Sides In The Afghan Conflict.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. January 4, 2016. https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/russia-afghanistan-taliban/27467233.html.

[iv] Sladden, James, et al. “Russian Strategy in the Middle East.” RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE236.html

[v] Aron, Leon. “The Kremlin Emboldened.” Journal of Democracy. October 10, 2017. http://www.aei.org/publication/the-kremlin-emboldened/.

[vi] Isachenkov, Vladimir. “Putin looks for quick win, but voter apathy worries Kremlin.” Associated Press. December 15, 2017. https://www.apnews.com/f4f1def4ce354d78a9dfc29ef54ae0bb/Putin-looks-for-quick-win,-but-voter-apathy-worries-Kremlin.

[vii] Solomon, Erika. “Russia strengthens presence in Kurdish-held Syria.” Financial Times. March 21, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/d8352aca-0e0b-11e7-a88c-50ba212dce4d; Pieniazek, Pawel. “The Kremlin as seen from Kobane.” openDemocracy.net. January 26, 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/pawel-pieniazek/kremlin-kobane-kurdistan.

[viii] Barnard, Anne and Hwaida Saad. “First Day of Syria Peace Talks Quickly Descends Into Quarreling.” New York Times. January 23, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/world/middleeast/syria-astana-talks-russia-turkey.html?mtrref=www.google.com.

[ix] Felgenhauer, Pavel. “Moscow Strikes a Deal With Ankara Over the Kurds’ Heads.” Jamestown Foundation. January 25, 2018. https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-strikes-deal-ankara-kurds-heads/.

[x] Marinucci, Carla and Nahal Tooshi. “Tillerson: U.S. ‘will maintain a military presence in Syria’.” Politico, January 17, 2018. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/17/rex-tillerson-syria-military-presence-344315.

[xi] Walcott, John. “Trump ends CIA arms support for anti-Assad Syria rebels: U.S. officials.” Reuters.July 19, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-usa-syria/trump-ends-cia-arms-support-for-anti-assad-syria-rebels-u-s-officials-idUSKBN1A42KC.

[xii] Walsh, Nick Paton and Ghazi Balkiz. “On the front lines in Syria, US troops face NATO ally’s wrath.” CNN.com. February 7, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/07/middleeast/syria-us-risky-patrols-ntl/index.html.

[xiii] Starr, Barbara and Ryan Browne. “US-led coalition strikes kill pro-regime forces in Syria.” CNN.com. February 8, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/07/politics/us-strikes-pro-regime-forces-syria/index.html.

[xiv] Berstecher, Lauren. “Boycotts, heckles disrupt Russia-backed Syria talks in Sochi.” France 24. January 30, 2018. http://www.france24.com/en/20180130-syria-russia-sochi-missing-key-players-peace-talks-begin.

[xv] Al-Khalidi, Suleiman and Polina Devitt. “Syrian rebels down Russian plane, kill pilot.” Reuters. February 3, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-airplane/syrian-rebels-down-russian-plane-kill-pilot-idUSKBN1FN0IU.

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