Putin complicates Ankara’s calculations
ISTANBUL - Growing military support by Russia for Turkey’s arch foe, Syria’s President Bashar Assad, is likely to make it harder for Ankara to realise its own aims in the war-torn country on its southern border.
Turkey says the removal of Assad from power is a precondition for a lasting solution to the conflict in Syria but Russia backs Assad. An estimated 320,000 people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes. Turkey has taken in close to 2 million Syrian refugees.
Attempts to reconcile contrasting approaches by Turkey and Russia have failed. Referring to the Russian position that the people of Syria should decide Assad’s future role, Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency on September 18th that Syrians had made that choice already. “Ruling a country is impossible for a man who declared war on his own people,” Sinirlioglu said about Assad.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing for a one-day visit to Moscow, during which he is expected to tell his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that there can be no solution in Syria if Assad stays on as president. The pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported Erdogan’s message to Putin would include a warning that the latest Russian-Iranian push to end the Syrian crisis was “unlikely to bring peace as long as Assad remains in power”.
The Kremlin has called for Syrian government troops as well as Iran, Assad’s other regional ally, to join the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), which occupies parts of eastern and north-eastern Syria. The West is concerned that Russia might be preparing to enter the Syrian war.
For years, Erdogan tried to loosen Russia’s support for Assad and was, until very recently, convinced he was making headway. The Turkish president in August said that Putin was no longer completely determined to prop up Assad at all cost and that Russia might “give up” on the Syrian president.
But in the weeks that followed, Russia has sent additional military hardware and advisers to Syria after the Assad government suffered setbacks against ISIS and other rebel groups. Moscow says it is ready to send ground troops as well if Syria were to ask for a Russian contingent.
Erdogan recently told a television interviewer he was “shocked” by Putin’s actions after his face-to-face meeting with Putin in June and was trying to understand the Russian approach. Erdogan said Putin’s public stance on Syria did not match statements the Russian president made behind closed doors.
So far, Ankara has been determined not to let the Syrian issue spoil bilateral ties with Moscow, especially in trade. But the arrival of modern Russian weapons in Assad’s arsenals is directly challenging Turkey’s goals in Syria and could lead to Turkish-backed rebels coming under pressure by a regime army strengthened by Russian-made hardware. There have been reported sightings of Russian fighter jets in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib, which borders Turkey.
Cenk Baslamis, a Turkish journalist specialising in Turkish-Russian relations, told the Haberturk newspaper that ties have been “overshadowed” by Russia’s show of strength in Syria. Baslamis and other observers say it is unlikely that Russian troops will fight rebels alongside Assad’s military.
“Russia does not want another Afghanistan,” Bassam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador who is now a Rome-based opposition activist, told The Arab Weekly. He said Putin was concerned that a sudden collapse of the Assad government could destabilise Russia’s southern Caucasus region and former Soviet republics in Central Asia by showing Muslims there that it is possible to take matters in their own hands. “Russia wants the revolution to stop there” in Syria, he said.
Moscow’s second aim in Syria was to secure Russian influence in the Middle East by preventing Assad’s defeat on the battlefield, Imadi said. “The military aid is in fact a political step” by Russia, he added. “If Assad falls, Russia loses its influence in the region.”
Another strategic aim by Moscow was to make sure Russia would “get a seat at the table” when and if international powers come together to decide Syria’s future, Imadi said. Putin also wants to make sure Russia keeps its navy base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Russian Navy installation on the Mediterranean.
The stepped-up presence by Russia in Syria could affect Turkey’s own plans for the region, including the creation of a so-called safe zone on Syrian territory. With Russia getting more involved militarily and establishing an airbase near the Syrian port of Latakia, chances for the creation of the buffer zone are diminishing, observers say. Ankara’s dreams “are falling through”, journalist Vecih Cuzdan wrote in an analysis for the website Sendika.org.
Given the strength of Russia’s interests and its determination to secure them by military means, there is little Turkey can do to stop Moscow. Ankara “lacks the influence to make Russia change its ways”, Fehim Tastekin, a foreign policy columnist at the Turkish news portal Radikal, wrote on September 16th.