New Turkish-Russian partnership could change balance in Syria
WASHINGTON - A new partnership between Turkey and Russia, sealed during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Istanbul, could alter the balance of power in the Syrian war and help undermine the role of the United States in the region, analysts said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, after their talks October 10th in Istanbul, said they hoped to intensify relations quickly after overcoming a spat triggered by the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey on the Syrian border in November 2015.
The two countries signed a deal to build a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline from Russia under the Black Sea to Turkey. The Erdogan government also said it would look at a Russian offer to supply a modern air defence system to the NATO country.
Ankara and Moscow remain in opposing camps regarding the Syrian conflict, with Erdogan calling for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Putin supporting the Damascus government. However, there are signs that the rapprochement between the two countries is affecting the five-year war tearing apart Syria.
Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said recent developments pointed to a possible “deal”: While Turkey was allowed by Russia to send troops across the border to counter gains by Syria’s Kurds, Ankara had most likely agreed that Assad’s forces could take the city of Aleppo, the scene of ferocious fighting between government troops and Russian fighter jets on one side and rebels in the eastern part of the city.
The Turkish-Russian rapprochement comes at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington over Syria. Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Oklahoma, said Washington had to be careful not to “push Turkey into the arms of Russia”.
Turkey’s military intervention into northern Syria, which started two months ago, has met with little protest from Russia, the dominant military power in Syria.
“Turkey could not have done this against Russia’s will,” Ozkan said. He noted that Russia could have fired on Turkish fighter jets with air defence batteries in Syria but did not.
Turkey’s push into Syria was designed to drive militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the border, while at the same time checking the advance of Syrian Kurdish forces. Ankara says the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s main Kurdish party, and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group in Turkey seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and the West.
Erdogan’s rapprochement with Assad’s ally Putin is sure to raise eyebrows in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which have formed an informal Sunni alliance with Turkey against what they see as an attempt by Shia power Iran to widen its influence.
“This is not sustainable,” Ozkan said about Turkey’s current course in Syria. “Turkey will be forced to choose sides.”