Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 September 2019

As Russia bombs Syria, Turkey must find its way

Syria is now a proxy battleground for Russia, which means the stakes are heating up for Turkey, argues Joseph Dana
Free Syrian Army fighters take up shooting positions near Aleppo international airport. Saad Abobrahim / Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters take up shooting positions near Aleppo international airport. Saad Abobrahim / Reuters

Russia’s grand foray into the Syrian civil war has analysts and policymakers scrambling to make sense of Vladimir Putin’s long-term plans. Let’s be clear, Moscow is securing Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which has been steadily losing territory and troops over the past year. The timing of Russia’s air attack on rebel targets also suggests that Russia is diverting attention from the continuing crisis in eastern Ukraine and demonstrating its fresh foreign policy – one that pits Russian interests against those of the United States.

For Russia and the United States, Syria is now a proxy battleground. Both countries' goals have little to do with the fate of Syria as a single state, the well-being of the Syrian people (Russia has refused to join any programme to help Syrian refugees) or the equitable resolution of the conflict. The pressing question is how US and Russian allies involved in Syria will react to this unavoidable reality.

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Read more about Russia in Syria:

Is Putin only distracting Russians from reality?

Putin can’t save Assad, it’s far too late for that

Syria is a mess, Mr Obama. Tell me how this ends ______________________________________________________________

When it comes to proxy wars in the Middle East, Israel and Turkey are historically never far away. Indeed, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several senior Israeli military officials travelled to Moscow two weeks ago. There they discussed Mr Putin’s plans for military action in Syria.

This is noteworthy. Israel is perceived to be America’s great ally in the Middle East. Yet Tel Aviv’s relationship with Moscow is extraordinarily close. There are more than 1 million Russians residing in Israel, many of whom hold dual citizenship. The countries are reportedly close to signing a far-reaching free trade agreement, and the Israeli arms industry has warm relations with Russia, particularly in the realm of drone sales.

It is a barely kept secret that Israel has been active in supporting various rebel factions active in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict. Israel has provided medical treatment to fighters from Al Nusra Front and has conducted regular air strikes on Hizbollah convoys in the occupied Golan Heights. As such, Israel’s military objectives in Syria appear to be much closer to Turkey’s than Russia’s despite Tel Aviv’s blase approach to Bashar Al Assad’s government.

Turkey, with a 900-kilometre border with Syria and a militant anti-Assad stance, has been adversely affected by Russia’s attacks on the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Since the beginning of the civil war, Ankara has exercised its anti-Assad position primarily through support for the FSA. For years, money and weapons from all parts of the world flowed through Turkish territory into northern Syria. FSA fighters would regularly receive medical treatment and steal moments of refuge from the front lines in Turkish border towns. In essence, the FSA was once part and parcel of Turkey’s strategy in Syria. Only recently, Turkey was pushing for a comprehensive no-fly zone that would protect FSA fighters from Assad’s advances. Russian war planes now bomb Turkish backed FSA rebels in areas where Ankara was pushing for a no-fly zone just months ago.

With the rise of ISIL and Al Nusra Front, Turkey’s overtly warm support of the FSA has cooled. While Turkey still supports elements of the FSA, the fragmented nature of the group has posed many challenges for Ankara. That is why, almost as soon as Mr Netanyahu left Moscow two weeks ago, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived for talks. Mr Putin wooed Mr Erdogan with the promise of restarting the halted Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, which will carry Russian natural gas through Turkey to points in Europe. The €11.5 billion (Dh46bn) project is a critical component of Turkey’s long-term goal of establishing itself as one of the world’s primary energy conduit countries.

Syria also dominated that meeting’s agenda, with Turkish officials reporting they had received assurances from Russia that it would attack ISIL positions in Syria. Russian military action, it turned out, was the opposite. Instead of attacking ISIL, Russian planes targeted FSA positions and reportedly killed many civilians.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu conveyed the sense of shock pervading the halls of power in Turkey. “Russia expressed to our embassy in a written statement that it would struggle against ISIL,” Mr Davutoglu said, as reported by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “But Russia did not make this [attack] against ISIL, it made this against the moderate opposition.”

Where exactly does this leave Turkey? Must it choose between warmer economic relations with Russia or rearming FSA battalions in Syria to continue the march towards Damascus? Turkey has been in desperate need of a strategy overhaul since its famed “no problems with neighbours” foreign policy became one of only problems with neighbours. The moderate opposition that Turkey supports stands no chance against the Russian air force. Counter-escalation by rearming FSA rebels will prolong the proxy war on the ground and prove ineffective. Only the Americans are able to stop the Russians from carrying out air strikes – and such a development is unlikely.

Mr Al Assad is Russia's proxy and will not be removed from power in the near term. The United States, seemingly devoid of a Syria strategy for so long, now has the Russians to fight through proxies on the ground. To be sure, Washington’s mismanagement of the crisis gave the Russians this opportunity. Banging one’s head against the wall over years of failed foreign policy will only provide ISIL with greater room to entrench its power.

Turkey, and the United States, must engage in the battles that can be won before they slip away into the chaos of the Syrian civil war. ISIL is the only group that stands to gain from the US-Russia cold war in Syria. While Turkey doesn't have to give up its anti-Assad stance, Ankara must warm to this reality and stop avoiding the fact that ISIL is the greatest threat to regional security.

jdana@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Updated: October 4, 2015 04:00 AM

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