Turkey has gone further than promised in Syria, says Moscow

A Turkish army tank drives towards to the border in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Aug. 25, 2016.

A Turkish army tank drives towards to the border in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Aug. 25, 2016.

Ankara is carrying out a full-scale ground operation in Syria. This format has not been coordinated with Moscow and threatens to undermine the warming of Russian-Turkish relations.

The relations between Moscow and Ankara have been subjected to a new test. The Turkish army, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, entered Syria on Aug. 24, starting the anti-terrorist operation Euphrates Shield, which was not coordinated with Damascus. By evening, the border town of Jarabulus had been captured from Islamic State.

The Turkish operation was approved by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived on a visit to Ankara, while the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed deep concern. The operation in Syria, not coordinated with Moscow, threatens to complicate the process of normalization of bilateral cooperation, which was agreed in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Not a ground operation, says Turkey

Erdogan announced the beginning of the operation on the morning of Aug. 24, explaining that it was directed against the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group and Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces, which Ankara also considers to be a terrorist group.

The preparation took several days. As Turkish special forces conducted reconnaissance on the territory of Syria, Turkish tanks and heavy artillery were moved to the border areas.

Following heavy bombardment of Jarabulus (a total of 63 targets were fired at 224 times in the first hours) and a series of air strikes involving aircraft from the U.S.-led international coalition, Syrian Free Army (FSA) troops were able to enter the city and take it under control in a matter of hours.

They did not meet serious resistance: The ISIS militants who were in Jarabulus began to leave the city already on the eve of the operation, and almost completely retreated during its active phase.

Turkey insists that what is happening cannot be considered to be a ground operation: The task is to open a corridor for the armed forces of the moderate Syrian opposition for cleansing Jarabulus from terrorists.

Turkish territory has been repeatedly shelled from the city in recent years.

Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Aug. 24, 2016. Source: ReutersSmoke rises from the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Aug. 24, 2016. Source: Reuters

Surprise for Russia

According to a military source, the Russian special services had information about Turkey's intention to carry out the operation, but its scale was unexpected. "This city could have been taken by a much smaller force; they will not stop in this region and are likely to go further," the source said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed deep concern in connection with the Turkish operation in Syria. "Moscow is [...] especially alarmed by the prospect that the situation in the conflict zone will continue to deteriorate, resulting in greater civilian losses and heightened ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds," the ministry said in a statement.

The official Syrian authorities, meanwhile, described the actions of the Turkish forces as an "invasion." The Syrian Foreign Ministry, which called on the UN Security Council to urgently intervene in the situation and to "end the aggression," said in a statement that Syria "condemns the crossing of the Turkey-Syria border by Turkish tanks and armored vehicles towards the Jarabulus area with air cover from the U.S.-led coalition and considers it a flagrant violation of Syrian sovereignty."

Following a visit to Ankara, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden did not accept these claims, but actively supported the actions of Turkey and made it clear that he regards them as an important step in the fight against ISIS.

An anti-Kurdish operation in disguise

"In the Euphrates Shield operation, Turkey is supporting the moderate Syrian opposition with its tanks, artillery and aircraft," said Alexander Vasilyev, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Such a scheme and model has been already used by the Turks."

According to him, the Turks earlier successfully interacted with loyal local Kurds in northern Iraq in the same way. "They set up a network of support centers and military bases at that time," Vasilyev said. "In such a way, Ankara tried to fight the Kurdistan Workers' Party and move this fight from the south-east of Turkey to northern Iraq."

Meanwhile, according to Vasilyev, Turkey's operation is directed against the Kurds, even if it is masquerading as part of the fight against international terrorism.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, finds it very symbolic that the Euphrates Shield operation coincided with Biden's visit to Ankara.

"Given that the relationship between Ankara and Washington in recent weeks reached a low point, this operation was the ideal opportunity for both sides to divert attention from the issue of exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen and demonstrate that the United States and Turkey remain strategic allies," said Pukhov.

For Moscow, Ankara's operation was an unpleasant surprise, demonstrating that the expectations for a convergence of the countries’ positions on Syria that emerged after the meeting between Putin and Erdogan were premature.

In deciding about the operation in Jarabulus, the Turkish leader has sent a signal that relations with the U.S. remain a priority for him, and he prefers to act in the framework of the antiterrorist coalition led not by Moscow, but Washington.

According to Kommersant's information, in case of aggravation of the situation, the Russian military and diplomats are ready to employ bilateral channels of communication with their Turkish counterparts, as well as express their concerns to the U.S. if necessary.

According to Vladimir Sotnikov, director of the Moscow-based Russia-East-West center, Ankara's actions could seriously affect the process of normalization of bilateral cooperation that was agreed by presidents Putin and Erdogan in St. Petersburg.

"Erdogan is playing his own game and is still on the other side of the conflict," he said.


Authors: Georgy Stepanov, Sergei Strokan, Ivan Safronov.

First published in Russian by Kommersant

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