Turkey and Russia on collision course in Syria

Joyce Karam

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Their trade is booming and their gas and oil flow is uninterrupted, but when it comes to Syria, Russia and Turkey are not the best of partners, and their disagreements have become more costly this week as Ankara downed a Russian fighter jet over its border, while Moscow continued to bomb Syrian rebel forces allied with Turkey.

The downing of the Sukhoi 24 on Tuesday is by all means an unprecedented escalation unseen since the 1950s, but it wasn’t unpredictable. Ankara and Moscow, given their diametrically opposed political and operational roadmaps for the conflict in Syria, have been on a clashing trajectory since Russia entered the Syrian military fray last September. One of Russia’s many objectives in Syria is to cut into Turkish influence in order to boost the Assad regime, and now that they are in each other’s crosshairs, more clashes directly or via proxies seem inevitable.

Among the many outside agendas colliding in Syria, Russia’s and Turkey’s are the most in conflict.

Joyce Karam

Russia’s intervention eyes Turkey

Among the many outside agendas colliding in Syria, Russia’s and Turkey’s are the most in conflict. Moscow is attempting to shore up the authoritarian security structure of the Assad regime as it flirts with key minorities, while Turkey has pitted itself on the side of the anti-Assad rebels and is embracing the Islamist factions from the country’s Sunni majority.

In that context, interjecting Turkey’s role and plans in Northern Syria is a crucial part of Russia’s calculus in order to achieve its own. Hence, Moscow’s airstrikes have predominantly focussed on areas where Turkish supported rebels operate in Idlib, Aleppo, near Latakia and Azzaz, and less so on ISIS. Russian air presence in Northern Syria also directly aims at spoiling Ankara’s plans of establishing a safe zone to absorb refugees, prevent Kurdish autonomy, and train and equip the rebels.

When it comes to proxies inside Syria, Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides of the battlefield. Moscow is aligning itself with the Assad forces, Hezbollah and pro-regime militias, while Turkey is a key supporter of Ahrar Sham, Turkmen brigades within the Free Syrian Army, and has had a murky relationship with Jabhat Nusra (affiliated with al-Qaeda). In fact, it was Russia’s strikes against the Turkmen villages in the last few days that have angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating openly “we have kinsmen in the area that are being bombed.”

Almost 1.5 million Syrians are members of the Turkmen community, including the head of the largest Syrian opposition coalition Khaled Khoja. The Turkmen community is historically, linguistically and culturally close to Turkey and their brigades are critical in the fighting against both Assad and ISIS. If Turkey has any hopes of securing a 100-km long safe zone “west of the Euphrates River and reaching into the province of Aleppo” as reported last summer by the Washington Post, the weight of governing and securing it from ISIS and Assad would fall on the Turkmen brigades, Ahrar Sham and Kurdish forces cooperating with Ankara.

Collision with Russia

Whether it’s establishing a safe zone in Northern Syria, or fighting Assad close to his Allawite homeland, Turkey is bound to clash with Russia whose entry into Syria is to protect the regime strongholds and prevent the creation of a safe zone.

In their statements from the White House on Tuesday, both U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to focus his strikes on ISIS and refrain from targeting the rebel forces near Turkey’s border. Hollande even hinted indirectly at possibility of a humanitarian safe zone, stating that “Turkey plays an important role, and it is together with Turkey that we must find solutions so that the refugees can stay close to their country of origin.” Erdogan went a step further, saying Ankara “will soon put into practice humanitarian safe zone between Jarablus and Mediterranean coast” according to CNN Turk.

Easier set than done, however, as the task of securing any safe zone in Syria and managing the day to day services will be threatened by both Russia’s and Assad’s air force, as well as questions surrounding the opposition’s ability to govern those areas. Washington has also not committed itself to a safe zone in Syria and is now focused on the diplomatic track in Vienna to bring representatives from the regime and the opposition to the table by January.

But even with the Vienna process, there are little to no indications that major gaps on identifying rebel groups or path to transition can be overcome imminently. The polarization has only grown in Syria and neither Russia nor Turkey are in a place to change their battle bets, or strategic objectives whether it means forgoing support for the regime or the rebels.

Against this backdrop, the Syrian sequel of Turkish-Russian clashes has only begun with the downing of the Sukhoi-24. Their confrontation will ultimately continue in Syria’s skies and through ground proxies, as Russia tries to force its hand and Turkey to claim its backyard.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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