Drone Attack on Khmeimim: Who Benefits from Escalation in Western Syria?

In the early hours of January 6, more than a dozen unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) conducted an attack against the Russian airbase Khmeimim in Syria and the Russian Navy material and technical support base in Tartus. The Kommersant newspaper reported, quoting military sources, that militants of the Ahrar al-Sham terrorist group (banned in Russia), which operates in the province of Idlib, are responsible for the attack. According to the Valdai Club expert Vladimir Yevseyev, external forces, especially in Turkey, are interested in aggravating the situation in this part of Syria.

Ankara has serious reasons to aggravate the situation in the Idlib province, said Vladimir Yevseyev, head of the department for Eurasian integration and development of the SCO at the Institute of CIS countries. The main reason is that Russia invited representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Union party, which is considered in Turkey as a terrorist organization, to the Congress of the peoples of Syria in Sochi. This caused strong opposition from Ankara during the eighth round of negotiations on Syria, held in Astana on December 21-22, 2017. An intermediate option was found: representatives of the Syrian Kurds will be at the Congress of the peoples of Syria in Sochi as “neutral delegates.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with this, but only partially.

Another reason for the significant deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations was Moscow’s ban on the military operation of pro-Turkish armed groups in the Kurdish canton of Afrin. Third, the offensive of the Syrian army is successfully developing in the province of Idlib with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, which, in particular, allowed the liberation of the Abu Duhur airbase (50 km from the city of Idlib). In the immediate future, Syrian troops can encircle not only militants of the radical Jabhat al-Nusra group, but also the so-called moderate pro-Turkish Ahrar al-Sham group.

As a result, President Erdogan once again stated that Bashar Assad cannot remain president of Syria and must go. He also decided to hold, after the Congress in Sochi, his own event in Turkey with participation of the United States, France and Germany (possibly at the foreign ministers’ level). Moreover, Ankara at least did not prevent the strikes against the Russian airbase. UAVs were launched from the territory that Turkey considers to be a zone of its responsibility in the Idlib province. Some shells had inscriptions in the Turkoman language.

What will be the reaction of Russia? The Russian Ministry of Defense sent letters to Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and to the chief of the Turkish General Staff. Most likely, the specific facts were cited and Turkey was demanded to follow its obligations. However, more serious steps may follow. For example, Russia can help Syrian Kurds, including by arms supplies, and this is what Turkey fears most. In this case, the Kurds can increase pressure on the pro-Turkish forces in the buffer zone from Jarabulus to Manbij. Russia could also help the canton of Afrin, which Turkey wants to liquidate.

Russia has tried-and-tested contacts with the Syrian Kurds. This is evidenced by the fact that in the Deir ez-Zor province the Kurds are ready to ensure the safety of the Russian servicemen. Such contacts also exist in Afrin, where a Russian military unit is located, and in Manbij. Even the participation of the Democratic Union party in the Congress in Sochi points to the strengthening of relations with the Syrian Kurds. Russia can go further if Turkey starts to escalate the situation. Undoubtedly, Moscow is ready for some actions, but the decision is likely to be taken after the Congress in Sochi.

In these conditions, a question arises about the fate of the Astana process on the intra-Syrian settlement, where Russia, Turkey and Iran take part. Turkey has periodically blocked the Astana format, in particular, last summer. But it is unlikely that Ankara will abandon it: in this case Turkey’s position in shaping the future of Syria may be simply soundless. Another matter is that Turkey can impede the implementation of decisions taken within the Astana process or not to participate in their implementation. After the Congress in Sochi Ankara will most likely need the Astana process again. Another question is that Turkey’s position at that point may be weaker than it is now. The logic of events leads to this. In any case, the liberation of the Idlib province is inevitable, and if Turkey interferes, then Russia may not take into account its concerns regarding, for example, the Turkomans. Moreover, the Syrian army with Russia’s support can squeeze out a number of militants into Turkey, which will then have very serious problems with the radicals entering its territory from the province of Idlib.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.