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Analysts Say Russia Likely to Use Syria Presence as Leverage Over Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (top right) and his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin (top left), get a close-up look at a Su-57 fighter on August 27 near Moscow. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Analysts Say Russia Likely to Use Syria Presence as Leverage Over Turkey

Ankara in talks with Moscow to buy fighter jets, possibly moving it farther away from US and other members of NATO

Russia is likely to use its increased dominance in Syria as leverage over Turkey and pull it farther away from the United States, analysts told The Media Line as Ankara and Moscow prepared to begin joint patrols in the war-torn country.

The patrols are part of an agreement between Turkey and Russia to remove a Kurdish militia from a 20-mile-deep corridor just across the border inside northeastern Syria. Ankara launched an incursion into the area on October 9 over what it said were security concerns arising from the presence of a US-backed Kurdish militia, the YPG.

Turkey states that the YPG is connected to the PKK, a Kurdish group inside Turkey that has long been agitating for autonomy, and that it wants to create a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees just across the border, without the presence of the YPG.

Washington reached a shaky ceasefire agreement with Turkey once Ankara gained control of some of the corridor. However, the Syrian regime, backed by Moscow, reclaimed parts of it after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue the ceasefire.

On Wednesday, the Turkish president warned that his country could continue fighting in Syria.

“We will provide a drastic response to any attack coming from outside the safe zone and we will expand our safe zone area if needed,” Erdogan told fellow AK Party members, according to the Turkish state news agency.

However, such a move is unlikely in the immediate future, as Erdogan earlier stated that according to Russia, Kurdish fighters had left northeastern Syria as part of the Ankara-Moscow agreement, signed on October 22 in Sochi.

The deal is being viewed as another step in warming relations between NATO-member Turkey and US-foe Russia.

Last week, the Turkish pro-government Daily Sabah reported that Ankara was close to a contract with Moscow over the purchase of Russian fighter jets, including an agreement for Turkey to assemble some of the aircraft.

If true, this would echo a similar agreement that had been struck for the procurement of US F-35 fighters. The deal was canceled by the Trump Administration over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air-defense missile system, with Washington arguing that this could give Russian technicians ostensibly in the country to help with the S-400s get a look at the F-35’s secret stealth technology.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the purchase of Russian fighter jets would be a major risk to Turkey’s relations with the US and NATO.

“There’s a general sense of unease about Turkish-Russian relations and, beyond the purchase of military equipment, what this signals for the future,” he told The Media Line.

Stein added, though, that if Turkey is seeking to break away from American defense technology, the only option is Russia.

“If Turkey wants to be more independent, cooperation with Russia makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Muzaffer Senel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, says the purchase of fighters from Russia would be in line with Erdogan’s goal of defense independence.

“Not relying on just American systems has long been a priority for the government of Erdogan,” Senel told The Media Line.

Part of this motivation, he stated, is Western arms embargoes Turkey has faced, most recently over its incursion into Syria.

Senel said a key part of a potential deal with Russia would be the co-manufacture of the jets, which would give Ankara more knowledge about military technology, allowing it to develop more of its own weapons and attain Erdogan’s goal of defense independence.

He warned, however, that Turkey – which uses Russia for much of its energy needs – could end up being too dependent on Moscow and incapable of counterbalancing Russian influence.

“Russia will use this as leverage for sure,” Senel said. “I have no doubt about this.”

Kristian Brakel, an Istanbul-based analyst and head of the Turkey Department at the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, argues that while the full terms of the Sochi deal over Syria remain unclear, it’s highly likely that Moscow will use them as leverage over Ankara.

“I think the intent is clear: Whatever Turkey wants in Syria comes with a price tag,” he told The Media Line. “It’s Russia’s interest to keep Turkey at the table… and now it’s far easier for Russia to set the terms.”

Brakel believes that Russia does not want to push Turkey out of NATO, but rather to make it more difficult for the military alliance to act cohesively, noting that with Ankara using Russian weapons, it will be harder for NATO countries to connect their weapons systems with those of Turkey.

“All of these developments,” he said, “serve a certain purpose: to weaken Turkey’s link with NATO.”

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