YPG fighters carry their weapons along a street in the north Syrian town of Qamishli. Russia reportedly sent troops to the town to assist Kurdish militia. (Photo: Reuters)
January 21, 2016, Thursday/ 10:34:39/ ARİF TEKDAL | ANKARA
The protracted Syrian conflict is destined to be a source of renewed friction between Turkey and Russia after a recent report suggests that Russia has deployed nearly 100 troops and military advisers in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli, located near the Turkish border -- a development that is bound to cause tension ahead of the Syria peace talks in Geneva.
Based on information from local sources, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed that Russia sent a team of military technicians and experts along with troops to examine the airfield and other facilities in the town for the possible further deployment of Russian forces.
The move to deploy military personnel in Qamishli, which is currently under the control of the Syrian regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is likely to cause tension with Turkey, which has grown wary of outside powers' increasing cooperation with the PYD and its armed wing of Syrian Kurdish militia the People's Protection Units (YPG).
Speaking about reports on Russian troops in Qamishli in a parliamentary session on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Tuğrul Türkeş played down the nature of the development, saying that a small-scale Russian military presence near the Turkish border is not a significant threat to a NATO-member Turkey.
The deployment comes during a continuing row between Turkey and Russia after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet it claimed violated its airspace late last November.
The plane's downing sparked a crisis, prompting Russia to deploy its cutting-edge air defense systems, S-400s, to an air base near Latakia, very close to the Turkish border. Russia warned that it would respond to any threat to its aircraft, and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the country's commanders to act swiftly if Turkish jets violate Syrian airspace.
Apart from reinforcing Bashar al-Assad's regime with air strikes, Russia's relationship with the YPG has also come under close scrutiny from Turkish authorities.
Days before peace talks in Geneva, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Russia as well as others of trying to undermine negotiations for a solution to the Syrian conflict by including groups such as the YPG.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Davutoğlu said "terrorist groups" must not be represented at talks in Geneva, referring to the YPG, which Ankara views as a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey, the US and the EU have designated the PKK a terrorist organization. While Ankara sees no difference between the YPG and the PKK, Turkey's NATO allies distinguish between them, treating the former as a reliable ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.
Davutoğlu renewed his criticism of Russia, saying that it is complicating the fight against ISIL by targeting the moderate Syrian rebel groups.
He underlined that international coordination is needed against the extremist militants. The Turkish prime minister also said Turkey does not distinguish between ISIL and PKK militants in its anti-terror fight.
On Wednesday Turkish media reported that a top Russian official was set to visit Turkey to attend a meeting of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in İstanbul on Friday, a sign that points to de-escalation and even a gradual thaw in relations.
But later Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vassily Nebenzia's visit was canceled, reportedly for reasons of health. The visit would have been the first high-level visit since relations deteriorated after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last November. Nebenzia was expected to meet with Turkish officials during his visit.
Russia aims to strengthen position in Geneva talks
For Yaşar Yakış, a former foreign minister of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party, the deployment of Russian forces near the Turkish border is certainly bound to escalate the tension between the two countries and aims to strengthen Russia's hand in the upcoming Geneva talks on Syria.
“Russia has significantly decreased Turkey's maneuvering capability in Syria. This will continue,” he said, referring to Turkey's downing of jet and Russia's subsequent deployment of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.
By closely engaging with Kurdish militia in the north near the Turkish border, Hüseyin Bağcı, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) and an expert on regional affairs, thinks that Russia's latest move in Syria means that it is “here to stay.”
He drew parallels between Russia's latest activities and the Soviet conduct back in the 1970s when Soviets used its military aid as a pretext to establish a foothold in a client state.
“Turkey is throwing the dice, Russia is playing chess,” he said, referring to their respective roles in Syria. “A person who throws a dice cannot be certain of its outcome. However, a chess player thinks four, maybe five moves ahead and plays accordingly.”
Noting that Turkey's spat with Russia and its position in Syria mean further ostracization in the region for the country, Bağcı said: “The West has lifted sanctions against Iran and relations are thawing. Russia is trying to gain an upper hand in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Turkey will be singled out by these countries, it will become more ostracized.”
Echoing Yakış on Russian motives, Bağcı said Russia's main aim is to gain an upper hand in the Geneva talks later this month. The Geneva talks, which faced threats of being delayed due to the disagreements over which opposition groups are to be invited, aims to resolve the conflict that has now entered what is nearly its fifth year and killed a quarter million people.
What first started in Vienna as a small diplomatic initiative among a number of international powers, including the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, all backers of the Syrian opposition, and Russia and Iran, staunch supporters of the Assad regime, later morphed into a wide-ranging international effort under UN auspices aiming to end the prolonged civil war.
The former Turkish foreign minister said Russia and the US have mostly agreed on which factions in Syria are to be labeled as terrorist organizations and which are to be classified as moderate rebels.
“Turkey's own classification greatly differs from the list Russia and the US are compiling,” he said, adding, “For example, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that in the past Turkey is reported to have had dealings with, will most probably be classified as a terrorist group within Syria.”
He continued, “Also, Russia and the US have told Turkey several times that they will work with the YPG, because they [US] want people on the ground fighting ISIL. Turkey has expressed its objections on this matter, but nothing has changed.”
Yakış noted that he warned the government several times since the second half of 2011 about the need to change its Syria policy, but to no avail.
Referring to the meeting in Paris of the defense ministers of countries in the coalition against ISIL, Yakış said that Turkey had not been invited, which shows how the West and Europe view Turkey.