(ANTIMEDIA) In November 2015, the Turkish government shot down a Russian plane on the Syrian border in response to Russia’s targeting of ISIS oil tankers heading for Turkey. The official explanation was that Russia had violated Turkish airspace for a mere 17 seconds. Russia denied any entry into Turkish airspace and responded in kind with sanctions — and Turkish-Russian relations deteriorated very quickly. The fact Turkey felt the need to shoot down the Russian plane within such a small window of time, without attempting any other alternate method of keeping Russian aircraft out of Turkish airspace, is telling of how Turkey viewed Russia’s counter-terror activity in Syria.
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It is no secret that Turkey is one of the largest backers of rebels trying to topple the Syrian regime. The Turkish regime has assisted the Syrian opposition by smuggling fighters and weapons across the border into Syria, providing funding and even medical assistance to ISIS fighters. Turkey has been more preoccupied with bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria than bombing ISIS. This, in turn, benefits ISIS further considering the Kurds have been a very effective fighting force against ISIS militants.
Conversely, Russia is a longtime ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Together with Iran, Hezbollah, and the moral support of China, Russia has helped prop up Assad in Syria, maintaining his hold on power after five years of brutal war. Turkey’s attempts over a five-year period to overthrow Assad in Syria — in light of Russia’s unfaltering support for Assad — shows the two nations have polar opposite interests in the region.
However, things have taken a turn over the last few weeks, with Turkey reaching out to Russia in a diplomatic move to repair their broken relationship. At the end of June 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote to Vladimir Putin stating he “would like to inform the family of the deceased Russian pilot that I share their pain and to offer my condolences to them. May they excuse us.”
Considering that only months ago Turkey was prepared to go to war with Russia by engaging Russian aircraft, what could be behind Turkey’s recent attempts to make amends with Russia?
First, it should be noted that the media’s representation of this issue has been somewhat contradictory. Russian media attempted to paint Turkey as very apologetic for the downing of the Russian plane, claiming that was never their intention. Turkey also intimated it would consider allowing Russia to use the Turkish base at Incirlik to conduct their operations inside Syria.
Western media, on the other hand, asserted Erdogan never officially apologized, and almost immediately, the Turkish Foreign Minister went on record to deny they would let Russia use the Incirlik base to conduct operations in Syria. According to Putin himself, however, Erdogan did apologize.
Aside from the fact Russia has imposed travel and export sanctions on Turkey, which have since damaged the Turkish economy — and that Russia is responsible for providing 55 percent of Turkey’s natural gas — is there something else at play here?
The fact is that while Russia maintains a military presence in the region, Turkey is slowly but surely losing its leverage in Syria. Russia is currently conducting an effective strategy in which Russian aircraft actually target ISIS and other militant groups strongholds, which pave the way for a competent ground force of pro-Assad militiamen, Hezbollah, and even sometimes Kurdish fighters to reclaim territory. The Turkish regime is still doing its best to support opposition militants, with one fighter claiming, “Turkey is the only one supporting us.” But in light of the efficacy of the Russian strategy, this limited support to opposition fighters from Turkey will not be enough given that Erdogan’s ultimate aim is to topple the Assad regime.
One central location in the ongoing conflict is Aleppo. Aleppo has been a key city since the beginning of the war in Syria — for both opposition fighters and the Syrian regime. The importance of the city is demonstrated through Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s threats to send in ground troops when Russia and the Syrian regime were in the process of launching a mass offensive to retake the city.
But once Aleppo is completely retaken by pro-Assad forces, vital supply lines could be cut, Turkey’s future aspirations for containing the region may be diminished, and the government will have lost almost all of its leverage to support anti-Assad forces.
In order to regain its momentum and influence, what Turkey needs is the ability to conduct their own operations inside Syrian territory by sending their own aircraft — and most importantly, their own ground troops — without the added risk of them facing Russian airstrikes. The Syrian Foreign Minister has already stated the Syrian government will send any aggressor back to their homeland in coffins. Consequently, it is likely that Russia will target any force that represents a threat to Assad’s forces — who they have been so far supporting unconditionally — and any force that represents a threat to their own interests in the region. This would be especially true if Turkey-Russian relations were to remain hostile. As Al-Monitor has noted:
“Fearing a reprisal by Russia, Turkey has been unable to fly its jets in Syrian airspace or deploy troops in the region since it downed a Russian fighter jet in November.”
Turkey has already deployed troops to Iraq, and after claiming Iraqi territory, the troops have refused to leave. These similar aims cannot be achieved in Syria currently, as acknowledged by retired Major General Armagan Kuloglu just over a month ago. “Turkey has to also mend fences with Russia and co-operate Iran if it wants to have a say in developments in Syria,” he said.
So far, Turkey’s overt operations in Syria have been mostly limited to cross-border shelling and small, targeted raids. As identified in May 2016 by global intelligence giant Stratfor — the CIA contractor infamously linked to the incarceration of activist Jeremy Hammond — change is needed to extend these operations further:
“But for Turkey to make the shift from targeted raids across the border to broader military operations in Syria, including airstrikes and holding territory with infantry, it must rely on an agreement with Russia.”
Some media are attempting to frame these recent concessions as a change in Turkey’s stance in the Syrian war, which is either optimistic, naive, or both. These reports do not take into account that the Turkish military has been gearing up to invade Syria for some time now. Nor do they factor in reports from Turkish outlet, Hurriyet, stating there may be a secret military agreement between the U.S. and Turkey currently underway regarding operations in Syria.
If an agreement with Russia can be reached — or, at least, some form of compromise in which Turkey can put Russia in a position where they will opt not to target the Turkish military — then Turkey can continue its plans to operate in Syria militarily without fear of an all out war between Russia and NATO, which, let’s face it, is World War III.
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