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Turkish, Russian Leaders Speak as Syria Strains Grow


FILE - Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army members are seen on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria Jan. 28, 2018.

Turkey and Russia's presidents have reportedly agreed to meet with their Iranian counterpart in Istanbul in the near future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke Thursday amid growing tensions between the countries over Syria.The two also agreed to increase coordination between their forces in Syria.

The telephone conversation follows a tumultuous few days in Syria.

Saturday, a Russian made missile was blamed by Ankara for the destruction of a Turkish tank and the killing of eight Turkish soldiers in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

FILE - A Turkish military tank is seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria, Jan. 23, 2018. Five Turkish soldiers died Saturday in the Afrin area when their tank was attacked.
FILE - A Turkish military tank is seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria, Jan. 23, 2018. Five Turkish soldiers died Saturday in the Afrin area when their tank was attacked.

The deaths were the worst loss for Turkey since it launched an offensive against the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria nearly three weeks ago.

Also Saturday, a Russian jet was downed by Syrian rebels in Idlib.The rebel group blamed by Russia has close ties to Turkey, and Russian media alluded to Turkish involvement, a charge denied by Ankara.

A photo provided by the Ibaa News Agency, the media arm of al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, reportedly shows part of a Russian jet that was shot down by rebel fighters over Idlib province in Syria, Feb. 3, 2018.
A photo provided by the Ibaa News Agency, the media arm of al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, reportedly shows part of a Russian jet that was shot down by rebel fighters over Idlib province in Syria, Feb. 3, 2018.

Erdogan reportedly offered his condolences to Putin for the loss of the Russian pilot. Turkey used its connections with the Syrian rebels to help repatriate the pilot's body.

The incident likely serves as a painful reminder to Putin of the 2015 shooting down by a Turkish jet of a Russian bomber operating from a Syrian airbase. Then, Putin all but severed relations with Ankara and imposed painful sanctions. Now, Moscow appears publicly ready to accept Ankara's denials of responsibility.

Russia 'unhappy'

But since Monday, Russia has prevented Turkish warplanes supporting ground forces fighting in Afrin from entering Syria airspace.

"Russia is unhappy and concerned," noted International Relations Professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University, "Russia and Turkey have developed certain relations, but Turkey is much more dependent on Russia. Turkey can't operate in Syrian airspace without Russia."

The scale of the Turkish operation and Ankara's objectives in Syria are also reportedly adding to Moscow's concern.

Addressing supporters Thursday, Erdogan further stoked concerns over the Afrin operation.

"Those who thought we've forgotten all about these lands [Syria] after withdrawing in tears a century ago better realize now they are wrong about Turkey," he said.

Erdogan also lashed out at foreign powers, including Moscow, for attempting to keep Turkey out of Syria.

Observers suggest Moscow is also uneasy about Turkish reliance on elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the Afrin operation.

Political columnist Semih Idiz, of Al Monitor website argued that Moscow's concern "is more about the FSA" and some of its elements that are fighting with Turkey.

"They are made up of groups that Russia is bombing," he added. "That is a potential weak spot in the [Russian-Turkish] relationship. Sooner or later this will surface."

Ankara and Moscow remain at loggerheads about which Syrian groups can be considered terrorists.

Moscow has tempered its criticism of Ankara. "Both Moscow and Ankara try to maintain the cooperation and are not interested in any kind of frictions which can provoke a break," noted Zaur Gasimov, an Istanbul-based specialist on Russian-Turkish relations at the Max Weber Foundation.

FILE - Delegates attend a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, Jan. 30, 2018.
FILE - Delegates attend a plenary session at the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, Jan. 30, 2018.

In its attempts with Tehran to negotiate a solution to the Syrian civil war, Moscow considers Ankara's strong ties with some Syrian rebel groups important. But experts note key Syrian opposition groups, many with links to Ankara, boycotted the Russian-hosted Sochi meeting in January, likely adding to Moscow's unease.

Severing alliances

Russia's deepening relationship with Turkey in the past year potentially offers a bigger prize: the strategic goal of drawing Ankara away from the United States and NATO.

"Turkey and Russia have finally found each other after 300 years separation due to Western-incited wars," Erdogan's chief aide, Yigit Bulut, declared on a TV show this week."Turkey no longer needs the West when Russia and China are taking Turkey's side."

A Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said there are deep concerns Erdogan wants to re-orientate Turkey towards Moscow.

Putin is well aware Turkish-US relations are at crisis point over Washington's support of the YPG in its fight against Islamic State. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to extend the Syrian offensive to the town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed with the YPG.

Gasimov said Moscow "is about to elaborate a new strategy for Syria." But for now, he said it is intensively observing the dynamics in the region and in Syria, particularly American-Turkish relations "with regard to the movements of the Turkish troops in Afrin and the plans related to Manbij."

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