Could Russia-Turkey relations deteriorate again over Syria?

A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, in Karkamis, Turkey.

A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, in Karkamis, Turkey.

The Turkish army has launched an operation against the Islamic State group in the north of Syria. According to one Russian expert, Istanbul's main objective is to prevent the domination of the Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Russian-Turkish relations appear to be on the mend following the crisis sparked by the Turkish air force’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, but new developments in Syria have led some to suggest that the rapprochement could be in danger of lapsing.

On Aug, 24, representatives of Turkey’s armed forces announced the launch of a military operation, code-named Euphrates Shield, against Islamic State militants on the Syrian-Turkish border, near the town of Jarabulus. 

The operation is being carried out jointly by Turkey and the Syrian opposition forces, supported by the Western coalition. It has been reported that the militants are being bombarded by Turkish artillery and aircraft, and that Turkish special forces units and armored formations have crossed the border onto Syrian soil.

According to Turkey's NTV television channel, the Turkish authorities notified Russia about the beginning of their own operation in Syria. Syria's Foreign Ministry condemned the Turkish operation, calling it a violation of the sovereignty of the republic.

Is it all about the Kurds?

Prior to the Turkish operation, Jarabulus was under the control of Islamic State, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the operation was also being carried out against Kurdish groups operating on the border of Syria and Turkey, whom Ankara considers terrorists.

Leonid Isayev, a senior lecturer with the Department of Political Sciences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, believes that the main goal of the operation is the fight against the Kurds.

He recalled that the recent successes of the Kurdish forces in the war against Islamic State resulted in a possibility emerging of combining the Kurdish cantons on the border of Syria and Turkey into a single territory – something that is unacceptable for Erdogan.

"For Turkey, this is a very serious threat, so they have launched an operation in the border region – in order to prevent the reunification of the Kurdish cantons," said Isayev. He believes that it is vital for Erdogan to create an enclave between the Kurdish territories, which could be controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian Turkmen groups.

Russia will not interfere

In the light of the recent warming in Russian-Turkish relations, Moscow, according to Isayev, will refrain from criticism of Ankara and will do everything to avoid another deterioration.

"Russia and Turkey would like at all costs to avoid incidents like the one that occurred in November 2015," said Isayev, referring to the event in which the Russian Su-24 was destroyed by the Turkish air force along the Syrian-Turkish border.

According to Isayev, the north of Syria is not an area where Russia has significant influence or interests. "We deliberately distanced themselves from what is happening on the Syrian-Turkish border not to provoke any unnecessary conflict," he said. Russia, the expert believes, is focusing its efforts in other parts of Syria, mainly in Aleppo, while distancing itself from what is happening in the north.

Russia’s position, according to Isayev, may cause criticism from Kurdish groups that Moscow supports diplomatically.

"The Kurds perceive our behavior as, to put it mildly, not very correct," he said. "But we do not support Turkey against the Kurds, we act from a position of neutrality."

Read more: A ‘grown-up’ China looks to enter the Syrian equation>>>

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