Why has Turkey Closed its Skies for Russian Aircraft Bound for Syria?

P 30.04.2022 U Valery Kulikov

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On April 23, during a tour of Latin America, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that his country was closing its airspace to Russian military and civilian flights bound for Syria. But he added that this decision did not mean that Turkey was joining in the anti-Russian sanctions – it was simply that the agreement on an air corridor concluded between Moscow and Ankara was only valid for three months. That term is expiring at the end of April, and Turkey does not plan to renew it, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently informed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two nations have agreed that Russia will not use Turkish airspace to transport its troops to Syria, Mr. Çavuşoğlu added.

Clearly, Ankara’s decision is related to a number of situations that have taken a more serious turn in recent months.

One of these is Turkey’s new military operation against the Kurds – not just the Kurdish armed groups in Iraq, but also those in Syria. Clearly Ankara does not wish Moscow to get in the way of its plays in some way.

It should be noted that this operation, Ankara’s third special operation against the Kurds, is clearly not being conducted at Washington’s behest, as it is, in part, directed against Kurdish formations loyal to the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Evidently, in an attempt to rein in Turkey’s military zeal, Washington has pressurized it into taking certain anti-Russian steps, and as a result Turkey has closed its airspace to Russian military and civilian aircraft.

The US itself is also concerned to limit Russia’s military operations in Syria, intending as it does to step up its aggressive operations there and, it seems, to open a “second front” in the confrontation with Russia. To this end, on April 23 the US sent a “convoy of 35 vehicles with trucks with munitions and technical supplies” as well as tankers for transporting oil from areas of Syria under Kurdish control. On April 25 another US military convoy arrived at the Kharab al-Jir aerodrome in the al-Malikiya area district of Al-Hasakah Governorate. According to a source from the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reporter it consisted of 36 vehicles loaded with boxes, cement panels and generators, supported by four US military armored vehicles.

In a bid to reinforce its position in its conflict with the Syrian state, Washington appears to have encouraged its ally Israel to launch military attacks on Syrian territory. In the morning of April 27 sites in the suburbs of Damascus were hit by Israeli rockets – the third such attack in less than a month.

Washington is also clearly concerned that Moscow may redeploy Russian forces and Syrian volunteers from its Khmeimim and Tartus bases to its special operation in Ukraine.

In short, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to close its airspace to Russia is entirely consistent with both its own and Washington’s interests.

In recent months Turkey, has been walking a tightrope in an attempt to avoid damaging its own interests by antagonizing either Washington or Moscow. It has made a point of showing Moscow that it is complying with the Montreux Convention, and doing all it can to prevent the clashes between NATO and Russian forces in the Black Sea. On April 26 it even initiated a new round of talks with Moscow on the purchase of a second Russian-made S-400 air defense system. The talks were led by Ismail Demir, head of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, who declared that “Ankara has no wish to discontinue its cooperation with Russia on arms supply issues because of the situation in Ukraine.”

It should also be noted that Ankara has urged all concerned to resolve the crisis in the Azovstal steel plant, and in particular to evacuate “the civilians and military personnel who are trapped there.” These initiatives are clearly not just spontaneous gestures or motivated by humanitarian considerations. After all, Turkey is continuing, along with other NATO members, to supply the Kiev regime with arms and other military equipment. These include Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have already been used in strikes on Russian territory.

Ankara’s concern is understandable, as it is now known that the fighters trapped in the Azovstal steelworks by Russian, PRD/PRL soldiers include hundreds of mercenaries from Turkey and Europe and high-ranking instructors from NATO countries, who are managing Kiev’s military operation in the Donbass. It would therefore clearly not be in the interests of the “collective West” for them to fall into Russia’s hands or for their presence to be made known to and judged by the international community, thus confirming what is already clear from the documentary evidence received by Moscow – namely the provocative role played by Washington and Brussels in inflaming the war in Ukraine. That is why in the last few days the West has allowed Ankara a much greater role in regulating the current situation.

As for Turkey’s closing of its airspace to Russian aircraft bound for Syria, that decision will certainly have an impact on the development of relations between Moscow and Ankara. Russia’s could potentially retaliate in any number of ways. It could, for example, restrict fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey, or limit the number of Russian tourists visiting the country. After all, 18% of Turkey’s national budget comes from Russian tourists, and given its current economic woes it can ill afford to lose this source of income. Or Moscow could take measures against the Turkish Stream project, promoted by Ankara in a bid to replace Ukraine as the leading gas hub in the region. Russia has many other sources of leverage over Turkey, including in Central Asia, and Ankara is well aware of this fact and has in recent years managed a fine balancing act to avoid losing Russia’s support.

It should also be remembered that Russia would have no problem finding alternative flight routes to Syria. Moscow could transport all the necessary supplies, including military equipment, via the Caspian Sea and Iran, which is happy to allow Russian military and civilian aircraft to use its airspace 24 hours a day for purposes related to the two countries’ joint military operations in Syria.

Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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