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Turkey Tries to Mark Territory in Syria, Suffers a Harsh Rebuke

The Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself in an altogether new role on Friday when his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan phoned him to lodge a complaint about Syrian military. Putin probably expected the phone call since an air attack on a Turkish contingent on November 24 in northern Syria had killed 3 Turkish soldiers and injured ten others.

Turkey feels outraged, but is unsure whether it was a solo Syrian attack or a quasi-Syrian show. An intriguing detail here is that November 24 also happened to be the first anniversary of the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey, killing the pilot. A strange coincidence, indeed. But the Russian military maintained that the attack was not carried out by them. The Turks apparently know that the jets took off from a base which is under Russian control. A report in the Hurriyet daily said,

The Turkish Armed Forces will probe all the tangible data over the deadly incident. If it finds that Russia was behind the attack, moves will be made through diplomatic means. After the government acquires solid information about the attack’s perpetrators, a timely response will be given, officials have said.

Erdogan, conceivably, would prefer to accept the Russian version. The Kremlin readout said Putin held a ‘detailed discussion’ with Erdogan about the Turkish-Russian relations and also had a ‘constructive exchange on a settlement of the Syrian crisis’. They agreed to continue an ‘active dialogue’ at the diplomatic, military and intelligence levels. 

The November 24 incident no doubt constitutes a ‘reality check’ for Turkey. Erdogan has been resorting to good old salami tactic by incrementally expanding the scope of the Euphrates Shield operations in northern Syria, which it had initially defined as a limited anti-ISIS counter-terrorist operation, but subsequently expanding the scope ostensibly to create a ‘safe haven’ of over 5000 square kilometres of territory inside Syria, and lately morphing into plans to establish a Turkish military base on Syrian territory. And, all this while ignoring the protests from Damascus that Turkey is violating Syria’s territorial integrity.

Erdogan is in an unseemly hurry to create new facts on the ground by taking advantage of the transition in Washington and the uncertainties in the US-Russia ties as well as the Russian-Iranian preoccupations in Aleppo. The November 24 attack is a warning against overreach. The point is, Turkish air force cannot operate in the Syrian air space without Russia’s approval, and without Turkish air cover Euphrates Shield operations in the hostile Syrian territory are not sustainable.

So far Moscow chose to look away, allowing Turkey to keep changing the scope of Euphrates Shield. But now, some ‘red line’ is being drawn. It is a delicate game because the game needs to be played by unwritten rules and as far as possible the façade of cordiality needs to be maintained too. 

The Turkish leadership instinctively threatened to retaliate against the November 24 attack but better sense prevailed. Turkey has since clarified that the operations in northern Syria are only aimed at preventing Syrian Kurds from establishing a unified enclave in the region and harbored no agenda toward Aleppo. According to the Turkish account of today’s phone call, Erdogan also reiterated to Putin that he ‘supported’ Syria’s territorial integrity. Evidently, Erdogan is anxious not to upset the apple cart – for the present at least.

Erdogan must be acutely conscious that Russia has also played a key role to bring about the nascent Syrian-Egyptian proximity, especially between the two militaries. Erdogan and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have no love lost for each other. Sisi abhors the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Brothers see Erdogan as their local guardian. The revival of the axis between the two Arab regional heavyweights (with Russia’s blessing) will inevitably shift the balance of forces against Turkey and shut the door on Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottomanism’.   

On December 6, Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim will visit Moscow. To be sure, both Russia and Turkey realise that the present point is a twilight zone. The crunch time will come when Donald Trump assumes office as US president.

Trump has voiced admiration for both Putin and Erdogan. He has vowed to rebuild Turkish-American alliance, just as he hopes to have a ‘great relationship’ with Russia.  On their part, Turkey and Russia would each prefer to have an exclusive partnership with Trump in Syria. Of course, the new facts on the ground  – such as the air attack on Thursday– will significantly impact the future trajectory of the Syrian conflict. 

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