Close encounters with US and Russia over Syria

Close encounters with US and Russia over Syria

As soon as the news that a Russian military transport plane crashed in the Black Sea as it took off from Sochi on Dec. 25, killing all 92 aboard, reached Ankara, the Turkish leadership immediately sent their condolences to Moscow, as they should.

Not only because of the human tragedy and not only because members of the popular Red Army Chorus died in the crash, but also because of the close encounters between Turkey and Russia nowadays.

The fact that the plane was taking the Red Army Chorus to cheer up Russian soldiers at New Year’s at the Hmeimim air base in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime there, was not mentioned much even in pro-government media, not only out of respect for their memories, but because of the delicacy of the political situation.

The situation is so delicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to denounce the assassination of his ambassador to Ankara, Andrey Karlov, on Dec. 19 by a Turkish police officer as a “provocation to undermine improving relations” between Turkey and Russia following a telephone conversation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who was equally shocked by the attack.

It is delicate, because in the Syrian theater, Russia and Turkey, a member of NATO and also a member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), are cooperating much more closely.
Especially after the murder of the ambassador, the cooperation is more obvious. Without Russian (and thus that of the al-Assad regime in Syria) approval it would be practically impossible for the Turkish military to avoid state-of-the-art Russian-made defense systems and carry out a full scale air-land operation to take the Syrian town of al-Bab from ISIL occupation.

Though it is not being revealed officially, Turkish diplomats and soldiers assured Russia that the al-Bab operation neither aimed at occupying an inch of Syria nor having secondary thoughts about Aleppo, some 25 km southwest of al-Bab, but to take if from ISIL. And of course not to let it fall under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been in a fight with Turkey for more than three decades to carve an independent Kurdish state out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, being the weakest link nowadays.

The irony is in the cooperation of the U.S. through its Central Command (CENTCOM) with the PYD against ISIL simply due to the “no boots on the ground” policy of outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Karlov assassination did not stop the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran from meeting in Moscow the day after on Dec. 20. They agreed on focusing on the anti-terror fight in Syria and to meet on the details in the Kazakh capital of Astana before the next round of Syria talks in Geneva.

Then came the statement of John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, who said that his administration (which is in a transition from Obama to President-elect Donald Trump) did not support the formation of a PYD-PKK corridor along Syria’s border with Turkey, that also means NATO’s southeast borders. Ankara thinks that statement is too little, too late.

But in the same interview with the Turkish private channel NTV, Bass also warned Ankara over relations with Russia. It was Russia which did not hesitate to occupy and annex parts of a neighboring country (Ukraine) and even though the U.S. has admitted that the claims of Turkey aiding ISIL’s illegal oil trade were not true, Russia has not yet.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that Washington DC was not happy with the commentaries made about American involvement in the Karlov assassination, just because Fethullah Gülen has been living in the U.S. Gülen, an Islamist preacher and a former ally of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), is now accused by Turkey (with the government and opposition united) of being behind the bloody coup attempt of July 15. 

Erdoğan said on Dec. 22 that Turkish-Russian inspectors will find the exact links, but all indications show that the 22-year-old police officer Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, who was killed in the clash with police after the murder, was linked to the Gülen network.

As the cherry on top of the cake, Putin said on Dec. 23, the same day as Bass, that he now has secondary thoughts that the downing of a Russian jet on Nov. 24, 2015, by a Turkish jet as it crossed the border with Syria (two pilots were killed) “might not” have been on the orders of the government. Actually the prime minister at the time, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said he had authorized the operation, but now the belief among government circles is that the Turkish pilot and the İncirlik base (also used in the U.S.-led anti-ISIL operations) commander (who is now in jail because of the coup attempt involvement) might be Gülenists.
Complicated, isn’t it?

To make it further complicated, Erdoğan said Dec. 24 in Istanbul that, after taking al-Bab from ISIL, the next target of the Turkish army in Syria will be Manbij (some 35 km east of al-Bab) and if it was possible to shake hands with the U.S., to take Raqqa, ISIL’s headquarters in Syria, together.

Now that is a delicate issue because Manbij was taken from ISIL by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with a heavy PYD-PKK domination, earlier this year.

Turkey has asked the U.S. a number of times to keep its promise and take the PYD-PKK forces out of Manbij, adding that Turkey was ready for full military cooperation in the field if the U.S. abandoned the PYD-PKK as a partner, including the operations to clear ISIL from Raqqa and Mosul (in Iraq).

“We do not want a new state next to our borders,” Erdoğan said in the same statement, without naming it as a Kurdish state. Neither Moscow, nor Tehran want it, as staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. 

Ankara wants to see a clear statement from Washington DC on a possible Kurdish state and wants to see it on the stage as well on paper. With that remark, Erdoğan shows that Turkey still wants to cooperate with its major military ally, the US. It may not be possible to get that clear signal from the U.S. before the Trump administration takes up residence in the White House.

But time is running out quick, which recalls a quote by İsmet Inönü, the second leader of the Turkish independence war after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the second president of Turkey who passed away on Dec. 25, 43 years ago.

When relations with the U.S. were again sour because of Cyprus and Moscow under Soviet rule was winking at Turkey in order to weaken NATO solidarity, that was mid-1960s, he said: “Encounters with big states are like getting into bed with a bear.”

He was pointing out that one has to be extremely careful, both on Russia and the U.S.