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Trump’s strike in Syria unlikely to help Turkey-Russia ties

Photo: CNN

 By Oya Aktaş

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and top Turkish officials have declared their support for the U.S. missile strike on Syria that occurred early Friday, and expressed hope that more intervention would follow. Despite Turkish support for the intervention, the missile is likely to hurt Turkey’s ties with Russia.

Feeling increasingly alienated by his Western allies, Erdogan began in summer of 2016 to work towards better ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the United States Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat airfield—believed to have been the base that launched the Assad regime’s chemical attack on Idlib province three days prior—is once again may strain Turkish-Russian relations.

Turkish-Russian ties hit a low point in November 24th of 2015 when Turkey downed a Russian plane that had allegedly violated Turkish airspace. Putin responded by calling Turks “accomplices of terrorists” and warning of “serious consequences.” Moscow imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, and the Russian tourist board suspended tours to Turkey, which was estimated to deprive the Turkish economy of $10 billion. Still, Erdogan refused to apologize.

Erdogan finally yielded by sending Putin a letter of apology in June of 2016. That same month, the two spoke on the phone to further mend the rift caused by the plane incident. The next month, when the July 15 putschists attempted to topple Erdogan in a coup, Putin was the first major world leader to call and offer his sympathies to the Turkish president. In August, Erdogan travelled to Russia for a St. Petersburg summit, where he met with Putin and discussed ways to improve economic and military ties. Still, reconciliation was a slow process: though Russia had been the largest market for Turkish tomatoes before the sanctions, Moscow did not remove tomatoes from the list of banned Turkish products. As Daily Sabah reported, Russians had to instead buy Turkish tomatoes at a higher price from intermediary countries. Moscow’s reticence indicated lingering frustrations with Turkey.

Now, the missile strikes in Syria will impede Turkish-Russian relations once more. Though CNN reported that the Kremlin has denied complicity in the chemical attack, the U.S. missile strike indicates a more hardline stance in the Syrian civil war against Russia’s main ally: the Assad regime. Erdogan had long advocated for regime change in Syria, without material support from the U.S. and other allies, but had recently shifted Turkey’s priorities in Syria to focus more on the Kurdish PYD and the ISIS. Erdogan’s support for the U.S. strike puts him back at odds with Assad and, by extension, Putin. Signaling Turkey’s recognition of this challenge, Cumhuriyet reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu called on Russia to “Not stand behind Assad” while pleading US to do more to remove the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Turkish forces are still in the Syrian soil and are holding relatively a large swath of territory all the way to al Bab. Though Turkish Jets are not flying missions into Syria currently, if things change and Ankara needs to send jets to patrol the area inside Syria, the Russian consent and permission is a must.

It remains unclear whether the Tomahawk missile strike is a harbinger of more military action to come. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson signaled that the strike was message to Assad for chemical attack and there is no other change. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Turkey analyst Metin Gürcan insisted that the missile strike could be an isolated incident, and that direct attacks on Damascus would be a more telling sign of a serious shift in U.S. policy in Syria. However, Gürcan also noted that Erdogan’s immediate support of the strike indicated a return to Erdogan’s instinctual insistence that Assad must go.

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