Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) visited St. Petersburg to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) earlier this month, starting a rapprochement. Kremlin photo.
Turkey’s military incursion into northwestern Syria on August 24 began mere weeks after the failed coup attempt and Ankara’s rapprochement with Russia. Does Moscow approve of Ankara’s move into Syria, and if so, why?
As of writing Turkish-backed forces were advancing against the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) west of the Euphrates River, with air and artillery support after Islamic State (ISIS) militants were forced from the border-town of Jarablus on Wednesday.
Is Russia merely acquiescing to this Turkish campaign, since it can’t do anything to prevent it, or is it in fact giving it tacit support?
“We know now Turkey put a lot of diplomatic efforts to re-approach Russia in June-August. There were also attempts to establish coordination between the militaries of both countries. We also know now that Turkey notified Russia prior to the Jarablus offensive. It means that there is an intensive dialogue between Ankara and Moscow,” Timor Akhmetov, a Turkey researcher at the Wikistrat Inc. consultancy, told Rudaw English.
A lot of this dialogue may be centered around the Kurdish issue in Syria, a key concern for Ankara, which has long sought to stress that the Syrian Kurds pose a grave threat to Turkey’s security, given their links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“I do think that what we are now observing is a key landmark in the Syria crisis. There's a strong opinion among many experts in Russia that of all other reasons, the Kurdish issue was a prime incentive for Ankara to seek reconciliation with Russia,” Dr. Maxim A. Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Rudaw English.
Suchkov points out that Turkey has been seriously concerned about the Syrian Kurds linking up all their territories in northern Syria, especially in the northwest. Any ability they had to stop such Syrian Kurdish advances were seriously hindered by the severe strain in their ties with Russia last November, following the warplane shoot-down incident.
“Given the Russian military presence in Syria, Turkey could do little to change what it perceived as a negative trend for its interests. So the rapprochement was instrumental in helping to change this. For the first time since Russians deployed the S-400 (advanced anti-aircraft missile) system in November 2015, Turkish jets were able to fly in Syrian air space to carry out strikes,” Suchkov explained.
Akhmetov believes Russia willingly allowed this operation because it is "awaiting something from Turkey" in return.
“We should understand that Russia compromised with Turkey by allowing it to cross the border. Russia understands that incursion is an important measure for Turkey in terms of its national security. So it means that Russia is awaiting something from Turkey, since Russia is a realist player which doesn't compromise without being sure of getting something in return,” Akhmetov said.
Suchkov also pointed out that, “both Damascus and Tehran signaled their tacit agreement to these actions as well, since the Kurdish issue is something that tactically unites the states who are, in other circumstances, regional rivals.”
“The US factor in light of Joe Biden's visit to Turkey is also interesting. The perception in Russia is that Moscow is now acting as an intermediary between Ankara and Damascus while Washington mediates between Ankara and Kurds,” he added.
Akhmetov doubts that Russia is ready to throw its lot in with the ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in a fight against Turkey. However, at the same time, it doesn’t want to see the PYD destroyed, since it has proven to be an effective counterweight to various armed opposition groups Russia and the Syrian regime have been fighting.
“I am not sure Russia is ready to protect PYD till the end. In the fight between Damascus and the PYD Russia chooses the former. Russia in the long-run is not interested in having a very strong PYD in Syria,” Akhmetov explained.
“But the PYD is important for counterbalancing anti-Assad opposition, both on the ground and diplomatically, so the PYD must be strong enough vis-à-vis that opposition. So, I would risk saying that Russia is not against Turkey strategically weakening PYD, but Russia will be against any actions that may render PYD too weak in general,” he added.