Cooperation rather than competition suits both countries’ goals
by PAUL IDDON
In January 2017, Russian warplanes began supporting Turkey’s ongoing offensive near the Islamic State-held city of Al Bab in northwestern Syria. These air strikes came after the United States ceased backing Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s military offensive south of its border.
The Russian-Turkish partnership also comes after Ankara grew frustrated with the United States for its alliance with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia.
With American aid, the Kurdish group has been actively fighting Islamic State militants — but Turkey fears that their separatist ambitions could focus on Turkish territory in the future.
Worse for the United States, Turkey’s diplomatic and military moves could put Ankara on a collision course with NATO allies and other members of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.
But for Turkish officials, the plan just makes good sense.
“Russia is helping Turkey because they have a deal, part of which is that Ankara effectively ends its proxy war and comes on board the Russian-led coalition for the ‘big win,’” Michael Kofman, a specialist on Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation told War Is Boring.
“In exchange, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad will negotiate on stepping down further down the line and more importantly, Turkish interests in blocking the Kurdish YPG will be protected.”
In January 2017, Turkey also planned to begin negotiating with Iran and Russia over the future of Syria. One unnamed Turkish official even told Reuters that Ankara was taking part in the talks because it hoped Russia would help it defeat the YPG.
Turkey sees the Kurdish fighters as little more than the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — aka PKK — which it is battling at home and bombing in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Euphrates Shield aims to both combat Islamic State and prevent the YPG from linking its two primary contiguous territories, the cantons of Jazira and Kobani — which stretched across most of northeast Syria’s border region — with the remaining isolated, far-flung northwestern Syrian Kurdish area of Afrin.
“I think Russia is now trying to earn Turkey’s trust, at most, and at least to turn their mutual rivalry in Syria into more cooperatively and structured competition,” said Timur Akhmetov, a research analyst on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. “Moscow understands that Turkey’s support for armed opposition is in the political interests of Ankara.”
The Turkish “fight against ISIS is a security interest,” he continued. “I think Russia understands that and wants to demonstrate that it has no desire to threaten Turkish national security — even more, it is ready to cooperate.”
In return, Akhmetov noted, Russia is betting that Turkey will be more cooperative with Russia’s interests in Syria. He added that this “more cooperative Turkey” would prove to be “a big asset for Russia.”
That Turkey is also a member of NATO, which is at odds with Russia, might not necessarily be an obstacle. “Turkey could prove helpful for these restoration efforts,” he said.
“To some extent, Russia welcomes strained relations between Turkey and NATO because it affects Turkish national security policy and therefore makes it more cooperative with Russia,” Akhmetov concluded. “But again, Russia is not interested in Turkey breaking away from NATO.”
The United States initially supported Euphrates Shield until Turkish troops and their Turkmen allies advanced to Al Bab, around 20 miles south of the Turkish border. Unwilling to support any greater push into Syria, the Pentagon discontinued air support for the operation.
Washington has also consistently opposed Ankara moving forcefully against the YPG’s militias. In turn, frustrated Turkish officials began questioning why they were allowing the Americans to use the strategically-important Incirlik air base inside Turkish territory.
After some deliberations, Washington began taking steps to again support the Turkish push toward Al Bab — including sending American fighter jets to bomb Islamic State militants in the same city that Turkish and Russian jets are also bombing.
Suffice to say, the airspace over Al Bab is crowded.
“Flying up in that area where everyone seems to be flying would require some work,” an unnamed U.S. defense official told the Washington Post on Jan. 9, 2017. “I wouldn’t say we aren’t worried about it.”
On Jan. 17, U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, told reporters that the Pentagon had carried out air strikes in the Al Bab region.
“These strikes were a result of continued coordination with Turkey and we saw a window of opportunity where it was in our mutual interest to get those targets destroyed,” Dorrian explained. “This is something that we expect to continue doing.”
These particular strikes destroyed Islamic State “tactical units” and an armored personnel carrier, among other targets. The U.S. expected “to continue doing these types of strikes in the days ahead,” Dorrian added.
Despite renewed American involvement, Kofman emphasized the practicality of the Russians’ and Turks’ current cooperation.
“Russia is providing air support because they share a common interest in driving ISIS out,” he said. “Keep in mind, Turkey’s air force can’t exactly cross the border to provide air support inside Syria, at least those seem to be the rules in place.”
In November 2016, about a week after the Syrian regime threatened to target Turkish jets with surface-to-air missiles, Ankara held its aircraft back. Only after talks with Russian military officials did Turkey resume providing air support to its ground forces and Free Syrian Army proxies.
“In general it is better this way,” Kofman added. “I recall a few weeks ago there was an incident with what may have been an Iranian craft accidentally striking Turkish troops.”
On Nov. 24, 2016, an unidentified aircraft did kill four Turkish soldiers in a bomb attack outside of Al Bab. Three died immediately in the blast, while the fourth succumbed to his wounds shortly thereafter.
Turkey immediately blamed Syria for the attack. Russia subsequently sought to assuage Ankara’s concerns, insisting that neither its forces nor Damascus were responsible for the attack.
Subsequent reports in the Turkish press indicated an Iranian-made drone, possibly one operated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias operating in the wider Aleppo region in Syria, might have carried out the strike.
Now that the Turks are teaming up with the Russians, Turkey might — finally — have free reign to complete its operation against ISIS in Al Bab. Then, with Moscow’s consent, Turkish troops could focus on the YPG.