ANKARA: Turkey’s blocking of Russian planes flying to Syria is a calculated move to maintain its balancing strategy, experts say.
Following a meeting of senior Turkish officials with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, Turkey closed its airspace to Russian civilian and military planes carrying soldiers to Syria.
The decision will be valid for three months.
During a visit to Uruguay on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that Turkey had given Russia consent to use its airspace at “three-month intervals”.
However, the last consent period expired earlier in April and the flights ceased.
On opposite sides, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been key players on the Syrian battlefield, where the Kremlin and Tehran have supported Syrian President Bashar Assad in political, logistical and military terms, while Turkey gave support to the rebel forces.
Following the closure of Turkish airspace, Russian planes will only be able to pass through Iran and Iraq to reach Syria.
Turkey has been acting as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine since February. The long-awaited meeting between Russian and Ukrainian leaders is expected to take place in Turkey. The airspace move is seen by some experts as leverage for Turkey to persuade Russia to restart peace talks.
On Saturday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov to discuss the war.
The Turkish economy benefits from significant tourist flows and energy imports from Russia, which could be threatened if Ankara avoids the renewal of the airspace agreement.
Samuel Ramani, a research associate at the Royal United Service Institute, said Turkey’s blocking of Russian flights to Syria reflects its dissatisfaction with Russia’s plans to annex southern Ukraine and much of the coast of the Black Sea.
“Turkey sees itself as a Black Sea power and would consider such a major disruption of the geopolitical balance in the region as highly problematic,” he told Arab News.
Under the Montreux Convention regarding the regime of the straits, Turkey also limited the passage of Russian warships from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean at the start of the Ukrainian war, but commercial flights to and from destination of Russia have remained intact despite Western embargoes on Russian flights. .
According to Ramani, Turkey is also facing more pressure from the United States and the EU to sanction Russia, which it has so far resisted. He added that Turkey’s new move is “a great way” to reinforce its commitment to NATO efforts to counter Russia.
“It is unclear whether this decision will fundamentally overhaul Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria, particularly in Idlib, where joint patrols are moving, and Turkey still seems interested in mediating between Russia and Ukraine. So far, the Russian media and officials have remained relatively silent on this development, suggesting they are hopeful this issue will be resolved,” he said.
Emre Ersen, an expert on Russian-Turkish relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, said that although Turkey has avoided imposing sanctions on Russia, it has also made its pro-Ukrainian position “very clear”. since the start of the war.
“This latest move in this direction could be interpreted as a sign of Turkey’s support for the West, which has criticized Ankara’s neutral stance on anti-Russian sanctions,” he told Arab News.
Ersen said that while the Turkish move will upset Russia as it is increasingly isolated internationally, Moscow is unlikely to alienate Ankara as a result.
“Syria has already become secondary in terms of Russian foreign policy in recent months due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. This is also why Russia will likely follow a wait-and-see policy regarding the implications of Turkey’s latest move,” he said.
Although many analysts have already hailed this decision as a strong sign of support for Ukraine, Karol Wasilewski, director of Actionable Analytics, the Warsaw-based analytical agency NEOŚwiat, said that this decision is more related to the dynamics Turkish-Russian in Syria.
“Turkey wants to dissuade Russia from using humanitarian issues as a tool of foreign policy and an element of pressure on Turkey, in particular to block the extension of the use of the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing for the transport humanitarian aid. Given that the current mandate expires in July 2022, I think the decision to close the airspace should be seen in that context,” he told Arab News.
Concerns are growing that Russia may consider closing the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing – the last remaining point through which international humanitarian aid is funneled into Syria – if tensions escalate further between the West and the Kremlin about the Ukrainian conflict.
More than 1,000 humanitarian trucks cross the Syria-Turkey border every month to meet the basic needs of 3.4 million people living in the northwest region of Idlib.
Turkey’s restriction of Russian warships is a clear signal to Russia that Ankara intends to harm Moscow’s interests in Syria, Wasilewski said.
“It’s true that Russia has more burning issues now, but Syria has always been seen by Russian policymakers as a card to use in their big bargain with the United States, a process that – in Russian eyes – was aimed also to decide the fate of Ukraine,” he said.
Wasilewski added that Turkey’s signals on Syria are “worrying” for Russia, as they undermine Moscow’s ability to use Syria as a bargaining chip with the United States.
“This not only serves to distract Russian policymakers, but also forces them to rethink their grand strategy,” he said.