Russia, Turkey & a no-fly zone in northern Syria


In recent years, the historically fraught relationship between Russia and Turkey has shown signs of improvement. Trade between the two countries has increased sixfold since 2002 and the lifting of visa requirements in 2010 was proclaimed as a ‘historic agreement’. Ties have also been bolstered by the announcement of key joint infrastructure projects like the $20bn Akkuyu nuclear power plant and the proposed ‘Turkish Stream’, a pipeline that would transport 63bn cubic metres of gas from Russia to Turkey and enhance Russian energy dominance in Europe.

But in the past few months, relations between Ankara and Moscow have begun to sour; conflicting interests in Syria have been the major sticking point.

Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a vocal opponent of Bashar al-Assad, calling for his removal on a number of occasions. On the other hand, Russia has staunchly defended the regime. The Kremlin has provided military and technical aid, advisory assistance and recently initiated an air campaign to shore up the regime’s precarious position in its fight against armed opposition groups.

It is these rebel groups that Turkey has been funding, arming and training for more than three years in the hopes of hastening Assad’s removal.

Turkish, Saudi and Qatari intelligence, with support from the United States, have been conducting ‘train-equip’ operations in southern Turkey to bolster opposition groups, many of which have jihadist ideologies. Meanwhile a clandestine command and control ‘nerve centre’ has been set up in the Turkish city of Adana to coordinate attacks against the regime.

This strategy has proved itself both unable to bring about Assad’s demise while simultaneously presenting a serious challenge to the integrity of his regime. The result has been a protracted, deadly conflict and devastating stalemate.

In an attempt to tip the scales in his favour President Erdogan has repeatedly called for the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone and safe zone’ in northern Syria. The Turkish leader ostensibly justified this as an effort to house and protect Syrian refugees. Indeed, this is how Erdogan attempted to sell the plan to E.U. ministers in his recent meeting in Brussels.

In an interview with the BBC, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that ‘if there was a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syria there wouldn’t be such a flow of refugees’. The E.U. remained unconvinced, instead, it opted to grant Turkey financial and political concessions to ease the burden of the 2 million Syrian refugees on its territory.

However on closer inspection of Turkish plans for a no-fly zone ulterior motives become apparent.

Firstly, to portray the proposal as a purely humanitarian undertaking is misleading. The ‘safe zones’ would undoubtedly be used as staging areas to intensify support for opposition groups, which have come under increasing pressure in Idlib and Aleppo since the commencement of Russian airstrikes. Pumping more weapons and fighters into Syria is likely to exacerbate the conflict and further aggravate the humanitarian crisis, not alleviate it.

The zone would also provide a buffer between war-ravaged Syria and southern Turkey, while simultaneously locking down swathes of northern Syria, preventing regime forces from retaking them. From a Turkish standpoint, this is a valuable objective; it weakens President Assad’s bargaining position in any ultimate political settlement. Simply put, the less territory and population under Assad’s control, the weaker his position at the negotiating table.

Moreover, the safe zones satisfy a secondary Turkish objective: the suppression of a strong, independent Kurdish region in northern Syria.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the primary Kurdish armed group in Syria, have made significant territorial gains, particularly against ISIS. However, the YPG is viewed by Ankara as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that the Turkish government has been fighting since 1984.

In 2013, a ceasefire was reached between the government and PKK amid reconciliation efforts. However fighting resumed in July 2015, a mere month after general elections in which the pro-Kurdish HDP party received 13% of the vote, up from 5% in 2011. The elections also weakened Erdogan’s AK Party, which lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002.

Erdogan has called for fresh elections to be held in November; many see the resumption of the conflict with the Kurds as an attempt to generate nationalistic sentiment in an attempt to wrest votes away from the HDP and shore up the AK Party’s political base. Therefore, the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria would not only help weaken Assad, but also demonstrate Erdogan’s strength in a difficult neighbourhood while simultaneously depriving the Kurds of a safe haven of their own.

However, Russia’s entrance to the Syrian battlefield has significantly complicated any efforts to implement a no-fly zone. Indeed, by some accounts, the Russian intervention was a pre-emptive response to plans by the United States and its partners to do just that. In a phone call between the Kremlin and the White House on June 26, Putin reportedly raised the possibility of a U.S.-sponsored no-fly zone and stressed Russian opposition to such a move. President Putin remembers well the Libya-experience, where a UN-mandated no-fly zone was exploited by Western powers to hasten the removal of an unfavourable dictator. The Kremlin is wary of such a move being replicated in Syria.

It’s in this context that Russian ‘incursions’ into Turkish airspace should be viewed. By demonstrating his willingness to take risks and put Russian military assets in harms way Putin is sending a clear message to Turkey and its NATO allies: we’re here and here to stay, don’t even think about establishing a no-fly zone.

Whether Turkey and the West are willing to challenge Russian military dominance in Syria is yet to be determined. Indeed, many pundits are looking to Turkish elections next month to gauge Ankara’s willingness to risk involving itself in a protracted regional conflict.


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