Russia and Turkey: Partners or opponents in Syria?

Sanliurfa, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrived in the Black Sea town of Sochi for talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, hours before a United States-brokered ceasefire was set to expire in northeast Syria.

Erdogan and Putin were expected on Tuesday to discuss the situation in northeast Syria, where Turkey wants to create a “safe zone” cleared of Kurdish-led fighters now allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia is al-Assad’s main military backer, alongside Iran.

Turkey views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a “terrorist group” linked to the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and launched an offensive on October 9 to drive the fighters 32km (20 miles) back from its eastern borders with Syria.

Ankara paused the operation for five days on Thursday at Washington’s intervention.

The truce – meant to allow the Kurdish forces to withdraw – is due to expire at 19:00 GMT on Tuesday.

Separately, Turkey backs the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who oppose al-Assad, and are fighting his forces in parts of northwestern Syria.

INTERACTIVE: Syria control map Oct 20

“The expected outcome of the Erdogan-Putin meeting is an oral agreement to limit the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in Syria,” said Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“They also want to prevent direct clashes between the Syrian government troops and Turkish forces.”

Russian soldiers are patrolling the front lines between Syrian and Turkish troops in the city of Manbij.

Manbij and Kobane

Al-Assad’s forces entered the strategic city last week for the first time since 2012, under a deal with the Syrian Kurdish fighters. Manbij, which has frequently changed hands during Syria’s war, lies on the M4 highway, a major commercial route, and is part of the “safe-zone” Turkey wants to create in the border area.

Syria map

The Kurds’ deal with al-Assad came after the US announced it was pulling its troops from the area.

The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were US’s main ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) in Syria. They turned to Washington’s main foe, al-Assad, saying the US pullout had left them vulnerable to a Turkish assault. 

Coskun Basbug, a retired Turkish intelligence colonel, said he expected the talks between Russia and Turkey to centre on Manbij as well as Kobane, a Kurdish-controlled town in Syria’s east.

“It is very likely that Turkey will make an offer to Russia to clear the elements of terrorism,” Basbug said, referring to the YPG. “Russia has military and economic cooperation with Turkey, and will not want to waste this opportunity.”

Chechen fighters

Wadih el-Hayek, the Middle East correspondent for the Russian opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, offered a different perspective on the talks.

He said the Turkey-Syria border is a “secondary issue” for Russia and that Moscow’s “priority is to ensure the security of its soldiers on the ground from clashing with Chechen armed rebel fighters”.

Thousands of fighters from Chechnya and North Caucasia had flocked to Syria to fight with ISIL since 2012, according to el-Hayek. He said these fighters are now located in Idlib, which is now held by Turkey-backed FSA. The northwestern province has been the target of a Russian-backed bombing campaign since April.

The Sochi meeting, el-Hayek said, would present a “quid pro quo” offer – “the neutralisation of these Chechen rebels in return for Russia turning a blind eye to Turkey’s presence in northeast Syria”.

“If these fighters make it back to Russia they’ll have military experience and the potential to create violent instability,” he said, adding: “Russia is willing to ignore its alliance with Syria and Turkey’s cooperation with opposition groups in order to work with Ankara to neutralise these fighters.”

Future presence

Another point up for discussion will be Turkey’s presence in Syria.

El-Hayek said Russia’s official stance was to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria.

“Moscow won’t allow Turkey to remain in Syria forever,” he said. “It will discuss the gradual withdrawal of Turkish troops from the northeast so that Syrian government forces and their allies of Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi militias will replace them.”

Yet el-Hayek played down the prospects of a clash between Moscow and Ankara.

“At the end of the day, the common interests of these two states stand much larger than being limited to where they stand regarding the Syrian conflict,” he said.

The political positions and interests of states must be differentiated, he explained.

“Turkey signed an arms deal with Russia,” he said, referring to Ankara purchasing the powerful Russian anti-aircraft system, the S-400, despite opposition from fellow NATO states.

“When it is in Russia’s interests to sell weapons to Turkey, then the issue of Syria becomes secondary.”

However, there remains a future possibility that Russia may reach out to the Syrian rebel groups for political talks.

“Russia doesn’t consider the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as terrorists, like it does with ISIL and al-Qaeda’s affiliate,” el-Hayek said. “There’s a chance that Russia will attempt to reach some sort of agreement with the more moderate elements of the FSA, who could be pressured into doing so by Turkey.” 

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