Syria summit demonstrates Turkey’s growing dependence on Russia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has failed to get assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop a military offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
Tuesday 17/09/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive for a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive for a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is more dependent on Russia than ever to safeguard its interests in the Syrian conflict.

At a Turkish-Russian-Iranian summit September 16 in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to get assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop a military offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

The fighting could send up to 1 million refugees into Turkey, Turkish officials estimated. Ankara is under growing domestic pressure because of the 3.6 million Syrians it already hosts.

Putin said Russia was ready to support the Syrian Army in targeted actions on terrorists in Syria. Moscow and Damascus say the advance in Idlib, started in April, is necessary to fight extremists.

A statement issued after the summit, the fifth meeting of its kind since the tripartite initiative began in 2017, mentioned alarm about the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Idlib, a region with 3 million people. The statement said there was an agreement to take steps to improve the fate of civilians but there were no details of how this could be achieved.

Russia and Iran are supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has called for his ouster and backed opposition fighters. With Assad’s position looking increasingly secure, Turkey’s priority has shifted to preventing a mass influx of refugees from Idlib.

“We are in complete agreement in aiming for a lasting political solution for Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity,” Erdogan said in a televised statement.

However, three days after the Ankara meeting, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution, backed by 12 of the 15 council members, that called for a ceasefire in Idlib. It was Russia’s 13th veto of a UN resolution since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011.

 Turkey is concerned over the steady advance of Syrian forces, backed by Russian airpower, into the region, despite a series of ceasefires.

Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib to enforce a buffer zone agreement struck a year ago with Russia to prevent a full-scale Syrian offensive but the posts look increasingly threatened, with one cut off from the rest of Idlib when Syrian forces advanced in August.

Russian air strikes have continued in the region despite a ceasefire agreed by Ankara and Moscow on August 31.

“A zone of de-escalation should not serve as a terrain for armed provocations,” Putin said. “We must take supplementary measures to completely destroy the terrorist menace that comes from the zone of Idlib.”

Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s plan to set up a “safe zone” in US-controlled eastern Syria. Ankara wants to use the zone to push back the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, a US partner seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey. The Turkish leader said the “safe zone” should be extended to eventually provide homes for 3 million returning Syrian refugees.

Erdogan added his government was working on convening an international conference on the issue. He told Reuters he planned to convene a summit with the leaders of France, Germany and Russia in October, similar to a meeting in Istanbul last year. There has been no word on a new meeting in that format from the other powers.

In reference to the Kurds, the Ankara statement said groups trying “to create new realities on the ground” and advance “illegitimate self-rule initiatives” were not acceptable. Turkey has repeatedly threatened to launch a cross-border offensive against the YPG. Erdogan said the intervention could start within weeks.

Statements to the media after the summit were short on specifics but Erdogan said the talks were “productive” and that they had taken “important decisions.”

The parties also agreed on a constitutional committee — to include pro-government, opposition and independent members–— setting a course for talks in Geneva. Iranian President Hassan Rohani said he hoped elections would take place in Syria in 2020 or 2021. The next summit is scheduled to be in Iran in the coming months, Erdogan said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed that “agreement among all parties on the composition of the committee” had been reached. UN Syria Envoy “Geir Pedersen is doing the final work with the parties in relation to the terms of reference and we hope that this will be very soon concluded,” Guterres said.

With Russia being the dominant military force in Syria, Turkey is unable to push through its own interests without the green light from Moscow. Observers said the same is true in other policy fields. Western governments are concerned that Ankara’s traditional ties to the West are loosening.

One issue that has increased those fears is Erdogan’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system, which the United States and Turkey’s European partners say is incompatible with NATO assets. Washington has suspended Turkish participation in the United States’ F-35 fighter jet programme over concerns that the S-400 could be used to spy on the American warplane.

“The S-400 purchase will likely deepen Turkey’s dependence on Russia in a strategically important field — military-technical cooperation, with possible sales of Su-type Russian warplanes and Pantsir missile system to Turkey,” Kerim Has, an expert on Russian-Turkish relations, said by telephone from Moscow.

“It’s hard to rule out a scenario in which the Russian Army technical support rotation slowly transforms into a permanent military presence in Turkey and this dependence on Moscow would impede Turkey’s pursuit of its interests in regions as varied as the Caucasus, Crimea, the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

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