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February 7, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8544

Russian Turkish Relations Come To A Boil In Syria

February 7, 2020
Russia, Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 8544

In a week that both Russia and Turkey sustained casualties to their forces in Syria, the top leadership in both countries worked to keep the lid on simmering tensions between the two countries. The two countries had a mutual interest in maintaining the relationship and both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayip Erdogan have invested heavily in consolidating ties. However, Turkey believes that Russia is stabbing it in the back by empowering Assad's advance on Idlib. It believes that Russia is capable of restraining Damascus but has not done so. The advance threatens to increase Turkey's already swollen Syrian refugee population. Russia for its part, complains that Turkey has not honored the de-escalation zone agreement in Idlib.[1]

The growing resentment between the two sides was vented by the press and by lesser officials in both countries. A further irritant was the visit by Erdogan to Ukraine, where Erdogan pleased his hosts by refusing to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea and uttering the phrase "Glory to Ukraine!" The [Ukrainian] military responded with the phrase "Glory to the Heroes!" The Russian press felt that this phrase was the slogan of the anti-Soviet Ukrainian underground whom it viewed as Nazi collaborators.[2]

Below is a survey of the crisis:

High Level Communications Remain Open

Both sides made a point of stressing that communications at the highest level remained open although they sought to convey that in the discussions they vigorously asserted their country's position:

Erdogan told members of his ruling AKP party that he had held talks with Putin on Septmeber 4, 2020. In the conversation the Turkish president told Putin that the Syrian forces must retreat to a point agreed on in a 2018 cease-fire agreement.[3]

At a press conference in Ankara prior to his flight to Kiev Erdogan said: "Our foreign ministers, the defense ministry, and intelligence are in contact with Russian colleagues. But more importantly, if we do not get the result, I will tell my colleague about the seriousness of the situation we are facing. A signal 'don’t cross our path' was conveyed to our Russian colleagues."[4]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed that Ankara and Moscow were trying to keep peace efforts for Syria alive and that Turkish officials were in contact with Russian counterparts "to keep the Astana and Sochi processes{the tripartite peace initiatives involving Russia, Turkey and Iran] alive, to strengthen them, and to arrive at a political solution."

He warned however that: "The Astana and Sochi peace processes have not been completely destroyed but have lately started to suffer and to lose importance." Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara, referring to Russian-Turkish peace initiatives that have also involved Iran.[5]

The Turkish Foreign Minister said that in his conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, he had been firm: "The regime's aggressiveness has to be stopped immediately. That was the message I gave Lavrov yesterday."[6]

Lavrov also acknowledged that communications remained open: Yesterday I talked again with my Turkish counterpart – Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Our military personnel are constantly in touch." Lavrov however remained firm and insisted that the Turkish failure to control Islamic terrorists was responsible for inflaming the issue:

"Regrettably, so far, Turkey has failed to fulfil a couple of its key commitments that were designed to resolve the core of the Idlib problem. It was necessary to separate the armed opposition that cooperates with Turkey and is ready for a dialogue with the government in the political process, from the terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra, which became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Both are blacklisted as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council, so neither Jabhat al-Nusra nor the latest version, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has anything to do in Idlib. The most we agreed on back in 2019 was that each party must observe the truce. But even after a third reminder by Russia and Turkey to those in the Idlib zone, the criminals I mentioned have not ceased their provocative actions."[7]

Erdogan's Mouthpiece Yeni Safak: Russia Is Lying And Has Turkish Blood On Its Hands

If Erdogan did not want to burn bridges with Russia his mouthpiece the paper Yeni Safak vented Turkish rage at what it regarded as Russian perfidy. Columnist Nedret Ersanel wrote:

"There is no doubt that both Russia and the Damascus administration – and, according to some claims, Iranian militia forces on the ground – knew the location of Turkish troops. As is its custom in multilateral joint military operations, Ankara had the locations where reinforcement troops would be deployed in the region "coordinated in advance" in order to prevent clashes.

"In other words, Russia is lying. Iranian militias and Russia, which is backing them, have the blood of Turkish troops on their hands."

Ersanel searched for an explanation about why Russia would do this to Turkey considering the growing ties between the countries:" Trade, tourism, the Black Sea region, the Balkans, Middle East, especially Syria, Libya, defense industry (S-400s), energy (the nuclear reactor Akkuyu and energy transmission lines), etc. The list can go on. As a matter of fact, two items beyond these: Turkey's NATO membership and conditions protecting Russia's presence in the Mediterranean well explain the extent of relations."

