North Africa, West Asia

Conflicting interests in crowded skies prolong Syria’s agony

Turkey-Russia spat is a symptom of different, often incompatible agendas.

William Gourlay
14 December 2015
Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Turkey-Syria border on 24 November heralded talk in some circles of a new Cold War. Others mulled over the reawakening of the centuries-long jostling for supremacy between Russia and Turkey, former imperial powers in Eurasia.

A renewed Cold War may not have been kick-started but a war of words has erupted, with pundits on opposite shores of the Black Sea hurling abuse and allegations. Meanwhile Moscow appears intent on sabre rattling, a Russian soldier recently brandishing a rocket launcher aboard a navy vessel as it passed through the Bosporus in Istanbul.

Leaving aside the diplomatic fallout between Russia and Turkey, the shooting down of the jet highlights the conflicting interests of regional and outside powers in Syria and in the struggle against ISIS. This event has illustrated that neither Russia’s nor Turkey’s interests automatically chime with those of the west. Perhaps more tellingly, in many instances they do not coincide with the interests of the diverse and divided peoples of Syria.

When Turkey, in the middle of this year, joined the campaign against ISIS it was touted as a “game changer”, as was Russia’s decision to target ISIS several months later. As things have turned out, Turkey has flown no more than a handful of missions against ISIS. And while Russian air strikes have undoubtedly hit ISIS hard, they have also hit many more targets that clearly aren’t ISIS.

Turkey’s lack of assertive action against ISIS has fuelled widespread speculation that it is in cahoots with the jihadist group, or at least turning a blind eye to it. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, claims that Ankara shot down the Russian plane to protect the profits it earns from the oil supply coming out of ISIS-controlled territory. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has angrily denounced the accusations, upping the ante by promising to resign if they can be proven true.

Russian air force strikes against groups other than ISIS expose the entirely different agendas that Ankara and Moscow pursue in the Syrian conflict.

Meanwhile, Russian air force strikes against groups other than ISIS in northern Syria expose the entirely different agendas that Ankara and Moscow pursue in the Syrian conflict. Moscow and Ankara are effectively on opposite sides: Russia is pro-Assad and Turkey is determined to see him ousted. To that end, while some Russian raids are aimed at ISIS, just as many target other groups opposed to the Assad regime, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. It is alleged that both of these groups, regarded with suspicion by the US, are supported by Turkey. While these allegations may even warrant further scrutiny, it is clear that Ankara does support various anti-Assad forces.

In recent weeks, Russian air strikes have also targeted Turkmen militias. Having taken up arms in 2011, the Turkmen share Ankara’s desire to see Assad removed from power. They are the Turks’ ethnic kin. An alternative explanation for Turkey’s shooting down the Russian plane is that it was a move to defend the Turkmen from Russian attacks. This played well domestically in Turkey after the recent general election where nationalist sentiments were aflame. Pro-government pundits indulged in plenty of therapeutic tub-thumping at the sight of Turkey bloodying the nose of the Russian bear.

Turkmen militia did their cause little good by announcing that they had shot at the Russian pilots as their plane went down in flames. Nor was it helped by the fact that the leader of the militia was in fact a Turkish citizen, a member of an ultranationalist group from the city of Elazığ in Turkey. In any event, if the Turkish action was intended to protect the Turkmen it has completely backfired as the Russians have since stepped up their attacks on the Turkmen-populated areas of northern Syria, sending many fleeing across the border into Turkey.

In the unfurling muddle, the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, argued that rather than targeting anti-Assad forces Russia should concentrate its energy on the common enemy, i.e. ISIS. He may have a point. But Davutoğlu is hurling stones from within a glass house. Ankara joined the anti-ISIS coalition to great fanfare but the Turkish air force’s attacks on the jihadi group pale in significance—in number, ferocity and effectiveness—to its attacks on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey regards as a terror group but which has been a highly effective force fighting against ISIS. It seems that Turkey’s willingness to engage with the US in joining the anti-ISIS coalition was a ruse to obtain some sort of legitimacy for its anti-PKK raids. US officials were said to have been “outraged” when Ankara informed them, at short notice, that it would begin hitting the PKK.

Elsewhere in Syria, Turkey has made repeated claims that the Kurdish Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD) is a terrorist group and has called on others to classify them as such. Affiliated with the PKK, the PYD has been hugely effective in pushing back ISIS. But that is no thanks to Turkey, which blockaded its border with the Kurdish city of Kobane when it was besieged by ISIS in late 2014.

This highlights another of Turkey’s concerns in Syria. Ankara is extremely anxious to curtail any further territorial gains by Kurdish forces, a reflection of its zero-sum attitude towards the Kurds, which in turn is indicative of Turkey’s pathological fear of any advance—political or territorial—for the Kurdish cause.

While Turkey may claim it was protecting its territorial sovereignty in shooting down the Russian plane when it strayed over its border, Ankara apparently has no qualms about breaching Syria’s sovereignty when the Kurds are involved. Erdoğan has repeatedly declared that Turkey would not allow the Kurdish YPG militia to advance against ISIS on the western bank of the Euphrates in Syria. One pro-government columnist laments that Turkey was caught napping by allowing Kurdish forces to take Kobane and Tel Abyad and argues “we must not lose Jarablus”, the last major border crossing under ISIS control. Amid ongoing concerns about the porousness of the Turkish border, comments such as these do nothing to allay suspicions that Turkey is at worst in league with or at best half-hearted in pursuing ISIS.

The Turks’ concerns about the Kurds are theirs alone, however. Most other regional players see the Kurds as reliable and effective allies in the battle against ISIS, both in Syria and Iraq. There is no denying their substantial territorial gains. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, argues that Kurdish forces should play a role in sealing the Turkey-Syria border, while the US is increasingly viewing the Kurds as central to their anti-ISIS campaign.

In the meantime, the US is calling for de-escalation after the downing of the Russia plane and is standing beside Turkey. But it appears that Washington has increasing doubts about Ankara’s reliability as an ally in the battle against ISIS.

With the UK air force now flying missions against ISIS, the skies over Syria become ever more crowded. British PM David Cameron argues that this is part of broad strategy for Syria. But with so many conflicting interests in play—Turkish, Russian, American, to say nothing of local groups—it is hard to imagine a solution to the Syrian peoples’ woes emerging any time soon.

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