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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Erdogan Heads to Moscow as Tensions Over Syria Escalate

By Dorian Jones August 26, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Moscow on Tuesday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to bridge the deepening divide over Syria.

Erdogan is calling for an end to the Russian-backed Damascus offensive against rebels in Syria's Idlib province.

"This meeting is a very significant one because Turkish-Russian relations [do] not seem to be as rosy at they were only a short while ago," said Soli Ozel, international relations lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. "And this is a function of what is going on in Idlib."

Ozel added, "He [Erdogan] will want the [Damascus] offensive to stop. That will not happen. I don't think Erdogan will get much. It's going to be a tough meeting."

Last week, Erdogan warned that the Idlib offensive threatened a humanitarian crisis and posed a threat to Turkish national security.

In September 2018, Ankara and Moscow hammered out an agreement at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi which averted Damascus from launching an offensive against Idlib.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov strongly defended the current Idlib offensive, blaming Ankara for failing to rein in rebel forces under the Sochi deal.

"The Syrian armed forces as supported by us are not violating the [Sochi] agreement," Lavrov said, "despite all measures, including the formation of Turkish military observation posts [in Idlib], the shelling [by rebels against Russian bases in Syria] within the Idlib zone, including, as we repeatedly stated, in front of Turkish observers, continued and somehow intensified."

Turkey has 12 military outposts in Idlib, one of which is now surrounded by Damascus-backed forces. Ankara claims its forces have also been targeted by regime forces in recent fighting. Erdogan is expected to press Putin for safety guarantees for his Turkish troops.

In a sign of possible growing internal discord within Turkey's military over Idlib, newly appointed Maj.-Gen. Ahmet Ercan Corbaci, who was in charge of mechanized infantry forces in the province, and his deputy, Brig. Gen. Ertugrul Saglam, resigned Sunday.

"They either don't believe in the mission [in Idlib] or the management of the mission, or they are angry about something," said Ozel. "This doesn't suggest a solidly unified military corps."

Russian intervention

Analysts warn that Erdogan will struggle for a breakthrough with Moscow in easing the situation, given that Ankara and Moscow back rival sides in the Syrian conflict.

"What we are seeing is crisis management," said Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar of international relations at Oxford University. "What they are doing is just delaying the crisis. They are coming up with cosmetic solutions."

The timing of the Damascus offensive in Idlib, coming just after Ankara and Washington agreed on a military operation into Syria, is fueling speculation that Putin is seeking to undermine the tentative deal.

The U.S.-Turkey deal envisages creating a buffer zone in Syria to protect the Turkish border from the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which Ankara deems a terrorist organization linked to insurgents inside Turkey.

Washington's support of the YPG in its war against Islamic State has poisoned relations with its NATO ally.

"Moscow would oppose any rapprochement between Ankara and Washington," said Zaur Gasimov, a senior research fellow in the Russian studies department at the University of Bonn.

The souring of U.S.-Turkish ties has been a major impetus to Ankara's recent deepening of relations with Moscow.

"The invisible third party in this [Turkey-Russia] relationship is the West," Dalay said. "The quality and nature of relations with the West very much shaped the trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations."

Military purchases

Erdogan does retain some leverage over Putin. Ankara recently bought Russia's multibillion dollar S-400 missile system in the face of strong opposition from Washington.

Washington claims the missile system compromises NATO weapons, including America's latest F-35 fighter jet. The delivery to Turkey of the S-400 prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend Ankara's purchase of the F-35.

During his Moscow visit, Erdogan is expected to discuss further military purchases.

"The transfer of know-how and modernization of its military assets are essential elements of Turkey's policy toward Russia," Gasimov said. "Aside of Syria, Erdogan's trip to Moscow and Kazan should be seen in that context, as well. In Moscow, Erdogan will visit the International Aviation and Space Salon, MAKS, and a similar event in Kazan on the next day. The delivery of the S-400 is also going on."

In a move seen as a gesture to Moscow, Turkey's defense minister, Hulusi Akar, announced Monday the delivery of the S-400 would be moved up to this year. Erdogan is also expected to discuss the procurement of Russia's S-35 fighter with Putin.

Ozel warns that Erdogan's Moscow visit underlines Ankara's increasingly difficult diplomatic strategy of balancing Russia and the United States.

"If they are going to talk about Turkey buying the S-35 instead of the F-35, then this will continue the alienation and maybe disengagement of Turkey from the Western alliance. And the Russians seem to enjoy this happening," Ozel said.

"On the other hand," Ozel added, "Ankara's recent deal with the Americans shows that Turkey cannot that easily do away with 67 years of history of an official alliance with NATO. It's a quandary, and it's a very difficult position Ankara finds itself in. I think we've come to the end of playing Washington and Moscow off one another."

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