Ersanel's only explanation was that Russia had feared that Turkey was drawing closer to the US as evidenced by American support for the Turkish retaliatory action against Syria: "' The U.S. condemns the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah's constant and ruthless attacks on the people of Idlib. We stand by our NATO ally Turkey against such actions. We fully support Turkey's legitimate self-defense actions'" If so Russia was foolish since America's support for the Kurds precluded improved relations between the US and Ankara.[8]

Yeni Safak's editor İbrahim Karagül responding to accusations including by the Turkish opposition that Turkey's incursion into Syria had caused the casualties claimed that only Turkey rather than Assad, the head of the "Duchy of Latakia", was defending Syria against all invaders"

"The Astana and Sochi processes were hope for the whole region but have been seriously weakened by Russia and Iran, two of the three architects of this process.

"To the opposition in Turkey criticizing incursion into Syria: Let us see you say "Iran is an invader in Syria"! What are tens of thousands of armed Iranian forces doing in Syria? Was Syria not an independent state!

"Did the Damascus administration that struck Turkish troops in Idlib conduct a single attack on Israel? Did it ever attack U.S. troops? Are they not foreign forces? The U.S. has a large portion of the country under occupation. Israel attacks Syria every morning. Did you ever hear of a single response?

"We are defending Syria and will continue to do so.

"Nobody should dare teach Turkey a lesson while the U.S., Russia, Israel and Iran are in the picture."[9]

Russian Counter Accusations

The Death Of Turkish Soldiers In Syria A Result Of Its Failure To Coordinate Counterterrorism With Russia.

Yury Shvytkin, deputy chairman of the State Duma's defense committee claimed that "Turkey should coordinate actions with our country on the implementation of various activities specifically aimed at combating terrorism. The inconsistency of these actions may ultimately lead to disastrous results, which is unacceptable in any case."[10]

Foreign Minister Lavrov made a similar accusation: " According to our information, which has been made public by the General Staff, the Turkish military have advanced to certain locations inside the Idlib de-escalation zone without notifying us, and we were thus unable to notify the Syrian army about it either. Strikes were delivered, and Turkey is threatening retaliation. This is very sad. We urge them to strictly comply with the 2018 and 2019 Sochi accords on Idlib.

Turkey Is The Backer Of The Islamists In Syria

As tensions rose, the Russian media was awash with a story about captured Islamic militants who were forced to fight for the Islamists by Turkey:

"Militants captured by the Syrian military in the vicinity of Aleppo spoke about the role of Turkey in the formation of the Jebhat al-Nusra * terrorist group.

"Both captured terrorists are Syrian citizens. One of them is a native of the village of Tybni named Mahmoud al Najim, the call sign of Abu Abdal, born in 1985.

According to him, at first a detachment of the "Syrian Free Army", a secular opposition, was formed in the city. Then, when the [Al-Qaeda affiliated] Jabhat al-Nusra groups appeared in these parts, clashes broke out between secular and radical opposition.

"Al Najim, along with his relatives, decided to flee to Turkey, but he was detained by the police of this country, which, according to the militant, forced him to join al-Nusra *.

"(Nam. - Ed.) Said that if I don't work for them and fight on the side of Jebhat al-Nusra *, they will kill or arrest my family. <...> They gave me a hundred dollars salary ", - said the terrorist during interrogation by the Syrian military.[11]


Erdogan the backer of Islamic terrorists (Source: Riafan.ru)


The Jihadist Erdogan with Turkish and ISIS flags in the background(Source: Ipolk.ru)

Turkey Has Base Motives In Syria

The Russian press claimed that Turkey's presence in Syria is illegitimate:

Elena Veduta, who chairs the department of strategic planning and economic policy at Moscow State University said: "Erdogan is trying to drag Turkey into the war to solve economic problems. This is a common occurrence. As a rule, when hostilities begin, authorities can say that the deterioration of life is connected with the conduct of the war against, relatively speaking, the Syrian Kurds, who insulted the Turkish people…an ideological enemy exists. And now the president's actions will be approved. This is a very frequently employed model of behavior to conceal real problems."

Andrei Chuprygin, senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics' School of Oriental Studies, claimed that Erdogan needed a war in Syria "considering that his political situation in the country after the defeats in the elections in Istanbul and Ankara, is very serious."

Semyon Baghdasarov, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Central Asia said that Turkey was interested in territorial expansion in Syria: "Turkey has long declared war on Syria, behind the scenes, of course. Erdogan was one of the main initiators of the attempt to overthrow Bashar al-Assad during the civil strife in this republic in 2011. Turkey occupied Azaz, Al-Bab, and other cities, 4 thousand square kilometers or even more in northern Syria. Of course, this is a war.[12]

Gevorg Mirzayan tied Erdogan's visit to Kiev to the Syrian issue, as a way to apply pressure on Russia: "Moscow and Ankara have a difficult relationship in Idlib, Turkish soldiers died. From the point of view of international law, Erdogan cannot demand anything, because his troops are illegally on the territory of the other side. They were shelled there, they died. It is possible to depict this situation as an attack by the Syrian regime on Turkey only within, excuse me, the framework of some Jesuit logic. How can the Syrian authorities attack Turkey in Syria? Therefore, Erdogan is forced to resort to some other means of pressure on Russia, including through "Glory to Ukraine!" and various activities related to the Crimean issue.[13]

