Russia and Turkey increasingly at odds in Syria

Turkey’s statement that it might conduct a new military operation in northern Syria if the Kurdish rebels do not withdraw could aggravate the situation, the Russian media reported on Tuesday, citing a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry. The defense department also refuted Ankara’s claims that Moscow has failed to meet its commitments according to the agreement that was reached in Sochi.

“The Defense Ministry was surprised by the statement of Turkish Foreign Minister M. Cavusoglu about Russia’s supposed ‘failure to fulfill its promises’, as well as the threats of unleashing a military operation in northern Syria,”  said Defense Ministry Spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov.

According to Konashenkov, Russia has fully complied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum, signed on October 22 this year, and is continuing to do so.

The Turkish foreign minister has a different opinion on the matter. Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Ankara could take new measures against the Kurdish forces in northern Syria if the US and Russia do not keep their commitments and guarantee the militia’s withdrawal from the border region.

“Have they fully complied with what is expected of them according to the agreements? No, they have not, but they should,” said Cavusoglu, as cited by Anadolu.

In October, Turkey began an offensive against the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units which Turkey considers terrorists, but which led the fight against the Islamic State with US support.

After the meetings in October between Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia and US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara, two parallel agreements were reached regarding the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia – People’s Protection Units – from the northern regions of Syria.

Anatoly Nesmiyan, a blogger who specializes in the Middle East, believes that the Turks are quite serious, and that the possibility of a new military operation exists.

“Simply because the Kurds are not really moving outside the 35 km zone, as was agreed right from the start, and the patrolling there hasn’t been going so smoothly,” he told Voice of America’s Russian service in a comment. “The reason is ordinary: There are not enough Russian troops for action on that scale.”

Anatoly Nesmiyan also pointed out that there have already been statements from Russia that additional forces will be deployed in northern Syria. “Of course, for such a huge zone, the two battalions of military police that are currently operating there are a drop in the ocean. And the Turks are naturally showing impatience, they are not satisfied with Russia’s actions, since it is the guarantor of the Sochi agreements and is supposed to facilitate the Kurds’ withdrawal to the specified zones.”

The blogger also noted that a video has recently been circulating on Turkish social networks which shows a Russian general exchanging flags with a member of the Kurdish groups, and assuring them of friendship. This has been perceived extremely negatively by Turkey, he noted.

The orientalist Alexander Shumilin, chief researcher at the Institute of Europe, believes that Turkey is no happier with the US’s stance than with Russia’s in the present situation. In his opinion, Erdogan, exploiting the conflict between Washington and Moscow, is trying to achieve Turkey’s own goals in light of the difference that has emerged between the two world powers’ approaches to the Syrian problem.

“In theory, the entire operation in northern Syria is designed for a Turkish audience. Erdogan is pragmatically inclined, striving to strengthen the support of his ‘iron’ electorate. He is demonstrating that he will not give in to pressure from Putin or Trump, and does what he considers correct in the country’s interests, as he understands them,” he emphasized.

The experts also agree that Russia has been tied down in Syria seriously and for a long time, and is being forced to expand its ground presence there in the form of military police.

  Russia, Syria, Turkey