Erdogan slams Putin’s attempt to shore up Assad regime, terming it a ‘grave mistake.’
The Russian air campaign in Syria has thrown an immense obstacle in the way of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision for the future of the country, enraging the Turkish leader and leaving Ankara increasingly sidelined.
Russia’s airstrikes are aimed at propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the very ruler who Turkey has for years insisted must be ousted if there is to be any solution to the Syrian crisis. Further increasing the tensions, Russian warplanes have twice violated the air space of NATO member Turkey over the Syrian border in the last days.
Erdogan has responded furiously, saying Putin was making a “grave mistake” that will further isolate Russia and even warning the friendship between the two countries was at risk.
Turkey’s key strategic aim for the conflict in Syria has been the overthrow of Assad and installation of new pro-Ankara authorities who would help Turkey regain something of its Ottoman-era dominance of the region. But Russia’s air campaign is explicitly aimed at helping Assad stay in power, with the West and NATO ally Turkey accusing Moscow of focusing its fire on moderate rebels rather than Islamic State (I.S.) jihadists.
“It seems the Russians are in it not to fight Islamic State but to fundamentally alter the equation in such a way that Assad gets a new lease of life,” said Ilter Turan, professor of Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University. “This introduces a new and big thorn in Turkish-Russian relations.”
Speaking at E.U. headquarters in Brussels, Erdogan said dealing with three issues would help ease the Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee crisis—equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, establishing a safe zone in northern Syria for refugees and enforcing a no-fly zone. But all three plans are impeded by the Russian air campaign, although Erdogan insists that the safe zone idea is still on the agenda.
“Putin’s main concern is to keep the Assad regime in power and thus protect Russia’s interests in Syria and increase its regional and international influence,” wrote Verda Ozer in the Hurriyet daily.
The bombing of targets in Syria by Russian warplanes is also further polarizing international alliances in the region, with Russia and Assad’s other key ally Iran forming an ever closer partnership and Turkey tightening ties with Saudi Arabia.
Erdogan has said Iran and Russia had teamed up in a two-pronged strategy, with Moscow acting from the air and Tehran, which reportedly has personnel on Syrian soil, from the ground. “That the Turkish visions for Syria were not going to be realized had become apparent long before the Russian intervention,” said Turan, adding Putin’s action was “complicating things and introducing new dimensions into the equation.”
“Turkey and its friends are being marginalized in Syria,” Turan said. Changing this would require a “fundamental shift in policy” on the part of the Turkish government, notably by stepping up support for the Kurds, he said.
In a sign of the disquiet caused by Iran and Russia’s intervention among Turkish conservative-nationalist circles, columnist Ibrahim Karagul in the pro-government Yeni Safak daily said the only way to stop the two countries is “by proxy war.”
“The intervention of the two countries [Iran and Russia] is the invasion of Syria. This is no different to the U.S. invasion of Iraq” in 2003, he wrote.
Relations between Russia and Turkey—which warmed in recent years with the two sides working on a new undersea gas pipeline and targeting $100 billion of trade by 2023—are set to also take a body blow. It remains unclear if Putin gave Erdogan the slightest inkling of his plan for the Syrian intervention when the Turkish strongman visited Moscow on Sept. 23 for the opening of a new mosque.
Deep-seated enmity and regional rivalry between Turkey and Russia are nothing new, with the Ottoman and Russian Empires fighting a dozen wars from the 16th century to World War I over control of the Black Sea and the Caucasus region.
Known for his fiery temper and capacity for taking deep personal offence, Erdogan was reportedly personally offended when Putin in April described the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 as “genocide.”
Turan said Erdogan “tends to view foreign policy—especially with authoritarian leaders—in highly personalistic terms. He finds it very disturbing that his friend Putin is doing things he finds are detrimental to Turkey’s interests in the region.”