Russia and Iran are using the complex relations between actors in the Syrian conflict to promote their agenda and damage the alliance between Turkey and the United States, General Joseph Votel, the commander of the U.S. Central Command told congress.
Votel warned congress in Tuesday’s statement before the house armed service committeethat tensions between the Turkey and the United states served Moscow and Tehran’s joint agenda to reduce U.S. influence in the Middle East and “fracture the longstanding U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership.”
Turkish rhetoric on the United States turned hostile due in part to the U.S. support for militias that are associated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mainly-Kurdish group that Turkey views as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been in conflict with Turkish armed forces since launching a separatist insurgency in the 1980s. These militias include the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are widely regarded as a YPG offshoot.
Turkey launched a military incursion, Operation Olive Branch, into Afrin in northwest Syria to fight YPG forces, and has made a series of threats to extend the operation to nearby Manbij, where U.S. forces are stationed alongside their allies from the SDF and other local groups.
However, the U.S. presence in Northern Syria, and its support for the groups in question, are vital in order to permanently erase the presence of the Islamic State from the region, according to Votel’s statement.
The extremist jihadist group took control of vast areas in Iraq and Syria in 2014, but suffered military defeat last year at the hands of a coalition, in which the Kurdish militias played an important role.
The battle to prevent a resurgence of ISIS or similar groups, however, will take a sustained and focussed effort, according to Votel, who warned that the Turkish incursion into Afrin is distracting from this goal.
“Many fighters in the SDF have familial ties to the Kurds in Afrin, and they are now forced to choose between completing operations against ISIS fighters in the MERV and assisting their fellow Kurds in northern Syria,” said Votel, adding that while the United States’ alliance with Turkey was “paramount,” its actions had “increased risk to our campaign to defeat ISIS.”
Votel went on to discuss the role Moscow played in raising tensions between the two NATO allies, noting that Russia and Iran had joined forces in Syria to pursue an “an overarching desire to sideline, if not expel, the U.S. from the region.”
To aid in this goal, Moscow is “playing the role of arsonist and firefighter – fueling the conflict in Syria between the Syrian Regime, YPG, and Turkey, then claiming to serve as an arbiter to resolve the dispute,” according to Votel.
Moscow had been cooperating with the YPG in Afrin, where Russian forces had been stationed as observers, and Russia is considered to control the airspace over the region. The Russian leadership quickly withdrew its forces in the days leading up to the launch of Operation Olive Branch to allow the incursion to go ahead.
Last week forces aligned with the Syrian regime, which Russia has supported throughout the civil war, entered Afrin to assist the Kurdish forces’ defence against Turkey.
All the while, Turkey’s ire has been directed at its NATO allies in Washington, due to its perception that the Kurdish forces supported by the United States were “analogous to the PKK” – a claim denied by Votel, who says that all such forces are “carefully vetted” to ensure they do not threaten Turkey.