Syria frictions simmer below surface of Turkish-Russian harmony

Turkey and Russia: it’s complicated. That has been the status of their relationship long before Mark Zuckerberg conceived of Facebook. This week provided a vivid example of the frictions that continue to divide Moscow and Ankara, despite the public shows of affection by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for more than three years now. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu complained to a parliamentary committee that neither Russia, nor the United States was sticking to their respective deals with Turkey on northeast Syria. 

Putin and Erdoğan resolved in late October that Syrian Kurdish fighters would move out of territories east and west of the so-called safe zone carved out by the Turkish army and its Arab proxies. In early November, the Turkish and the Russian military started joint patrols along the border. But lo and behold, now Turkey is accusing its partner of not honouring its commitments. Çavuşoğlu also threatened that Turkey’s cross-border offensive in Syria could be reactivated.  

"If we do not achieve any result … we will do whatever is necessary in northern Syria,” he said and pledged to "clear the terror threat just next to us”. 

Needless to say, his words did not go down well in Moscow. The Russian Defence Ministry responded by saying it was bewildered by the Turkish statement. 

"The head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry's call for military action can only escalate the situation in northern Syria rather than sort things out in the way set out in a joint memorandum signed by the presidents of Russia and Turkey,” the ministry’s spokesman said. 

The following day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Turkish authorities had assured the Russian ambassador in Ankara that no military operation was imminent. 

Much ado about nothing? Not quite. 

For one thing, Turkey has reason to be wary of the gains made by the Russians and the Syrian government in northeast Syria. It was Erdoğan’s brinkmanship and his one-on-one diplomacy with U.S. President Donald Trump that got the United States out of northeastern Syria. But it is Russia that reaped the benefits. A sizeable chunk of territory was recovered for the Syrian government without a single shot being fired. Turkey was left only with a 120-km long, 32 km deep strip south of the border. This is only a quarter of the length of land it wanted, from the River Euphrates, to the border with Iraq. Strategic points like Manbij and Qamishli, the main Kurdish urban centre lying right across the Turkish town of Nusaybin, remain beyond Turkey’s reach. 

Secondly, there are grey zones between the areas under Turkish and Russian/Assad control. Both the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and Assad’s forces are closing in on Tel Tamr. The town is strategically significance as it lies on the M4 highway running parallel to the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey would like to seize the town to obstruct the links between different areas still held by Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey has reason to be wary of the Kurdish militants. It blamed them for a Nov. 16 car bomb attack that killed at least 18 people in the bus terminal of the Turkish-controlled town of Al Bab, in Aleppo province. Chances are that Kurdish forces acted in tandem, or at least with the tacit approval of the Syrian government. If that is the case, such attacks in the three Turkish-controlled areas of Syria could become more frequent. Assad may use the Kurds as a stick in a bid to convince Turkey it should restore formal ties with his government, an outcome that Russia very much favours. 

Thirdly, Turkish policymakers probably feel uneasy about the Russians expanding their military footprint further along their country’s border. Last week brought the news that the Russian military was establishing a new base in Qamishli, its third after Khmeimim near Latakia in western Syria and the naval facility at Tartus. 

Russia denied the story and called it a Western conspiracy theory, but the Russian Defence Ministry TV channel reported that several helicopters (both transport and Mi-35 gunships) had deployed from Khmeimim to the Qamishli airfield. There is no doubt that Turkish military intelligence is closely watching these developments right on its doorstep A third Russian base would further tilt the military balance in Syria in Moscow’s favour. Together the Russian military build-up in Crimea, the Russian base near the Turkish border in Armenia, and Russian deployments in Syria are all concerns for Turkey. 

This does not mean that Turkey has no cards to play. Sceptics in Moscow say the Russian foray into northeast Syria might result in an over-reach for the expeditionary force. Since September 2015, Russia has been consistently winning, but one day the tables could turn and liabilities accumulate. Being a regional player, Turkey has staying power. Its strategic interest in the north of Syria is much more durable than Russia’s. Today it is the Russians presenting Turkey with faits accomplis. Tomorrow it might be the other way around. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.