Rumors and wrangling over a Russian base near Turkey

It seems Turkey is not interested in the settlement of Syrian conflict the way the international community sees it

Maria Dubovikova

Published: Updated:

Rumors of Russia setting up a new military base in the Qamishli region near the Turkish border started spreading following a statement by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Friday, Turkish President Erdogan, while revealing agenda for his talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday, responded to these reports saying that 200 Russian personnel have started work to strengthen the runway at an air base in Qamishli. This was also widely reported by the local media.

Erdogan claimed that the establishment of a Russian base in Qamishli is threatening to Turkey and “will not be tolerated”. The article in The Times on the subject was widely quoted by the world media, including outlets in Russia. Notably, the first clue to understanding this puzzle is that Qamishli is shown as an area controlled by the Assad regime, which I believe is false and misleading to the public.

Qamishli is controlled by the Kurds and so is the area 50km from Qamishli where the U.S. has reportedly established a “secret base” to support Kurds in fight against ISIS. Even if one admits that the Russians are really establishing an airbase in Qamishli, the question is why Ankara considers this base as a threat to Turkey but not the American one, taking into account that both are supposed to support Kurds.

Apparently the moment chosen to reveal this to the media was deliberate. Most likely, the idea was to derail the preparations for Geneva talks on Syria. What endorses this view is the talk of possibility of Ankara boycotting talks in the event of Kurds participating in the negotiation process. It seems Turkey is not interested in the settlement of Syrian conflict the way the international community sees it and aspires for.

Kurdish connection

There is also a belief that Turkey will prefer to see Syria split so that the Kurdish issue is settled once and for all and gets back the land it once owned. This seems relevant as Erdogan and his regime harbor “imperialistic nostalgia” and dream about the greater Turkey.

Turkey rejects the Kurds’ strategic role in the fight against ISIS. It is clear that if Kurds become part of the Syrian solution in fight against ISIS, they will end up becoming militarily and politically stronger with powerful states as their supporters. Furthermore, Erdogan has found a way to put the Kurdish PYD, YPG, and PKK in the same list with ISIS, saying that there is no big difference between them.

Turkey seems uninterested in the settlement of Syrian conflict the way international community sees it

Maria Dubovikova

Turkey’s displeasure over Russia’s new base near its borders is also related to the ongoing crisis between the two countries, which started with the Su-24 incident. The country has been disappointed with the reserved response from its NATO allies on the matter and continues to attract western attention toward dispute between the two countries. It is also trying to discredit Russia at the international stage.

Turkey continues to draw red lines in Syria hoping to limit Russia’s actions and influence in the region. It has used these rumors to strengthen their military contingency on its border with Syria. News suggesting Turkish soldiers are digging trenches were awkward considering the concerns expressed have been about the air base and not a ground one. In general it should be admitted that to expect Russia to attack Turkey is inappropriate.

Erdogan’s statement was based on information by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which was picked up by the media, which is mostly inaccurate as there is no need for Russia to establish any other military base. Russian jets reach the farthest Syrian points in just 30 minutes. The new base leads to new expenses that Russia can hardly afford amid the ongoing economic crises.

As far as Russia’s support for Kurdish fighters are concerned, it conforms to the international strategy in fight against ISIS. The new base is of no use as air support for Kurdish fighter is being successfully provided from the current one. The Syrian skies are already too overcrowded to establish new bases.

Syria talks

No country involved in Syria is interested in any incident that could have undesirable consequences regionally and globally. Russia has no interest in provoking Turkey on the ground and to give it any opportunity to blame Moscow for breaking the rules or threatening Turkish national security.

Furthermore, Russia establishing a new base in such a sensitive region would mean downgrading of its strategic position in the Syrian peace process and deepening the misunderstanding with its western counterparts, who are currently more intent on cooperation than confrontation with Russia.

In the worst case scenario, the establishment of a new base would make the Syrian peace process collapse. This would mean the conflict would be led toward a military settlement and not a political one. Russia understands these possibilities and is not interested in widening the conflict especially in the current circumstances involving the peace process.

At one level, these rumors are most likely to be part of Turkey’s clumsy maneuver in its ongoing information war with Russia. On the other hand it could be an attempt to stall the peace process should its progress is not in keeping with what Erdogan had previously imagined.

Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

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