Why is NATO member Turkey acting with Russia in Syria?

Why is NATO member Turkey acting with Russia in Syria?

The Turkish military announced on Dec. 30 that Russian jets hit positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) near the Syrian town of al-Bab. 

Official sources say the ISIL targets were marked by Turkish Special Forces carrying out an operation to take the town from ISIL hands. Military sources also said they hit an ISIL convoy and an ISIL chief named Abu Husen Tunusi was in the destroyed convoy in air raids on Dec. 29. They added that Tunusi and his team were sent by ISIL to al-Bab from Raqqa as reinforcements.

It seems that the operation or operations took place right after statements on Dec. 29 in Ankara, Moscow and Damascus about the declaration of a ceasefire between forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and against it from midnight on Dec. 29. Turkey and Russia are acting as guarantors of the cease-fire, which excludes the forces of ISIL and al-Nusra.

The announcement on Dec. 30 raises the bar of the military cooperation between Russia and Turkey, a member of NATO and also a member of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. It also comes at a time when tension between the U.S. and Russia is rising on security and intelligence matters.

On the day when the ceasefire in the nearly six-year-old Syrian civil war was announced, the outgoing Barack Obama administration in the U.S. declared 35 Russian diplomats “persona non grata” over cyber-security and intelligence crimes and asked them to leave the country within three days. The next day, on Dec. 30, Russia moved to expel 35 American diplomats from Russia in retaliation. These were typical Cold War moves, rarely seen since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992. When combined with Obama’s recent move against Israel at the U.N., despite the $38 billion donation before the presidential elections, the Russia move shows clearly that Obama wants to make life more difficult for his successor Donald Trump by shaking the pillars of U.S. foreign policy.

The Turkish-Russian joint military operation in Syria against ISIL in al-Bab is interesting because President Tayyip Erdoğan claimed earlier in the week that the U.S. refused to give air support for Turkish attacks on ISIL to take al-Bab, thus indirectly helping ISIL. Erdoğan also said the U.S. aid to the Central Command’s (CENTCOM) ground partner the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), currently engaged in a fight with Turkey – was continuing. When the U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a statement to refute the allegations, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu retorted that the government held “evidence” of the continued aid.

One of the ironies is that one of the main operating bases of the U.S.-led operation against ISIL is the strategic Turkish air base Incirlik. “Whenever we need air support, we ask the joint command center for coalition support,” a Turkish military source recently told the Hürriyet Daily News. “They in turn ask İncirlik, but every time the reply is that it is either ‘not a priority’ or ‘there are bad weather conditions.’ It is a big disappointment for us.” 

The reason why the U.S. is not giving air support to Turkey for al-Bab is its conflict of interest with the PYD. Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria, together with the Free Syria Army (FSA), has two current targets: One being to take al-Bab from ISIL and the other being to not let the town fall into the hands of the PYD. Ankara doesn’t want the PKK to take advantage of the power vacuum in Syria and its cooperation with the U.S. in order to form a corridor along its border, for which it could claim autonomy or independence in the future.

Now it seems that Turkey has gotten the air support it wants - indeed the political support it wants – for the al-Bab operation from Russia, its adversary in NATO. 

So the question is: Why on earth has a NATO country gotten into military cooperation with Russia in Syria?
The answer is: Because it believes another NATO country, the U.S., fails to give its ally the support it needs to defeat a terrorist force (ISIL) as soon as possible. It fails to give that support because of the disadvantage it could give its partner (the PYD), which is an extension of an outlawed organization (the PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist group by both the ally and itself.

Complicated, isn’t it?

A bit. Perhaps that is why Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told daily Hürriyet on Dec. 30 that Ankara expected U.S. President-elect Trump to take a more active stance in the fight against terrorism, and for peace and stability in the Middle East.