The Russian incursion into Syria is hampering one of the region’s most important players.
Turkey, which has long sought Syrian president Bashar Assad’s transition out of power, has been supporting some of the most powerful rebel groups in northern Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011.
A Russian bombing campaign against rebels including Turkey-backed rebel groups, however, now threatens to undermine Ankara’s entire Syria policy, which has been predicated on bolstering anti-Assad rebels and establishing a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.
It also precludes any possibility of Turkish intervention in the north.
“Turkey is shut out,” Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said in an interview. “The Turks are struggling to understand the new rules of the game, much like the US and others backing the Syrian opposition in its various forms.”
“The question now is whether Turkey would want to openly challenge Russia,” Schanzer added.
Since the Russians began their air campaign against the rebels on Wednesday,
Turkey has expressed “serious concern” over the air strikes. On Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Russia of hitting the rebels to bolster the Assad regime.
But Turkey’s ability to condemn Russia for the way it has upended Ankara’s plans in Syria is limited given Turkey’s extensive economic relationship with Russia.
“Turkey finds itself in a very difficult position with the Russians,” Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in an interview.
Russia’s intervention on the side of Bashar Assad has further complicated Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s desire to limit the territorial gains of the Kurdish YPG along the border.
“If the Russians are able to maintain their current state of operations and they continue to strike targets along the Idlib-Latakia dividing line, that will ease the pressure off Assad,” Stein said.
“As a result, Turkey’s instinct will be to increase support for the rebels. But Ankara will also have to consider the possibility that bolstering the rebels further might lead weapons to fall into the hands of the YPG,” the military arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
In an interview with al-Monitor, Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, said that the Russian incursion into Syria has undermined Turkey’s ability to intervene in any meaningful way — a welcomed development for the Kurds.
“Turkey’s Syrian policy is totally bankrupt,” Muslim said. “Two years ago I was talking to a Russian official and he asked me, ‘What do the Kurds most fear?’ ‘Possible Turkish intervention,’ I replied.”
Moreover, Muslim notes, Russia’s intervention will the Turks’ ability to impose a security zone in the north, which has long been opposed by the Kurds.
“The Russians will not meddle in the north,” Muslim said. “But should Turkey attempt to intervene, then they will. Russia has a joint defence agreement with Syria. They will prevent Turkish intervention not to defend us [Kurds] but to defend Syria’s border.”
Turkey’s plans for a safe zone may be scuttled for now, but Ankara will likely compensate by doubling down on its support for anti-Assad rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al Sham as the situation escalates.
“Ankara would be extremely concerned if the Russians took their campaign into Aleppo, because it opens up the possibility of another massive refugee flow into Turkey, which is already at its limits,” Stein noted.
There are more than one million Syrian refugees in Turkey, around 30% of whom live in 22 government-run camps near the Syrian-Turkish border.
In order to prevent another refugee surge, “there will be considerations of providing the rebels with surface-to-air missiles to blunt the efficacy of Russian air craft,” he said.
In any case, the Russian intervention will lead to a hardening of battle lines on all sides.
“The Russian intervention could prompt new phase in this conflict that could make things even bloodier,” Schanzer said. “We ignore that possibility at our peril.”
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