Last week, two Syrian government Su-24 airplanes bombed the Kurdish-held areas of the city of Hasakah. The attack was unexpected.
The Kurds have operated semi-autonomously in Syria because their pressure on ISIS has been helpful to Damascus, and because the Kurdish agenda has been primarily regional autonomy rather than deposing Assad. US Special Forces on the ground assisting the Kurds were in the range of fire, prompting a warning to Russia and Syria from the commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria.
It was unexpected, too, because Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously demonstrated strong support for Kurdish interests. Even before the decline in Russian-Turkish relations when Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi jet, Putin went out of his way to praise the Kurds and indicate Russian support for them. The Russians allowed the Kurdish administration in Syria to open an office in Moscow, signaling that Kurdish interests would be included in any settlement of the civil war.
Turkey, naturally, sees all Kurdish military activity as threatening, and found both Syrian and Russian – not to mention American – support for or "hands off" attitude toward the Kurds as a continuing aggravation. To change the dynamic, Turkish President Erdogan's rapprochement with Israel included an apology to Russia. Erdogan then visited Moscow, leading some commentators to seize on the Hasakah bombing as evidence that Turkey and Russia have made a deal at the expense of the Kurds.
How do the Syrian, Russian, Kurdish, Turkish and American positions intersect?
The Syrian attack on Hasakah wasn’t in independent effort. It needed Russian backing because five separate Kurdish positions were targeted. Surveillance of sites so far north in the country would have needed airborne assets and satellites; the Syrian air force has neither, but Russia does. Notably, although US forces were in the area, they were not directly targeted; as far back as February the US had provided Russia with information about the location of American forces.
Furthermore, the attack on Hasakah had almost no military significance for the Assad regime. Syrian forces were located far from the targets, and there is no tactical military benefit to Syria from flying a mission against a town that is firmly in Kurdish control. Other motives for the bombings, which killed a large number of civilians, might have been an overture by Russia to Turkey. Or a warning from Russia to the United States. Or a mistake by Russia.
A tipoff that this was a Russian operation was the appearance of the TU-214R aircraft, which arrived in Syria on July 29th, a few weeks before the attack on Hasakah.
The TU-214R is Russia’s most advanced reconnaissance and surveillance platform. Built on top of a modified commercial aircraft, the aircraft has advanced ground tracking radar, electronic intercept capabilities, optical systems and other gear designed to provide an in depth picture of possible enemy formations. The TU-214R could undertake reconnaissance of Hasakah without forces on the ground, including US Special Forces, knowing it was mapping them. But even more interesting, the TU-214R is "owned" by the Russian President. The aircraft is specifically designed to protect the Russian president in any emergency, including a nuclear strike.
There are only two TU-214R’s in operation; one stayed behind in Russia. Such a sensitive aircraft would be sent to Syria only if there were an urgent need or a serious political point to be scored.
While the United States belatedly sent planes to chase the Syrian Sukhoi bombers, they had little effect. So Washington quickly, perhaps temporarily, pulled the Special Forces out of Hasakah. It should be noted, however, that just last week the Obama Administration’s special envoy, Brett McGurk, announced the reinforcement of the US mission in Syria by 3,000 additional Special Forces soldiers – nearly ten times the number originally sent to "train and advise" Kurdish forces.
There is a bookend to the story.
Russia has been pressing Turkey for access to the American-built air base at Incirlik. After denying the possibility, Turkey’s Prime Minister said this week that Incirlik is open to other countries fighting ISIS – specifically including Russia. In a shot at the US, the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak said Turkey should "take control" of the American nuclear weapons on the base, writing "The nukes must be handed over to Turkey, or Turkey should take control of them." On the other hand, closer Russian ties to Turkey that come at the expense of alienating the Kurds may prove a long-term miscalculation for Putin.
Still, for now, it appears Syria and Russia buried the hatchet with Turkey – in the back of the Kurds – and dared Washington to object.
Stephen Bryen is a former Defense Department official. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Magazine.