2016-02-05

Russia forces Turkey into zugzwang over Syria

The downing of the Russian jet Su-24 in November 2015 by the Turkish Air Force brought to light growing disagreement between Moscow and Ankara over a number of regional issues. With no durable solution in Syria on the horizon means that both countries will distance further form each other. Due to a whole complex of unsuccessful high-level decisions Turkey, who is desperately trying to influence the events on the ground in Syria, with its every lunge against Russian interests finds itself in a more unfavorable position.

Last Saturday, January 30, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that says Russian jet Su-34 allegedly violated Turkish airspace on 29 January. The violation took place despite numerous warnings made in English and Russian, reads the statement. During a briefing for the press officials from the Russian Defence Ministry denied the accusation stating that systems of monitoring hadn’t detected any violation of the airspace. A representative of the ministry Igor Konashenkov specified that modern radar systems can’t detect either nationality of a warplane or its model.

Upon exchanging of accusations Ankara was trying to send a twofold signal to the Kremlin. On the other hand, Turkey leaves an open door for contacts and hopes to stabilize rather shaky situation in Syria. Turkish President Recep Erdogan requested from the Russian diplomats a meeting with Putin, news agency Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Prime-Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a statement that all necessary measures are undertaken along the Turkish-Syrian border, allegedly, to prevent further violations. Indeed, Turkish media report that Turkish pilots were given an order to act at will without coordination with central command.

Right after a diplomatic row over the airspace accident Russian media with reference to the Russian Ministry officials informed that General Staff made a decision to deploy four modern generation 4++ jets Su-35S. According to the Kommersant newspaper, army intends to test new warplanes in battlefield conditions and to reinforces efforts to lock the Syrian airspace in the northern Syria. Independent Turkish experts familiar with the situation warn that new machines in the Syrian sky may present a serious danger for the Turkish jets patrolling the border.

As in the case of the Russian Su-24 downed by the Turks in November 2015 in Latakia region Moscow uses the recent accident to further secure its military presence in Syria, thus reducing chances of foreign intervention on behalf of Anti-Assad players. Last year reacting on Ankara’s deliberate decision to down a warplane Moscow deployed sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft defence system thus successfully covering a bulk of the Turkish-Syrian border for Turkish planes. Likewise, Su-35S are to further limit Turkish Air Forces during ongoing military operation in Aleppo region.

Meanwhile Syrian army on the ground pushes opposition further to the north. By 3 February Syrian army managed to encircle city of Aleppo and thereby cut off the large administrative center from the Turkish border, a chief route for aid coming from Turkey. Monitors point out that fall of Aleppo would seriously alter the power balance in the civil war, especially against the background of UN-mediated sluggish peace talks.

Supposedly recent success of the government troops and militia may further contribute to divisions inside opposition into two main camps, supporters of further political dialogue with Assad and his staunch opponents. Among the latter one can find many groups openly supported by the Turkish government. A changing environment around Aleppo has already led to mobilization calls directed at foreign fighters.

Engaging near the Turkish border Syrian army has to deal with another stake holder into the conflict – Syrian Kurds united under the political party PYD, who according to Turkish claims enjoys close ties with the terrorist PKK. Worth noting that that abovementioned encircling is happening in close coordination with PYD’s military wing YPG in the Kurdish canton Afrin. This nuance bothers Turkey the most.

Ankara for several months has been trying to quiet unrest in its eastern provinces targeting PKK positions in several urban centers. The conflict between central government and the Kurdish nationalist organization has been waged since 1980s and took lives of more than 40 thousand people. With outbreak of civil war in Syria the violent conflict obtained a regional dimension. Efforts of the Syrian Kurds to curve out an autonomy in northern Syria are supported by the PKK leadership. Presumably a considerable number of YPG fighter come from Turkey, according to a research by the Atlantic Council.

Having said this it becomes clear why Turkish political leadership is so anxious about what is happening on the ground in Syria. All efforts of Ankara to permanently resolve a conflict, the Washington Post suggests, are doomed to failure without active Turkish control over Syrian Kurds, who control sizable part of the Syrian-Turkish border under one political authority of Rojava.

It is Syrian North where Turkey is getting increasingly limited in its actions. A deliberate decision of the Turkish government to risk an escalation of relations with Russia, following tragedy with Su-24 and finally deployment of modern S-400 anti-aircraft systems derailed all Ankara’s plans on Syria. But for verbal threats and a number of symbolic steps directed against PYD’s further expansion Turkey can’t do anything and is therefore forced to rely on the US. For Ankara Washington has become a guarantor of Turkish national interests along the border, concludes Turkey expert at the Washington Institute Soner Cagaptay.

At the same time Turkey, who has so far been reluctant to contribute to war against the ISIS, openly expresses its discontent if relations between PYD and Washington get to cooperative. For the USA Kurds represent the most effective force on the ground against the ISIS. Apparently, as a result of its sturdiness Ankara may put such cooperation under a risk and with it efforts of the international coalition to defeat the ISIS.

Having no clear strategic vision based on real facts rather than on ideological presumptions whatsoever Turkey puts all its pressure to minimize losses of its disastrous Syrian policy. At the same time Ankara manages to make further poor decisions.  Recently Turkish Prime Minister Devutoglu came out with an ultimatum to exclude the Kurds under PYD from participating at Geneva peace talks in early February 2016. Yielding to the demands of its NATO partner Washington decided to sideline PYD, thus inflicting a further blow to mutual trust.

Miscalculation of Turkey lies in the simple fact. By persistently demanding to have no PYD representatives among the opposition Ankara undermines the whole mechanism of cooperation between Americans and the Syrian Kurds. This not only may eventually kill any opportunity for Ankara to influence the Kurds in Syria through nonmilitary way via Washington mediation. The Turkish nightmare of Kurds having close relations with Moscow can become a reality. Seeing that the US gives in to Turkish demands may force the Kurds from PYD to seek assistance from Moscow.

Taking this into account one should not be surprised about why the PYD is trying to build working relations with Moscow. It seems that the first feasible step is made. According to the Russian mainstream media, a representative office of the Syrian Kurdistan is about to open its doors in Moscow. Meanwhile in the statements uttered by the high-level Turkish politicians Ankara has begun sending a message it is ready to deescalate confrontation with the PKK and renew peace negotiations. It happens despite numerous declarations by the Turkish government about its intent to continue special operations till PKK’s  full surrender.

It is understandable why Turkey is so much eager to meddle into the Syrian conflict. Ankara is anxious about the Kurds, Turks seek to influence the PYD for the sake of own national security. However, Turkey seems to overestimate its power and miscounted geopolitical limitations resulting from Russian and Iranian involvement into the conflict. At the same time Turkish government decided to play on its own having no full support of its western partners. Witnessing that Russia and Syria are tilting the playfield to their advantage Turkey declines to review its position and therefore is forced into the zugzwang when every step leads to further deterioration of its own positions. 

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