ANKARA: Russia and the Syrian government have agreed with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to establish three joint military observation posts in the town of Ain Issa.
The posts, which will be deployed in the strategically important town linking Aleppo to Al-Hasakah, will monitor the cease-fire and violations of Turkish-governed zones in the region.
Ain Issa is currently under the control of the SDF and is located on the M4 highway that connects northeastern Syria to the western part of the country.
The town has come under regular attack, most recently by Ankara-backed rebel groups against Syrian Kurdish YPG militia positions. In October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of a possible new operation into the region.
However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, did not anticipate a new Turkish offensive on the scale of its October push to clear SDF fighters away from the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, both near Ain Issa.
“This agreement on establishing observation posts is just a public relations activity and nothing will change. It will just reduce the intensity of the tensions at that front but will not end them in the long run because the SDF has been violating the cease-fire agreement by digging tunnels, which Turkey and Ankara-backed groups were destroying,” he told Arab News.
Turkey considers the SDF as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Kyle Orton, a UK-based independent researcher on Syria, told Arab News: “Ain Issa does not affect any of the broader dynamics in Syria, it is just the kind of trouble one would expect along the line of contact between two forces as mutually hostile as Turkey and the PKK.
“The PKK’s Rojava statelet in Syria has always been significantly dependent on the (Syrian President Bashar) Assad and Iran system and as the US draws down or threatens to, the PKK has little choice but to lean ever-more into this other option.”
Russia has reportedly asked the SDF to surrender Ain Issa to the Assad regime, but that proposal was rejected by the Syrian Kurds.
“For Russia, having the Assad regime directly take Ain Issa would have allowed them to make progress on restoring Assad’s writ across the whole country, an important part of the effort to rehabilitate the regime internationally by presenting its victory as a fait accompli, and simultaneously to gain goodwill from Turkey by claiming to have removed the PKK from territory,” Orton said.
He pointed out that the present option worked too. “The Turks are much less concerned about Russia being the custodian of the PKK rather than the US partnering with the PKK, which is seen as something much more threatening.”
Orton added that the developments in Ain Issa would not threaten the Russo-Turkish understanding over Syria, manifested in the Astana process.
Halid Abdurrahman, a researcher and analyst on the Middle East and North Africa, told Arab News that control over Ain Issa was of strategic importance for gaining the control of the key M4 highway.
“Turkey wanted to establish a military base in Ain Issa’s Saida village in order to increase its supremacy in the region, but the Russians didn’t lean toward this offer. Then, Turkish army and Ankara-backed rebel groups began attacking YPG targets intermittently,” he said.
He noted that if Turkey blocked the passage of Ain Issa, it would be able to cut supply lines between the towns of Kobane and Manbij towns, while interrupting their contacts with the Jazira canton – something that would facilitate any potential Turkish military operation into the region in the future.
“However, Russia is uneasy with Turkey’s moves about Ain Issa, and would rather prefer giving the town to the Syrian regime forces in order to prevent any military move to the region by Ankara. Establishing observation posts with SDF and following an active military strategy with Syrian Kurds is just a short-term strategy to extend this challenge over time,” Abdurrahman said.
Russia and YPG militia have reportedly conducted some informal joint drills and recently held technical meetings about regional challenges.
“Turkey and Russia have not been on good terms with each other for a while. They have a tense relationship about their moves in Idlib, while Russia’s joint operations with Kurdish-led SDF would not please Ankara apparently,” Abdurrahman added.