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Vladimir Putin initiates call with Erdogan amid possibility of renewed fighting in Syria

Deteriorating situation in Syria prompts urgent talks between Russian and Turkish leaders amidst suggestions of a summit with Iran

As I predicted a few days ago, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria has prompted an urgent telephone call between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan.

The Kremlin’s summary of the call does not make clear who initiated the call.  However most likely it was the Russian leader.

Since President Putin visited Syria in December and announced a limited withdrawal of Russian forces there, the situation in Syria has spiralled downwards.

I should say that I do not think this is a coincidence.

Though Russia’s Aerospace Forces continue to maintain a very active presence in Syria – calling into question the extent to which a withdrawal has actually taken place – the announcement of the withdrawal was inevitably interpreted by the host of other actors in the Syria war as a sign of a weakening of Russian resolve, and appears to have emboldened them to attack more aggressively.

The result has been a multiplication of attacks on Russian facilities in Syria, with mortar and drone attacks on Khmeimim air base and the shooting down by a MANPADS missile of a Russian SU-25 attack aircraft over Idlib province.

Meanwhile the announcement of US support for a 30,000 strong Kurdish border force has provoked a Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish held enclave of Afrin.

The Syrian government, which has had strained relations with the Kurds hitherto, is now actively supporting them in their fight with the Turkish army, and the Syrian Kurds have also received verbal support from Iran.

The Syrian army for its part has launched a large scale offensive against the Jihadi controlled enclave of Idlib province.  The Russian Aerospace Forces have been active in backing this offensive.  However the Turkish military has been deployed to Idlib province, apparently with the intention of blocking the Syrian advance, leading to exchanges of fire between the Syrian and Turkish militaries.

Further east ISIS is undergoing a revival in areas which it formerly controlled east of the Euphrates as US backed Kurdish militia redeploy from there to fight the Turkish military in the west.

This in turn has led to an advance by Syrian tribal fighters allied to the Syrian government into areas previously captured by the Kurds from ISIS east of the Euphrates.  This advance has in turn led to a bombing raid on these fighters by the US, leaving between 25 and 150 of them dead (accounts differ).

There are suggestions that the US bombing raid was intended to prevent these tribal fighters from taking control of Syrian oil wells from other tribal fighters who were previously allied to ISIS but who are now allied to the US backed Kurds.

That has in turn provoked an angry response from the Russian Defence Ministry, which has accused the US of trying to take control of Syrian economic assets.  Here is how TASS reports its comments

“The recent incident once again shows that the United States’ illegal military presence in Syria is actually aimed at taking control of the country’s economic assets and not at fighting against the ISIL international terror group [the former name of the Islamic State – TASS],” the statement reads.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, on February 7, “a pro-government militia unit, conducting surveillance and research activities near the al-Isba oil refinery (17 kilometers southeast of the Salhiyah settlement) to eliminate a militant group shelling the positions of government troops, was shelled with mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems.” “The attack was followed by an air raid by the US-led coalition’s helicopters. As a result, 25 Syrian militiamen suffered wounds.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said that the reason for the incident was that the Syrian militia unit had failed to inform the Russian operational group in Salhiyah about its plans to conduct a surveillance and research operation.

To say that this is a worrying and confusing picture would be a gross understatement.

Meanwhile Russian acquiescence in the Turkish attack on Kurdish controlled Afrin has led to Kurdish charges of ‘betrayal’ by Russia, whilst support for the Kurds from the Syrian government and Iran has led to talk of a Russian-Turkish ‘alliance’ against the Kurds, Syria and Iran.

By contrast the always astute former Indian diplomat turned international affairs commentator M.K. Bhadrakumar has spoken – far more plausibly – of Russian-Turkish relations being close to ‘meltdown’ because of bad blood between Russia and Turkey over the Syrian offensive into Idlib province.

Bhadrakumar even speaks of this leading to a rapprochement between the US and Turkey, with the US encouraging the falling out between Russia and Turkey by dangling before Turkey the prospect of US support for the establishment of what looks rather like a Turkish protectorate over Syria

For Turkey, the knot is three-fold. Firstly, it cannot come to terms with the new reality that Russia (which has civilizational ties with Greece and Cyprus) has today become the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, it disapproves of ongoing Syrian military operations, supported by air power, to regain control of Idlib from opposition groups that have enjoyed Turkish support. And, above all, thirdly, Erdogan’s grand design to establish a permanent Turkish foothold in Syria (which was ruled by the Ottomans), will remain a pipedream so long as Russia underpins Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Turkey has all along viewed Moscow’s links with the Kurds in Afrin suspiciously.

