Georgy Stepanov, Sergei Strokan, Ivan Safronov

Kommersant, August 25, 2016, pp. 1, 6

Relations of Moscow and Ankara are exposed to a new test. Turkish army with air support of the coalition headed by the US entered the territory of Syria and started antiterrorist operation Euphrates Shield not coordinated with Damascus.


Relations of Moscow and Ankara are exposed to a new test. Turkish army with air support of the coalition headed by the US entered the territory of Syria and started antiterrorist operation Euphrates Shield not coordinated with Damascus. By the afternoon, border city Jarabulus was taken from Islamic State. The Turkish operation was approved by US Vice President Joe Biden who arrived on a visit to Ankara whereas the Foreign Ministry of Russia expressed “deep concern.” The operation in Syria not coordinated with Moscow threatens to aggravate the process of normalization of bilateral cooperation on which presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed in St. Petersburg.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the beginning of Euphrates Shield operation yesterday morning, having explained that it was aimed against terrorist group Islamic State (IS, prohibited in Russia) and Kurdish self-defense forces that Ankara also considered to be terrorists. The Turkish leader remarked that Ankara did not consider its actions a threat to territorial integrity of Syria, “Turkey does not pursue any other goals except for aid to the Syrian people.”

Preparation for the operation lasted for a few days. While servicemen of Turkish special units conducted reconnaissance of the terrain on the territory of Syria, Turkish tanks and heavy artillery were concentrated in the border areas. With assistance of a massive bombardment of Jarabulus (not less than 224 strikes at 63 targets were registered in the first hours) and a series of aviation strikes with participation of airplanes of the international coalition headed by the US opposition detachments of Free Syrian Free (FSA) managed to enter the city and establish their control over it in a few hours. Nobody offered a serious resistance to them: IS militants being in Jarabulus started leaving the city on the eve of the operation and during its active phase they retreated almost fully. In its statements the Turkish party said that what was going on could not be considered a ground operation: their task was opening of a corridor for the armed forces of moderate Syrian opposition for cleaning up of Jarabulus from terrorists. The territory of Turkey was bombarded regularly exactly from this city lately.

According to a military source, Russian special services had information about an intention of Turkey to conduct the operation but its scale turned out to be unexpected, “It would be possible to take this city by much smaller forces, they will not stop at this area and will most likely go further.” With regard to the Turkish operation in Syria, the Foreign Ministry of Russia expressed “deep apprehensions.” Its officials said, “A possibility of further degradation of the conflict including possible collateral damage among civilians and aggravation of inter-ethnic contradictions between the Kurds and the Arabs causes concern.” Official Syrian authorities characterized the actions of the Turkish forces as “Invasion.” In its statement the Foreign Ministry of Syria that called on the UN Security Council to interfere into the situation urgently and “to stop the aggression” said that Syria “condemns crossing of the border by tanks and armored vehicles of Turkey in the direction of Jarabulus with support of the American coalition from the air and considers this a gross infringement on sovereignty.” US Vice President Joseph Biden who visited Ankara did not accept these claims, actively supported the actions of Ankara and took them as an important step in the struggle against the US.

Alexander Vasilyev, senior research fellow of the Institute of Oriental Studies, announced, “In the course of Euphrates Shield Turkey supports the moderate Syrian opposition by its tanks, artillery and aviation. Along with this, a similar scheme and model were already worked out by the Turks.” According to the expert, in North Iraq earlier Turks interacted with the local Kurds loyal to them in the same way and did this successfully. Vasilyev said, “They established an entire network of basic points and military bases then. Thus Ankara tried to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and to relocate this struggle from the southeast of Turkey to the north of Iraq.”

Meanwhile, according to the polled experts, Euphrates Shield operation is aimed mostly against the Kurds although it is disguised as combating of international terrorist, against US. Vasilyev explained, “The main goal is to prevent the Kurd cantons from uniting into a unified enclave on the border of Syria and Turkey.”

Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Ruslan Pukhov said that it was very symbolic that Euphrates Shield operation coincided with the visit of US Vice President Biden to Ankara. Pukhov explained, “Bearing in mind that in the last few weeks relations of Ankara and Washington reached the lowest point, for both parties this operation became an ideal possibility to distract attention from the problem of Islamic preacher Fethulah Gulen and to demonstrate that the US and Turkey remained strategic allies.”

This way or the other, but for Moscow Euphrates Shield operation became an unpleasant surprise that demonstrated that hopes for rapprochement of positions of the parties about Syria that appeared after the meeting of presidents Putin and Erdogan were obviously too early. Having made a decision on the operation in Jarabulus, the Turkish leader sent a signal that relations with the US remained a priority for him and he preferred acting in the framework of the antiterrorist coalition headed not by Moscow but by Washington. In case of aggravation of the situation Russian military and diplomats are ready to use secret channels of bilateral communication with Turkish colleagues and even to express their apprehensions to the US if necessary.

Actions of Ankara may have a serious effect on the process of normalization of bilateral cooperation on which presidents Putin and Erdogan have agreed. Director of Russia-East-West center Vladimir Sotnikov presumes, “Erdogan is playing his own game and remains on the other side of the barricades still.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation in Syria over the telephone including the humanitarian situation in Aleppo and prospects of coordination of actions in the struggle against terrorists. Along with this, on August 26 foreign ministers of Russia and the US plan to meet in Geneva personally to continue negotiations on the Syrian regulation. Representatives of both the Foreign Ministry and the Department of State confirmed that the meeting would take place.

The Friday’s negotiations may bring interaction of Moscow and Washington on Syria to a new level. It is expected that the parties will sign a document that is being developed now that will enable them to regulate the mechanism of a deeper and more active interaction of Russian and American servicemen in Syria. On August 22, Biden announced that his meeting with Lavrov would take place only should negotiations between the expert groups of the two countries achieve the results. The US Secretary of State said, “I will not be surprised if the negotiations are positive and constructive and if we gather sooner or later and thus we will possibly come to agreement on something by the end of the month.” Spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova also pointed attention at importance of the negotiation process. On August 18, she announced, “The working is going on and has entered the momentous phase.”

In turn, a top-ranking sources in the General Staff of Russia reported: if it is possible to work out a new mechanism for interaction with American servicemen in Syria and if it is observed by both parties this “will make work of the armed forces of Russia in Syria much simpler” because in such case “it will not be necessary to spend time on settling of scores.”