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Syria airstrikes expose the faultlines in Turkey’s relationship with Russia

EPA/Russian Defence Ministry

Syria airstrikes expose the faultlines in Turkey’s relationship with Russia

Tensions are rising fast between Turkey and Russia after Russian jets apparently violated Turkey’s airspace twice, leading to heated exchanges between Ankara and Moscow. Russia claimed that an SU-30 warplane had entered Turkish airspace by accident due to bad weather conditions and navigational error – an explanation that was dismissed by Turkish president, Recep Erdogan who said that Russia risked losing a friend and warned of possible NATO involvement.

What has clearly nettled Erdogan is that, despite having visited Moscow last month, he was not alerted to any of Russia’s plans for intervention in Syria. Russia’s presidential press officer Dmitri Peskov countered on Monday that relations with Turkey were “comprehensive and have a very solid foundation in terms of mutually profitable relations”, but Erdogan claimed he was losing his patience and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, saying that any “attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO”.

Russia and Turkey have had a history of clashing over several centuries, but in recent years tensions between the two countries had eased. Before the Syrian conflict, relations between the two countries could even be characterised as cooperative. Turkey and Russia made numerous deals to lift visa requirements and trade increased to more than US$32.7 billion. Large investments also took place in the energy sector, with a deal signed for Russia to help build a US$20 billion nuclear plant in Turkey.

Though Turkey feels slighted by Russia’s recent violations, there is not much that Ankara can do in response. Turkey’s relationship with Russia is more a case of dependence than interdependence – Russia is Turkey’s second-largest trading partner and 60% of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia making Turkey vulnerable to an interruption in Russian gas supplies.

Complicating matters for Turkey are Syria’s 2m Kurds. Vladimir Putin claimed last Monday that he intends to strengthen their capability – and the US also sees them as allies. Turkey, on the other hand, claims that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (militias of Syrian Kurds) are terrorists.

Kurdish protesters demonstrating on the border with Syria in September 2015. Reuters/Stringer

Turkey worries about facing two Kurdish quasi states: one in Syria run by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) (seen by Ankara as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – an organisation it fears and loathes) and one in Iraq which gives safe haven to PKK fighters. Turkey also has to worry about the 550-mile long border with Syria, which is held by the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), also seen by Ankara as affiliated with the PKK.

Deepening divisions

The recent Russian involvement in the conflict has intensified the fighting and created deeper divisions about how to respond. Russia’s presence has bolstered Assad’s resolve – and the Syrian army has launched an offensive against rebel forces on four fronts in the Idlib and Hama provinces. Rebel groups have been bombarded with missiles. Russia claims that its airstrikes will continue to grow in intensity.

Russia’s official video of the airstrikes.

But Russia has been under fire for not targeting Islamic state positions. Russia has insisted that the Islamic State is one of its targets, but Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that only two of the 57 strikes had targeted the Islamic State. Videos posted by the Russian Ministry of Defence to demonstrate that Russia was striking on the Islamic State at its Syrian headquarters in Raqqa were revealed to be bombing raids of positions more than 100 km away.

Everyone seems to be getting in on the act: UK prime minister, David Cameron accused Russia of “backing the butcher Assad”, while the US claims that Russian involvement in the war will widen and elongate the conflict. Meanwhile Saudi clerics issued a statement characterising Russia’s entry into the conflict as a Christian crusade against Sunni Muslims, while in a statement posted online 41 of Syria’s most influential groups, including the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam militia and Ahrar al-Sham, said that Russia’s “brutal occupation has cut the road to any political solution”.

Fragile friendship: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September 2015. EPA/Ivan Sekretarev

Though Erdogan has a confrontational style and may want to drum up nationalist sentiment in preparation for parliamentary elections on November 1, Ankara does not want to risk a full confrontation with Moscow. It is most likely that Erdogan will respond with strong rhetoric but will be forced to respond cautiously. For his part, Erdogan claims that he will train and equip more Syrian rebels and establish a no-fly zone in Syrian airspace.

While in Moscow, Erdogan agreed to put differences aside with Russia and form a tripartite group with the United States and the United Nations to work for a solution to the Syrian conflict. Russia claims that consultations and a possible joint military working group are under way, but given recent statements and the actions of Russia’s military, the two countries are simply not on the same page when it comes to how to proceed and who to support and who to target.