While the August 9 meeting between Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin did go a long way in unfreezing their own relations, this meeting—and the prospects of warm relations between them—has certainly put the U.S. under a lot of pressure, forcing president Obama to re-think about the U.S.’ military engagements in the region and the need to prolong them. This is quite evident from the way the U.S. has, all of a sudden, re-started fresh military intervention in Libya without any legitimate authorization. The panic the U.S. in general is experiencing is also evident from the way has Obama succumbed to his commander’s wish to maintain such a troop level in Afghanistan as to allow an open ended ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan—and use as it as wedge against Russia. Similar is the case in Syria where the battle in Aleppo has been escalated to a point where negotiations to end the crisis become meaningless and instead allow Obama and the next U.S. president to keep the “regime change” mantra alive.
Many in the U.S. policy making circles believe that the U.S. does strongly need to boost its military operation in Syria against Assad. As a matter of fact, Dennis Ross, former senior Middle East advisor to Obama, wrote only last week in the New York Times that by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Assad government’s military resources, the U.S. could begin “speaking in a language that Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin understand.”
The reason for this is the possible enhanced military co-operation between Russia and Turkey. For an instance, the Russian decision to convert Hmeymim Air Base as a permanent fully-operational military base in Syria has everything to do with the Turkish-Russian rapprochement. The Russian Defense Ministry since disclosed the details of the plan for Hmeymim, which includes expanding aircraft apron, improving the air strip, building barracks and a hospital, assigning extra space for large transport aircraft, installation of new radio equipment including air traffic control systems, creating new sites for deployment of Pantsir surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems and so on.
It was in August last year that Russia and Syria signed an agreement allowing Moscow to use Hmeymim for an indefinite period free of charge, but, interestingly, it was on August 9 that an entry in the official data base of Russian Duma showed that Putin has submitted the document for ratification by parliament.
Without doubt, a fully operational base in Hmeymim, which is located virtually on the Turkish border, signifies a major geopolitical decision that factors in the Russian-Turkish rapprochement and a sign that Russia may stand with Turkey against the possible creation of Kurdistan on Syria-Turkish border. Russian support against Kurdistan—an issue that happens to be Turkey’s primary concern behind its entire engagement in Syria—would suffice to provide Erdogan the much needed security against the prospects of his country’s territorial disintegration.
Although some concerns and differences with regard to the future of Assad in Syria remain, what is important to note is the way both countries have decided to enhance co-operation to end these differences. Within a day of Erdogan proposing and Putin accepting the idea of a ‘mechanism’ comprising diplomats, military and intelligence officials of the two sides to discuss the nitty-gritty of Syrian conflict, a composite Turkish delegation took off for Moscow to meet Russian counterparts on August 11.
The Russian-backed Assad forces’ setbacks this week in Aleppo, where erstwhile Turkish-backed rebel forces broke the city’s siege, underscored the impossibility of total victory for either side. It remains to be seen when and how a new Syria will be mapped and built, but chances that postwar Syria will be engineered jointly by Putin and Erdogan have this week grown. Such a deal will likely secure the interests of the Turkish-backed Sunnis and the Russian-backed Alawites. However, it will leave exposed the Syrian Kurds, whose evolving autonomy Ankara sees as a threat, due to their contiguity with Turkey’s own restive Kurds.
And as both countries come closer, differences between Turkey and its ‘first-love’ EU continue to widen. Ironically, it was on the coup’s eve that Ankara and Brussels had drafted a deal to grant Turks visa-free travel as well as billions to their government in turn for helping block the migratory influx.
However, since the next morning of the coup-night, things have changed between them to a considerable extent. The more Brussels frustrates Ankara’s accession requests and scolds it on issues of political freedom and human rights, the more Turkey will join Putin in ‘anti-West alliance.’ As such, with Turkey not paying heed to the so-called “requirements” that its NATO status imposes upon it, it seems that Erdogan has eventually given up the idea of joining EU formally or be a part of NATO’s war against Russia in the Middle East and Europe i.e., Ukraine.
That the U.S. has speeded the war against Russia in Syria is evident from the way U.S. supplied weapons are being used against Russia. This cannot be just a coincidence. Although Russia did not officially blame the U.S., some reports have certainly indicated that the missile that shot down a Russian helicopter had been supplied by the U.S.
Reuters pointed out that in the area in Idlib near Aleppo where the Russian helicopter was shot down, Islamic State fighters are not active, “but there are other Islamist rebel groups there, as well as moderates backed by the United States and its allies”.
And shooting down of the helicopter by groups that were once being supported by Turkey too was clearly aimed at putting some bad colour on the up-coming meeting of Erdogan with Putin. Similarly, what introduces an element of intrigue in the on-going fight in Aleppo is that the US-backed rebel offensive got under way hardly 48 hours before the trip by Turkish President Recep Erdogan to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on August 9.
Certainly Russia or Iran do not, at any stage or cost, stand to benefit from the fight in Aleppo. It is the U.S. and its allies who are aiming at using this scenario to escalate the war and defy a Russian-Turk deal in Syria. While this is not to suggest that Russia is gearing up for a confrontation with the Obama administration, the US, on its part, does seem to be creating new ground realities where Dennis Ross’s prognosis can become a viable action point at a future date if a future US president decides on those lines.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.