Russia’s plan for Syria is troubling for Turkey

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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Russia has significantly stepped up its role in Syria since the downing of its warplane by Turkey. Ankara’s Western allies have urged both nations to de-escalate the situation. The downing of the jet for violating Turkish airspace for just 17 seconds outraged President Vladimir Putin, who has ambitions to restore a glorified Russia.

Since the incident, Russian TV networks have launched a massive smear campaign against Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with allegations of corruption and government ties to radical groups in Syria. Russian leaders ludicrously claim that Turkey shot down the plane to continue benefiting from oil trading with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Moscow has reportedly disrupted by destroying the group's trucks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Moscow on Tuesday to discuss Russia's increased role in Syria, while U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Ankara to hold talks on Syria and the fight against ISIS. Russia will not directly attack Turkey, a NATO member, but will wage a war against its regional interests. The Syrian case is particularly troubling for Turkey and its Western allies, which have so far zigzagged to avoid the Syrian quagmire.

As good diplomatic relations and commercial ties between Russia and Turkey have collapsed since the jet incident, Moscow is now waging a war against Turkish interests in the region.

Mahir Zeynalov

In Syria, Russia is especially focused on taking over the narrow Azaz corridor, which has long been a lifeline for anti-regime forces backed by Turkey. Since the downing of the jet, Russian warplanes have intensified the air campaign on the Turkish border, striking Turkmen forces backed and armed by Turkey.

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, wrote in an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) that Syrian rebels have been struggling to hold onto this strip of territory between the northern border town of Azaz and Aleppo. He said the corridor now faces imminent threats from the east by ISIS, from the west by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and from the south by the Syrian army and its allies.

Balanche said the corridor has become “the epicenter of the war,” with hostilities intensifying over the past two weeks. He noted that a Kurdish offensive supported by Russian airstrikes is underway to the west, coordinated with a developing campaign by the Syrian army and proxy militias on the outskirts of Aleppo. “The prospect of direct Turkish intervention looms over the fighting, especially if the corridor should fall,” Balanche wrote.

Supporting Kurds

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union threw its weight behind the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist rebel group, to fight against the Turkish state. As good diplomatic relations and commercial ties between Russia and Turkey have collapsed since the jet incident, Moscow is now waging a similar war against Turkish interests in the region.

Last month, Russia announced the deployment of S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems in northern Syria, gaining the ability to shoot down Turkish aircraft. It also dashes hopes for the creation of a no-fly zone that could be used as a springboard for a wider war against the Syrian regime and ISIS.

Ankara has made clear that any attempt by Kurds to cross into the western bank of the Euphrates river will be met with force. Kurds, feeling abandoned by Washington due to Turkish pressure, may exploit the row between Ankara and Moscow to advance further west. If Kurdish YPG militias, backed by Russian airstrikes, can link up to their brethren in Afrin region, Turkey’s entire access to Syria will be shut.

The jet incident was an opportunity for Putin to whip up anti-Turkish public sentiment, and garner domestic support for his adventure in Syria. Few things could be better for Russia than making sure Kurds control the Turkish-Syrian border, the Azaz corridor is closed to rebels, and regime forces regain the upper hand in Aleppo. With the regime emboldened, Assad will have a stronger hand in any future diplomacy to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.


Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He was previously the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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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