The Russian Ministry of Defence warned Turkey against launching a military incursion into Syria last week, announcing on Thursday that it had seen “growing signs” that Turkish forces were preparing to intervene to bolster rebel forces battling pro-regime troops in the north.
Some experts say, however, that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be trying to bait Turkey into entering the Syrian battlefield in order to retaliate for Ankara’s decision to down a Russian warplane in November.
“Russia is trying to draw Turkey into a fight to avenge the downing of its jet. Putin is confident he can win,” retired Brig. Gen. Naim Baburoglu, an adviser to the Ankara-based National Security and Foreign Policy Research Center, told al-Monitor last week.
“He also needs this to counter domestic difficulties. Downing one or two Turkish F-16s will make him a hero at home,” Baburoglu added. “It will also be a serious embarrassment to Turkey and the Turkish air force.”
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially denied reports that Turkish forces were preparing to cross the border. But on Sunday, Erdogan signalled that Turkey would be prepared to intervene in Syria if asked by its coalition partners.
“We don’t want to fall into the same mistake in Syria as in Iraq,” Erdogan told reporters on Sunday, according to the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet. “If … Turkey was present in Iraq, the country would have never have fallen into its current situation.”
He added: “It’s important to see the horizon. What’s going on in Syria can only go on for so long. At some point it has to change.”
Erdogan, a staunch opponent of the Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was at least partly referring to the Syrian Kurds’ sustained expansion westward along the Turkish-Syrian border. That push has largely been facilitated by Russian airstrikes targeting Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey, the US, and Saudi Arabia.
Signs of growing coordination between Moscow and the Kurds came to a head last week when Syria’s main Kurdish militia, the YPG, helped Russia and the Syrian army isolate Azaz — a strategically important city long used by Turkey to funnel aid and supplies to rebels in the city of Aleppo.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the YPG and Russia are coordinating in the Azaz corridor,” Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkish affairs and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider on Monday.
He added: “The YPG have taken advantage of the airstrikes to advance in areas south of Azaz, in what looks like a strategy to connect the Efrin canton with Kobane and Jazira. The PYD have consistently made clear, both in private and in public, that they can reach a common understanding with local groups in the area, and install a governing council inside the city.”
As Turkish-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, Russia’s military and political ties to the Kurds are getting stronger. Russia is reportedly looking to open a second air field in the Kurdish-held Syrian city of Qamishli, and the Kurds have said they will open their first “representation office” in Moscow later this week.
“The PYD’s office in Moscow has been months in the making,” Stein said. “The PYD — and by extension, the PKK — are eager to escape from international isolation. Any country willing to de-facto recognise them as a legitimate political group, and not a foreign terrorist organisation, is a net positive for the group.”
Fabrice Balanche, a leading expert on Syria and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, broached the limits of the US’ political support for the Kurds in an analysis last week.
“Unlike the United States, Russia does not want to antagonize the Kurds by prohibiting their deeply held goal of territorial unification,” he wrote.
“Vladimir Putin wants to put pressure on Turkey’s entire frontier with Syria,” Balanche added. Indeed, “it is one of the main regional goals of the Russian intervention.”
That the Kurds are now closer than ever to linking their territories east of the Euphrates with the Kurdish-controlled city of Efrin in the west — a move that would cross Turkey’s “red line” and allow the Kurds to consolidate their de-facto state of Rojava along Turkey’s southern border — may be enough to draw Turkey into the war.
“The Turkish army is very conservative and risk averse,” Jeff White, a defence analyst focusing on the security fairs of the Levant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider in an email.
“So while willing to protect its borders, I doubt we will see any large scale operations in Syria — with one possible exception: unification of the Kurdish enclaves/Rojava.”
If the Kurds were to unify their cantons, Turkey might be compelled to intervene to prevent them from forming a statelet along the Turkish border, White noted. And that would be a game-changer.
“The Turkish army could defeat any opponents in its chosen areas of operation,” White said. “Direct Turkish intervention, if on a substantial scale, could dramatically change the situation.”
Incidentally, rumours of a Turkish military intervention began circulating days after Saudi Arabia declared that it would be prepared to send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State “if asked” by its allies.
As such, “Turkey is no longer acting alone,” Middle East analyst Elijah Magnier noted on Twitter last week. Though it remains “highly unlikely” that Turkey will invade Syria, Magnier said that if it did, “Russia would celebrate.”