ISIS, Assad Have Reason to Smile Amid Russia-Turkey Rift

Though the White House backed Turkey’s right to defend its territory, it also needs Russia for any diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.

A picture depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin is splattered with eggs during a protest against Russian military operations in Syria in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 3, 2015.
AP

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic State, couldn’t have asked for a better present than Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane. Without him having to lift a finger, war has broken out between Turkey and Russia.

The man who stormed into Iraq with a fleet of trucks in summer 2014 and conquered Mosul, Ramadi and Tikrit, as well as parts of northern Syria, can now breathe easy in his hiding place and watch the diplomatic battle that will also drag in the United States, France, Britain and NATO – all of which are trying to close the rift that threatens to dismantle the international coalition against ISIS.

Syrian President Bashar Assad can also be pleased. What remains of his territory is now being defended not just by Russian planes, but also by ballistic missiles fired from the Caspian Sea. The S-400 missiles which he wanted so badly to buy are now stationed in his territory to defend against air strikes by his enemies. And the account he had threatened to settle with Turkey “when the time comes” is now being settled for him by Russia, which has already imposed sanctions on Turkish goods traveling through its territory and is considering freezing major investments in Turkey.

Tapes of the warnings the Turkish air force issued when the Russian jet entered its airspace didn’t assuage the Russians. Why, they ask, didn’t Ankara use the red phone that has linked Turkey’s Defense Ministry with its Russian counterpart since late September for the express purpose of coordinating aerial operations? And even if the plane crossed the border, did that justify shooting it down when it had no intention of attacking Turkey? Russia’s conclusion is that this was a planned “punishment” for Moscow’s support of Assad, and that Ankara had merely been awaiting the right opportunity.

America's delicate balance

Though the White House backed Turkey’s right to defend its territory, it also needs Russia for any diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. Taking too forceful a stand against Russia could endanger the diplomatic road map agreed on in Vienna earlier this month. This road map effectively created a race between Washington and Moscow to forge a Syrian rebel coalition willing to negotiate with Assad’s representatives.

If the Free Syrian Army had previously seemed to be Washington’s baby, it now turns out that Moscow has close ties with its leadership. According to Russian reports, a Free Syrian Army delegation met with senior Russian officials in Abu Dhabi in late October. Free Syrian Army spokesmen deny this, but their denials are unconvincing. And two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Interfax news agency that Russia was refraining from attacking areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, and the latter was giving it intelligence on the location of ISIS forces.

Russia also maintains contact with other Syrian militias, especially the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party. This party is soon expected to set up an “official” representation in Moscow, and may also receive Russian arms and ammunition.

The romance between Russia and the Syrian Kurds, which raises blood pressure in both Ankara and Washington, is one of the paradoxes of the Syrian civil war. The Syrian Kurds are Washington’s ally against ISIS, but to avoid angering Turkey, Washington refuses to arm them directly. Instead, it arms them via a “straw militia” recently established in northern Syria.

Washington also declares at every opportunity that it opposes Kurdish autonomy in Syria. But the special forces it sends to train the Kurds make Ankara doubt the sincerity of these declarations.

Moscow, in contrast, doesn’t care about Turkey’s angst over the Kurdish issue, so it recently welcomed Syrian Kurdish representatives as honored guests.

For the Kurds, this is an opportunity to try to exploit great-power rivalry for its own military and diplomatic advantage. If Washington won’t arm it, Moscow will. If Turkey opposes Kurdish autonomy, perhaps Russia will agree to it. And if Russia agrees, perhaps America will as well, to deprive Moscow of a monopoly on influence over the Kurds.

“The Kurds in Syria have an agenda of their own, in which the war against ISIS isn’t the be-all and end-all,” a senior official from Iraqi Kurdistan told Haaretz. “They want to assure themselves of a political achievement in the form of an independent region, and for this purpose, they need guarantees from the powers. It doesn’t matter to them who gives them these guarantees, the U.S. or Russia – either way, they’re covered.”

“On second thought, perhaps a Russian commitment is even better for the Syrian Kurds than an American one, because given the current map of control [over Syria], it’s the Russians and Iranians, not the Americans, who will dictate the results of the diplomatic process,” he added.

For now, however, these considerations are strictly theoretical; they depend on establishment of a transitional government in Syria.

Erdogan's hard line

Meanwhile, the new Turkish government formed this week needs to forge a strategy for the diplomatic process. The person responsible for military and diplomatic planning is Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Organization, who is considered a pragmatist rather than an ideologue like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But Fidan doesn’t have the last word on diplomatic issues.

According to Turkish sources, Fidan advised Erdogan this week to calm the crisis with Russia and not to overreact to Putin’s charge that Turkey gives ISIS logistic support. These sources also said that Fidan held several “frank” conversations with his Russian counterparts and promised better cooperation on operations over Syria in the future.

Erdogan, however, announced that Ankara won’t apologize for downing the plane. And Turkey’s foreign minister said the country had no reason to apologize, because it was in the right.

Apology or no, Turkey has seemed to be on a collision course with Russia for a long time now. Moreover, America and Europe distrust it as well, because they suspect it of preferring to fight the Kurds rather than ISIS.

The problem is that Turkey can still play the spoiler. And therefore, its positions must be taken into account.