Middle East Expert Baghdasarov: Time To Get Tough On Erdogan 'He Is Not A Friend'

Interviewed on National News Service radio the head of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Central Asia, Semyon Baghdasarov, advocated a tougher policy towards Turkey:

"Erdogan wants to be friends with everyone for his own interests. From Ukraine he needs to get raw materials, the same bread, and so on. In addition, he wants to use Ukraine for pressuring Russia in terms of obtaining concessions in Syria

We know perfectly well who he is, that he is, to put it mildly, not a friend at all. We have no illusions about him. He is interested in things like Turkish Stream [of Russian gas], but everyone sees what is happening in Syria and what position he takes.

We will soon realize that we must pursue a tougher policy in the Syrian direction with regards to him. It is a matter of time"


Putin and Erdogan launch Turkstream (Source: Mk-Turkey.ru)

It Is Russia's Interest To Maintain The Relationship

Izvestia Commentator Ontikov: Washington Is Hoping For Enmity Between Ankara And Moscow

While seconding Russia's demand from the Turks to use "their influence among the militants in Idlib", to free vital corridors he warned against a rupture in relations that would only benefit the US:

"Washington is the one, who will be most pleased with the conflict between Moscow and Ankara. Recently, its relations with the Turks cannot be termed rosy. [Turkey] the NATO ally, with the second most powerful army in the alliance, has become too close to Russia, is purchasing weapons from it, is building a gas pipeline to Europe, and pursuing a course that the Americans do not like in Libya. In general, it behaves too independently... So, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, commenting on the Idlib incident, has already announced support for "'Turkey, which is our NATO ally'"

Ontikov expressed satisfaction that so far, judging by the statements of Turkish officials, they do not intend to break the established situation.". He hoped that Turkey would make serious compromises before Russia's patience "with the hotbed of terrorism in Idlib" boiled over. [14]

Defense Commentator Pavel Felgengauer: Putin Wants To Save Relationship Not Everyone Agrees

The respected defense commentator Pavel Felgengauer in an article titled " The policy of male friendship (bromance) between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bursting at the seams due to Syria believes that a blowup between Turkey and Russia is always in the cards due to the continuous advance of Assad's Syrian Arab army and the two sides patch things up till the next crisis: "As soon as the success of the SAA was noticed, Erdogan calls Putin, they organize the next summit, announce the next armistice, the demilitarized zone, etc. None of these agreements was fully implemented by any of the parties, the offensive was resumed each time, artillery and air forces bombed Idlib, the territory controlled by the armed opposition is slowly but steadily contracting."

Putin will do anything to keep Erdogan on board: "Additionally, Putin has invested a lot of money and effort to make friends with Erdogan and try to draw Turkey away from the US while driving a wedge into NATO's southern flank. After an unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in July 2016, Turkish-American relations deteriorated, and most importantly, many generals and military were arrested, and the Turkish General Staff - historically the main pro-American and pro-NATO power institution - lost its political influence. The idea of flipping Erdogan began to seem realistic to Moscow. A long-standing geostrategic dream - the Black Sea straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, for which Russia has fought for so many centuries in countless wars, will not be controlled by NATO [any longer] , but by the friendly, almost allied regime of Erdogan. The Black Sea becomes a Russian (Russian-Turkish) lake. No wonder the downed Su-24M [downed by Turkey] was quickly forgotten.

"It is vitally important for Erdogan to stop the offensive and the bombing in Idlib, as well as Haftar on the threshold of Tripoli, and Putin is ready to forgive the Turkish "brother" in pursuit of a geostrategic dream. But to the Russian military and diplomats, those who are close to Assad's regime or are interested in having one owner of Libyan oil, Putin's bromance with the Turkish president seems to be an expensive and senseless tsarist whim."[15]

 

 

 

 

[1] Ft.com, February 4, 2020.

[2] Mk.ru, February 3, 2020.

[3] Wp.com, February 5, 2020.

[4] Iz.ru, February 3, 2020.

[5] Wp.com, February 4, 2020

[6] Ft.com, February 4, 2020.

[7] Mid.ru, February 4, 2020.

[8] Yenisafak.com, February 5, 2020.

[9] Yenisafak.com February 6, 2020.

[10] Ria.ru, February 5, 2020.

[11] Ria.ru, February 4, 2020.

[12] Vestifinance.ru, February 3, 2020.

[13] Ukraina,ru, February 3, 2020.

[14] Iz.ru, February 5, 2020

[15] Novayagazeta.ru, February 5, 2020.

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