Although there may not be outright war with Turkey, Russia is using atypical methods in revenge for the shooting down of its plane two weeks ago.
Instead of engaging Turkey militarily, Russia has made a number of moves designed to hurt Turkish interests. While a military strike against Ankara could incite conflict with NATO, Moscow appears to be angling for revenge in less conventional ways, writes Natasha Bertrand for Business Insider.
Russian airstrikes harming Turkish interests in Syria
According to a United Nations official Russia has stepped up its efforts to eradicate Turkish influence in Northern Syria, carrying out airstrikes with the aim of helping Syrian government forces reach the city of Aleppo. Airstrikes have been concentrated in the Bayirbucak region of northwest Syria, close to the important city of Azaz.
The strikes have been mainly aimed at areas controlled by Turkmen rebels, who are backed by Ankara. Not only has Russia started attacking their positions, it has also been attacking Turkish aid convoys that provide the groups with supplies and weapons.
Russia has consistently tried to weaken groups that oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whereas Turkey has taken to supporting those fighting for the overthrow of the regime. Officials in Ankara are also pushing for a “safe zone” to house displaced civilians, which would make it more difficult for Assad’s troops to take Aleppo.
Airstrikes intensify after downing of Russian plane
Regime forces recently launched an offensive on the city, which is divided between regime and rebel forces. Russia and Iran both helped regime forces during an attempt to retake the city in mid-October.
“There has been an uptick in bombing in northern Syria as part of the reaction to the downing of the Su-24,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert with the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Providing an opening for Assad to advance to Aleppo or any other advances is consistent with Russia’s strategy all along. The situation with Turkey is an excuse to double down.”
In fact Russia is primarily concerned with allowing government forces to retake Aleppo, rather than taking vengeance on Turkey. “If there is going to be a partition in Syria, and Assad is going to build his own state in Latakia, Bayirbucak is a strategic point and the Turkmen will be have to be driven out,” Abdurrahman Mustafa, president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, told the Independent last week.
Complicated geopolitical situation dogs Syrian campaign
Russia claims that it has only bombed “terrorists,” but the campaign has been dogged by controversy. Turkey once said that the villages that have come under bombardment are mainly populated by civilians and Turkmen brigades.
“Putin’s larger immediate goal is to shut down Turkey’s link to Aleppo, thereby preparing the way for Assad (perhaps even in coordination with the PKK-affiliated Kurds) to besiege and eventually recapture the city,” Middle East expert Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote last week in Tablet.
Turkish military expert Metin Gurcan, made similar claims in Al-Monitor late last month. According to Gurcan Russian activities near the border assist in the driving out of opposition fighters from Latakia, which will then make it easier to “further Syrian and Russian moves toward Idlib and Aleppo.”
ISIS could benefit from Russia bombing campaign
Gurcan says that thanks to the bombing campaign the Assad regime is able to “secure more defensible, expanded territory before an eventual cease-fire, as recommended in the Vienna meetings, goes into effect.” For its part Turkey is largely powerless to stop Russian airstrikes near its border without engineering a situation in which NATO would have to step in and defend its member state.
Russia has now armed its jets with air-to-air missiles and deployed sophisticated S-400 missile systems to Syria in an attempt to discourage further Turkish actions against its planes. However the Russian airstrikes could possibly open up ground for ISIS forces to advance towards Aleppo, which would provoke opposition from the U.S., Turkey and other NATO allies.
“Everyone knows that any wrong move creates a vacuum, and the Islamic State will capitalize on it,” the UN official told McClatchy. “In fact IS has taken quite a bit of ground” near Azaz. Badran claims this is part of Russia’s plan.
“By creating an opening for ISIS to make a push toward Azaz, Putin will leverage the US and Europe to pressure Turkey to shut down this section of its border. If ISIS actually makes it to Azaz, Russia can then invite the US and the Europeans to join it in strikes against ISIS, and in support of the Kurds,” he wrote.
According to Zilberman the closing of this border is in the interests of the U.S. and Europe. “The United States should be pushing the Turks to close the border and stem the flow of fighters and terror financing crossing the border,” Zilberman wrote.