Divergences over Syria could cause strain in Turkey-Russia ties, but it is not likely to turn into a major crisis as Moscow particularly would not like the issue to get out of proportion, analysts said.
“As far as developments in Syria are concerned, Russia would not react in such a way as to push Turkey away from itself,” Hasan Koni, an international relations analyst, told Xinhua.
Following Turkey’s recent cross-border offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria, Ankara and Moscow agreed that all Kurdish fighters on territories under Syrian government control would be made to leave the area through Oct. 29.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on Tuesday that the Kurdish militia was still present in Manbij, Tal Rifat and south of Ras al-Ayn where the Russian-backed Syrian army maintains control.
Just hours after Erdogan’s remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov contradicted the Turkish leader, saying the Kurdish militia had already left the 30-km-deep area along the Turkish border in line with the Sochi deal reached between Ankara and Moscow.
“The Russians would certainly not want to damage ties with Turkey which go much deeper than Syria,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an international relations analyst with the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.
Both analysts argued that Russia would not wish to harm the fairly good ties built in recent years between the two countries as Ankara’s relations with its Western allies have soured.
“Syria is not a strategic issue between the two sides, which is particularly true for the Russians,” Ozcan told Xinhua.
Ankara’s cooperation in the Black Sea, selling natural gas to Europe via Turkey and building a nuclear power plant in Turkey are much more important for Moscow, he noted.
Turkey has also bought the sophisticated S-400 air defense system from Russia despite threat of sanctions from the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally.
As Ankara has knit closer ties with Moscow, the Western media have described a Turkey drifting away from the West, questioning Ankara’s membership within NATO.
After cutting a deal with Turkey to stop the operation on Oct. 17, the U.S. military handed over territories along the border not targeted by Ankara to the Russia-backed Syrian forces.
Ankara then signed the Sochi memorandum with Moscow, under which the Kurdish militia, seen by Turkey as terrorists, should withdraw 30 km away from the border in the area now under Syrian control.
Later last week, Erdogan once again said the militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), did not withdraw from the Russia-controlled area along the border.
Revealing that 11 of the Islamist rebels who fought alongside the Turkish army against the YPG had been killed by YPG fire on Thursday morning, Erdogan said Turkey would continue with the military operation to drive the militia away.
However, neither of the analysts feels that a full-scale military operation against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, could be possible at this stage.
A major operation should not be expected because things are now taking shape not on the basis of developments on the ground, but rather in line with the negotiations between the leaders, stated Ozcan.
“The Russians could give the greenlight to a surgical-type operation if Turkey provides evidence of YPG presence (within the 30-km zone),” said Koni who teaches at Istanbul Kultur University.
“A full-scale operation would attract much international reaction,” he added.
Turkey came under strong criticism from the international community after launching the operation on Oct. 9.
The U.S. Congress and the European Union threatened sanctions, while the Arab League and Israel condemned the cross-border operation which lasted eight days.
Ankara has often said it would not tolerate a “terror corridor” in Syria along its border.
Following the cross-border offensive, the Turkish military controls a 120-km stretch of the 444-km-long Syrian border on the eastern part of the Euphrates River.
The safe zone under Turkish control is situated between the Syrian cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
Both analysts underlined, however, that minor tension in Turkey-Russia ties over some mishaps on the ground in Syria is a possibility that cannot be ruled out altogether.
In accord with the Sochi deal concluded on Oct. 22, Turkish and Russian troops completed on Friday their third joint ground patrol in the areas under Syrian control along the border.
Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had a phone call on Saturday and reaffirmed their commitments to the Sochi deal.
Moscow, which does not recognize the YPG as a terrorist organization, is urging the militia to become part of the Syrian army.
“If the SDF becomes part of the Syrian army, which the SDF would accept if it would be granted autonomy, Turkey would be highly annoyed by that,” stated Koni.
Moscow’s reference to the Kurdish militia as Kurdish forces, which reveals that the YPG is considered a legitimate partner, is not something Ankara is expected to be pleased with either.
The worst thing for Ankara is that following the cross-border operation, the Kurdish issue has gained more international sympathy and recognition, observed Koni.
Russia’s Lavrov recently said the Kurdish issue in Syria should not be neglected, indicating it is a regional issue extending beyond Syria’s borders.
“A medium-sized state (like Turkey) would not under such circumstances be allowed to militarily resolve a problem at will,” Koni said, noting the issue could be exploited by major powers to destabilize the region.
Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran are the countries with a significant Kurdish population in the Middle East. For Turkey, it is concerned that an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria may set a precedent for its own nearly 20 million Kurds.
Before the cross-border operation, the YPG had two self-declared cantons along the Turkish border in northeastern Syria.
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