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Whilst Turkish officials are busy spreading stories about Russian proposals to carve up Syria and ditch President Assad that have no basis, the Turkish media has been full of stories of Russian warplanes bombing ISIS to help the Turkish army near Al-Bab.
Al-Bab was where ISIS inflicted a stinging defeat on the Turkish army ten days ago. Turkish President Erdogan sought to make up for the lack of air support for Turkish troops near Al-Bab – apparently caused by Russian and Syrian warnings to Turkey not to send its air force over the town – by asking the US led anti ISIS coalition to provide such air support instead. Shortly after making this request, President Erdogan furiously denounced the US for supporting ISIS.
These oddly discordant statements have provoked some bemusement, though they are actually very characteristic of President Erdogan. In this case they are a clear sign that the US refused his request for air support almost immediately after it was made.
Are the Russians now filling the gap by providing the Turkish military near Al-Bab with air support, which the US has refused?
Firstly, it needs to be said that all the reports of Russian air strikes near Al-Bab in support of the Turkish army are coming solely from Turkish sources. The Russians have preserved a complete silence on this issue. However if the Russian air force were not active near Al-Bab one would expect the Turkish claims, which have now been circulating for several days, to be denied, even if this were done in a discrete way so as not to annoy the Turks.
Also there is no doubt the Turkish air force has recently carried out air strikes near Al-Bab. Clearly if there was a Russian warning to Turkey not to send its air force to Al-Bab it has either been withdrawn or relaxed.
The best guess is that the Russians are indeed providing limited air support to the Turkish army near Al-Bab.
For President Erdogan capturing Al-Bab has become a personal matter, in which he feels that his prestige is bound up. By helping the Turkish army defeat ISIS and capture Al-Bab the Russians are not only acting to help the Turks where Turkey’s US “ally” has refused its help, but they are also providing President Erdogan with help on a crucial issue that matters a lot personally to him, putting him further in their debt.
Since Russian air strikes in support of the Turkish army, even if undertaken solely against ISIS, are a highly controversial matter for Russia’s Syrian and Kurdish allies, the Russians have good reason to say nothing about them, and that almost certainly explains the Russians’ silence.
If the Russians really are carrying out air strikes to help the Turkish army near Al-Bab, they will have undoubtedly set conditions, which Erdogan presumably has promised to meet. A reasonable guess is that the Russians have insisted that there must be no further Turkish advance from Al-Bab towards Aleppo, and that Turkey must limit the military campaign it is currently undertaking in Syria against the Kurds.
The problem with imposing these sort of conditions on President Erdogan is that on past experience he has a habit of ‘forgetting’ commitments he has made when they no longer suit him. In this case that might be as soon as Al-Bab is captured. What if any guarantees the Russians have extracted from President Erdogan to ensure that won’t happen is anyone’s guess.