What does the Russian decision mean for Turkey?
Turkey and Russia have been locked in an angry dispute over Syria ever since the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. That move by Turkey backfired by pushing Moscow into supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters who Ankara considers to be terrorists.
It also closed Syrian airspace to Turkish fighter jets, since this airspace is monitored by Russian radars and controlled by Russian technicians who, no doubt, have been waiting for a chance to avenge the downing of their jet.
This raises questions as to what Russia’s unexpected announcement that it is withdrawing forces from Syria will mean for Turkey’s position in that country. Ankara’s main aims in Syria presently are to prevent the Kurds from gaining a large swathe of land along the border with Turkey, and to help secure a victory for the Syrian opposition against the al-Assad regime.
To start with, few in Ankara concerned with the matter believe in the sincerity of President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that their forces have completed their mission in Syria and will be withdrawn.
Russia says, after all, that it will maintain its presence at the Hmeimim air base and at its Tartus naval facility, which means we are not talking about a full withdrawal but about a downsizing. Russia also says it will continue its air raids in northern Syria against what it calls terrorist groups, which include anti-Assad groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
One can safely assume that Russian fighter jets involved in these raids will also continue providing support to People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters. Turkey has labelled the YPG, which is also a U.S. ally, a terrorist organization.
It announced that the female suicide bomber who perpetrated the atrocity in Ankara on Mach 13 was also related to this group. It seems, though, that the more Turkey pursues this line, the more Russia will stand behind the YPG, even if its only intention is to anger Ankara.
Turkey in return will continue to support anti-Assad – and consequently anti-Russian – forces, which means that the proxy war in Syria between Turkey and Russia will continue.
There is also speculation that Russia’s announcement concerning the withdrawal of its forces is a message of disapproval aimed at Bashar al-Assad. Putin was correct, however, when he said the Russian forces have accomplished their mission, which was to turn the tide in Syria in al-Assad’s favor. That has been achieved.
Moscow is basically telling al-Assad now, “The rest is up to you.” Al-Assad also knows that Russia will be around if he needs it. Moscow is unlikely to desert the Syrian leader now, especially if this risks weakening its strategic foothold in the country in any way.
It is clear that Moscow’s announcement was really made with the renewed Geneva talks on Syria in mind. It is more of a diplomatic than a military move. Moscow is trying to disarm Syrian opposition representatives who have been pointing to Russia’s military presence in Syria as an excuse to drag their feet at the talks.
Although it knows full well that the Russian announcement represents a downsizing of the number of forces rather than a full withdrawal, Washington has also welcomed the development in the hope that it will have a positive effect on the Geneva talks.
Ankara is not too enthusiastic about the talks because of the al-Assad regime’s presence at Geneva. But it has had little choice other than appearing to support them given its inability to influence events in Syria.
It is not too difficult to see, therefore, why the Russian decision will change little for Turkey in Syria, if anything at all. It is also clear that this decision will not pave the way for a Turkish-Russian reconciliation any time soon, which will leave the two countries at loggerheads over various issues for the foreseeable future.