For now the SDF is keeping the approaches to Aleppo safe -- sparing Moscow from a difficult choice
Update on Erdogan's 'Euphrates Shield' southward march into Syria: in the past several days the Turkish-rebel forces have made zero new progress. The Turkish 'safe zone' for assorted anti-government Islamist militias remains no larger than it was last week.
After making significant progress against ISIS took them to within 15 kilometres of Syrian army in Aleppo it would have probably made sense for the Turkish-rebel forces to continue their drive along that axis. Trouble is, both Ankara and the Islamists in its tow hate the Kurdish YPG and its secular Arab allies (Jaish al-Thuwar or "Army of Revolutionaries" is active in this area) a lot more than they hate ISIS. Emboldened by its victories against ISIS they therefore turned west to expand their offensive against the Kurdish-dominated SDF.
After first blasting the Kurds with artillery and air strikes, the rebels moved in by foot. The immediate result was that SDF retreated from some villages it had recently taken from ISIS. This was a tactical retreat from exposed positions -- the villages therefore reverted to ISIS control. The Turkish-backed rebels themselves however failed to gain any ground for themselves. The town of Tal Rifat, the aim of their offensive, hasn't even been threatened yet as all their assaults so far have been beaten off in the villages on the approaches to the town already, albeit at a significant cost in blood.
— Christian Turner (@CombatChris1)October 23, 2016
In other words after days of fighting and sensational reports of 200 Kurdish fighters killed in one day of air strikes alone the rebels have no tangible result to show for it. Given how much Turkish army firepower they have at their disposal this really makes it quite the victory for the lightly-equipped Afrin SDF. (Which operates four T-72 and T-55 tanks and a single BMP-1 armored vehicle, albeit having knocked out and captured a BMP-1 from the rebels over the weekened it may thanks to its well-known salvage and DIY skills soon be fielding two of this type of vehicles.)
SDF seize an armoured vehicle from Jihadists in Northern Aleppo after they failed to advance, despite Turkish shelling. pic.twitter.com/egwTFXXag3— Dr Partizan (@DrPartizan_)October 23, 2016
In reality Turkish firepower is about all 'Euphrates Shield' rebels have. Before direct Turkish intervention the rebels in this sector were time and again humbled by ISIS -- amply supplied by Turkey they would capture sectors of the Syrian-Turkish border from the latter only to overstretch and be beaten back with relative ease. The rebels make the bulk of the Euphrates Shield in terms of bodies but its fighting power is really provided by Turkish armor.
They are also propped up by 40 US special forces soldiers -- albeit they initially chased these American troops out of town -- and an American rocket artillery battery across the Turkish border, and of course the US Air Force. Americans aren't assisting them in their fight against the Kurds, but neither has the US offered more than a very mild rhetorical rebuke of the clashes (rather than of the attackers). State Department's John Kirby:
We do not support nor condone any maneuvers in this area which can only give new oxygen to #Daesh— John Kirby (@statedeptspox)October 23, 2016
You will excuse the Kurds if they will see this as a betrayal (albeit not an unexpected one) after the US has been all too happy to use Kurdish bodies for its war on ISIS. (Also the mere fact US has troops embedded with both 'Euphrates Shield' rebels and the SDF -- albeit not in Afrin enclave -- tells you just how aimless and disjointed American policy is.)
Moscow was more assertive. Russia's FM Sergey Lavrov said further Turkish violations of Syrian air space will "meet resistance" albeit he didn't specify if that resistance will come from (Russian-supplied) Syrian air defenses or from Russians themselves. Nonetheless Turkish air strikes against Kurds have continued without Russian counter-measures fueling speculation that Putin has "greenlighted" Erdogan's offensive against the Syrian Kurds. (All the more so since Putin has allowed Turkey to join the intelligence sharing pool Russia has set up with Syria, Iraq and Iran.)
Personally I doubt that. Kremlin would be foolish to acquiesce to Turkey installing the rebels on Aleppo's doorstep -- in essence reverting the gains of the Russian-Syrian offensive in northern Aleppo in February. On the other hand Russians shooting down a Turkish aircraft, even if over Syria, could not go without major consequences especially amid a seeming Turkish-Russian thaw. Moscow is as much a hostage of the newly established Turkish-Russian reset as is Ankara.
Besides for now Kurdish resilience is making it easy for Moscow -- with SDF keeping the Turkish-backed Islamists away from Aleppo's flank Russia doesn't need to chose between relations with Turkey and security for its Aleppo operation. Not yet at least.
One thing is clear, if the Turkish-Russian understanding breaks down Washington will throw a party. Perhaps that is why US isn't in a rush to restrain its NATO ally from pulverizing its SDF client (even as Hillary Clinton advertises her administration would increase arms support for the Kurds).
On the other hand there is a danger perhaps that Russia's policy in Syria may become as disjointed as that of Washington. Moscow should realize that juggling Damascus, Kurds and Erdogan all at the same time is impossible and will only serve to embitter all three while sacrificing whichever goals it is Moscow entered the war in Syria to try to accomplish.