Russia can't help protect the US-backed SDF from Erdogan, while the US blows up the Russia-backed Syrian army to pieces
Sunday the US shot down a Syrian warplane in Syria because it "dropped bombs near SDF fighters". The exact statement read:
At 6:43 p.m., a Syrian regime SU-22 dropped bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqah and, in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces, was immediately shot down by a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet.
That is rather curious because Turkish warplanes, artillery and tanks have frequently since 2015 dropped munitions not just "near" SDF, but right on top of it. Not once did the US strike at Turks in return.
For some reason "collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces" in Syria only applies to Syria's own legal government forces, but not the Turkish intruders.
That may be a tad inconvenient given that on Friday Turkey's Erdogan for the umpteenth time said he reserved the right to strike the SDF at any time "without asking anyone".
In a long tirade Erdogan again described the Kurdish YPG militia which dominates the SDF as a "terrorist group", decried Americans for "entering Raqqa with a terrorist organization", slammed the latest US aid package to YPG, and finally promised "retaliation" against YPG should they attack Turkey. The last time Erdogan "retaliated" against YPG was in April where he slew 20 YPG/SDF fighters despite US objections.
For good measure Erdogan also slammed the US air base under construction in northern Syria warning it spelled unwelcome permanent US presence:
“America built [an air base] in Kobani. They will soon start landing their planes there. And they will be settled there this way,” Erdogan said in a Friday-aired interview with Portugal’s public-owned RTP television.
“Won’t people ask why are you doing this? Why are you entering these places?” Erdogan demanded in a tone addressing the US administration.
So far Russia has been a partner of the US in keeping Erdogan at bay. Arguably Russia has done more to warn off the Turks from thrashing the SDF than the US has. That has certainly been the case with SDF in the north-western Afrin enclave which has been ignored by the Americans completely but has cordial relations with the Russians. Also Moscow was the only power to push for Kurds to be given a seat at the peace table in Geneva.
Protecting the SDF against the Turks has made sense for the Russians because:
- Disruptive Turkish adventures and strikes complicate their goal of winding down the war
- the Syrian army and the SDF mutually benefit from the other fighting and weakening ISIS
- Unlike Damascus, Russia does not oppose Kurdish autonomy, and does not see the SDF as an opponent or threat
This is all very laudable, but also leaves Russia in an awkward position where it is doing favors for the main US-backed fighting force in Syria, while the US military bombs, shoots down and threatens the main Russian-backed fighting force in Syria, the Syrian Army.
As if America's continued arming and financing of Islamist rebels in western Syria was not enough of a headache for the Russians and the Syrian army, the Pentagon has now begun attacking the Syrian army in southern and eastern Syria.
Americans seem to enjoy striking the Syrian army "in self-defense" as much as Erdogan enjoys "retaliating" against the SDF, but what they don't seem to understand is that if they're pushed in a corner the Russians may no longer afford to magnanimously watch out for the SDF.
If the US keeps bullying the Syrian army, and wounding Russian prestige in Syria, can Moscow still afford to earn a measure of hostility in Ankara and Damascus by sticking its neck out for the Kurds?
And what happens if, pushed into a corner, Russia concludes it is no longer in position to earn Turkish ire by guaranteeing SDF safety against Erdogan?
Will Erdogan take that as his cue to move against the SDF again? And if he does, then what?
It would be a lose-lose proposition for the US. Blocking Turkish moves without the Russians would drive NATO-member Turkey further into Russia's arms—while allowing Erdogan to hit at SDF without repercussions would lose the US all credibility with the justifiably cynical Kurds.