Erdogan is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime

Typically, therefore, Erdogan will now seek a modus vivendi with the US. Of course, it will be a dream come true for the US if the hairline crack in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria widens and becomes a rift in the coming weeks. In their opposition to the establishment of Russian bases in Syria, Washington and Ankara are on the same page.

On the other hand, the Pentagon will expect Erdogan to give up his plans to launch any military operation to attack the Kurds in Manbij. The US simply cannot accede to the Turkish demand that it break its alliance with Syria’s Kurds. US Defence Secretary James Mattis hinted on Friday that talks are going on with Turkey to dissuade Erdogan from ordering an operation on Manbij.

For his part, Erdogan will seek a tradeoff with the Trump administration to create conditions for a broader rapprochement with the US. He is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime. Indeed, a rift in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria opens an entirely new ball game in the country, one that enables the US to create new facts on the ground and negotiate harder on the terms of a future Syrian settlement. Israel is also a stakeholder here.

Erdogan all along hankered for an enhanced role for Turkey as the flag carrier in the West’s strategies in Syria, fancying himself to be the role model for the Muslim Middle East. But President Barack Obama was disinterested in any such dalliance with the mercurial Sultan in Ankara.

Bhadrakumar’s claims of an incipient realignment of Turkey with the US against Russia in Syria is not inherently implausible.

An article in Al-Monitor shows that President Erdogan remains as implacably hostile to Syrian President Assad as ever, and has categorically rejected demands which are now spreading in Turkey for a rapprochement with President Assad and with the Syrian government

Opposition parties along with retired generals and analysts [in Turkey] argue that cooperating with Damascus is the only way to ensure Turkey’s security interests along its long border with Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains adamantly opposed to talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, even though Ankara established low-level contacts with Damascus prior to launching its onslaught against the YPG in Afrin…..

Erdogan remains defiant and is angry with calls for him to make peace with Assad. He blasted Kilicdaroglu [a Turkish opposition politician who has called for a rapprochement with President Assad – AM] prior to flying to Rome on Feb. 4 on a state visit to the Vatican. “What kind of business is this?” Erdogan said in response to a question from reporters. “Here is a man who is heedlessly trying to bring us together with a man that caused the death of a million people.”

Given this attitude, it is far from impossible that Erdogan might decide to side with the US by taking further action against the Syrian government.

All this highlights the fundamental weakness of Russian strategy in Syria.  It depends far too much on the cooperation of President Erdogan, Turkey’s volatile and unpredictable President, whilst at the same time acting to thwart his regional ambitions.

The extent to which Russian diplomacy over the last two years has succeeded in keeping President Erdogan on track in light of this is remarkable, but it has required continuous and unremitting work with President Erdogan by President Putin and his diplomats.

The emerging crisis in Syria now requires President Putin to go to work with Erdogan again.  Here is the Kremlin’s summary of their conversation

The two presidents continued their discussion on the situation in Syria. Turkey’s leader expressed his condolences to the Russian President on the death of Russian military pilot Roman Filipov, who was piloting a Sukhoi Su-25 on February 3 and was attacked by militants in the Idlib de-escalation zone.

It was agreed to improve coordination of the Russian and Turkish troops and special services against terrorist groups that are violating the ceasefire.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan stressed the importance of strict and unfailing adherence to the Astana agreements on de-escalation zones in Syria. They reaffirmed mutual commitment to the political and diplomatic resolution of the crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in line with the decisions of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which took place on January 30, 2018 in Sochi.

In this context, the two leaders noted the importance of continuing cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran regarding Syria. They discussed future contacts in this format at various levels.

Though it is difficult to glean much from these words, the last paragraph clearly hints that a tripartite summit between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the growing crisis in Syria is in the works.

Reports from the Middle East confirm this and suggest that the summit will take place shortly in Istanbul.

Given the escalating crisis in Syria the three Presidents – assuming they meet – will have a great deal to discuss.

It is to be hoped that they are able to come to some sort of arrangement with each other, which will prevent the crisis deepening, and which will keep the Syrian process on track.

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