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Turkey-Russia relations put to test in Syria

After the turbulence that Turkish-Russian relations went through due to Turkey downing a Russian jet fighter in November 2015, they may now face a new challenge, again because of Syria. Turkey has legitimate worries about the growing weight, politically and militarily, of Syrian Kurds, their strongest political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military branch, the People’s Defense Units (YPG).

When fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supported by Turkey, seized the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab from Daesh, Ankara said it would turn to Raqqa and the city of Manbij. This has not happened because the US still prefers to carry out the Raqqa operation without Turkey. Russian forces seized several villages to the west of Manbij and handed them over to the Syrian army, so Turkey’s advance toward Manbij has been stalled.

This was followed by the establishment of a new Russian military headquarters in Manbij. Ankara could do nothing more than verbally protest, because of the importance it attributes to maintaining strong relations with Moscow.

Russia’s army took another initiative in the northwest province of Afrin, where the Kurds had proclaimed the establishment of another canton. Turkey is so sensitive to this subject that the main purpose of launching Operation Euphrates Shield was to cut the eastern Kurdish cantons of Jazeera and Kobani from Afrin.

On March 20, Russian forces established a military headquarters in the village of Kafr Jina in Afrin. This village had previously been shelled by Turkish forces across the border. Russia’s presence so close to the Turkish border will limit considerably Ankara’s freedom of movement.

YPG spokesman Redur Xalil said on March 20 that the Russians will train Kurdish fighters in modern warfare. Russia’s Defense Ministry said there were no plans to create additional military bases in Syria, but a reconciliation center was located in Aleppo province close to Afrin to prevent cease-fire violations. Whether it is a headquarters or a reconciliation center, the Russian statement did not allay Turkey’s worries.

Ankara will have to balance its legitimate security worries about the emergence of a Kurdish presence in Syria, and its insistence on regarding the YPG as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s interest lies in negotiating a balanced deal with the Syrian Kurds, if possible by involving the Syrian regime.

Yasar Yakis

This headquarters will probably be used to push the Turkey-supported opposition out of Idlib, where they are being gathered. Then these opposition forces will have to choose between seeking refuge in Turkey or in Syrian territories controlled by the Turkey-supported FSA. How long the FSA will retain control of this region cannot be foretold at this stage, so both options present a potential headache for Ankara.

The YPG has an enormous advantage in maintaining strong ties with both the US and Russia, in addition to its working relations with the Syrian regime. It may consolidate its autonomy in Syria if it keeps its aspirations under control.

Whether it will be able to strike a balance between its ties with Russia and the US remains to be seen, but both superpowers are traditionally strong supporters of the Kurdish cause. Both believe this cause is likely to prosper in the region, and neither want to miss out on the advantages of having good relations with a Kurdish entity, whichever shape it may take.

A Turkish delegation led by Ambassador Kaan Esener, the deputy under-secretary in the Foreign Ministry, went to Moscow on March 28 to discuss these issues. Neither side expected substantial progress. It will be a success if they can maintain the compartmentalized nature of their relations, and not let a deterioration of relations in one area negatively affect better relations in other areas.

Turkey will have to balance its legitimate security worries about the emergence of a Kurdish presence in Syria, and its insistence on regarding the YPG as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s interest lies in negotiating a balanced deal with the Syrian Kurds, if possible by involving the Syrian regime. If the deal is negotiated in the regime’s absence, it may challenge it at any stage.

Such a deal may contribute to solving Turkey’s problem with its own Kurds. It will also free Turkish-Russian relations from a heavy mortgage. The earlier Ankara wakes up to the Kurdish reality in Syria, the better.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.