Downing of Russian jet to spell trouble for Turkish plans in Syria

Days after a Turkish jet shot down the Russian plane near the Turkish border in Syria, reports of Russian military aid to Kurdish militants in Syria started to appear.

The emergence of a Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria — such as an autonomous Kurdish region, if not an independent state — is a nightmare scenario for Turkey as it fears the formation of such an entity would whet the appetite of its own Kurds.

Turkey has previously made it clear several times that it would not tolerate Kurdish militants of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria advancing to the west of the Euphrates.

Such an advance by the Kurds in Syria, Ankara fears, will lead to the formation of a Kurdish corridor — a sort of de facto autonomous region — towards the Mediterranean along its southern border.

Reports appeared about a week after Turkey downed the Russian jet that Russia supplied weapons and military assistance to the PYD militants fighting to forge a Kurdish corridor in northern Syria.

“No matter from where you look at it, nothing can be more foolish than having shot down the Russian jet,” Osman Koruturk, a former diplomat, said on Yurt TV during the week.

After capturing Tel Abyad from the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in October with the help of US air support, the PYD currently controls a stretch of land in northern Syria from the Iraqi border to the east of the Euphrates.

In addition, the PYD also controls Afrin, another of the three Kurdish self-declared cantons in Syria, which lies further to the west and is on the border with Turkey’s Hatay province.

Between Afrin and the other two Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border — Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, and Jazeera — lies a patch of land which is 79 kilometers in width. This patch of land is currently under ISIL control.

Top Turkish officials have often warned that Turkey would militarily intervene should the PYD attempt to trespass the Euphrates to join with the Afrin canton.

According to a report in the Milliyet daily on Tuesday, the PYD militants in the Afrin and Kobani cantons have been attacking, backed by Russian air support, ISIL positions on both fronts to drive ISIL out of the area.

However, Turkey could have hoped, thanks to the good bilateral relations the two countries enjoyed until the jet incident, to persuade Russia into not offering military assistance to the PYD if it had not drawn Russian anger by downing the jet.

A Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 on Nov. 24, as the Russian jet purportedly violated Turkish airspace despite several warnings.

The downed Russian jet was bombarding Turkmens who were fighting, with Turkey’s support, against the Syrian government.

A day after the jet was shot down, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the act a “stab in the back” and warned of serious consequences for Turkish-Russian relations.

Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, would be eager to get its revenge by taking down a Turkish fighter should it dare to block a PYD advance to connect with Afrin to the west of the Euphrates.

As opposed to Russia, Turkey has backed, in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, rebel groups fighting the Syrian government.

Any incursion by Turkey into the Syrian territory would be considered by Russia, as well as by the Syrian regime, as a violation of the country’s territorial integrity.

The Syrian government and Russia do not consider the PYD, in contrast with the rebel groups, as a terrorist organization as it does not fight to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Turkey, however, considers the PYD a terrorist organization due to its links with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a bloody war against Turkey since 1984.

With ISIL being designated as a terrorist organization by everyone, a PYD advance against ISIL would be welcome for the Russians and the Syrian government.

In the middle of last week, Russia was reported to have provided in an airborne operation the PYD militants north of Aleppo with five tons of light weaponry.

Let alone deterring Russia from bombing Turkmens, the downing of the jet has paved the way for Russia to build up its military presence in Syria, he added. “This is an extremely wrong move as far as Turkey’s interests are concerned.”

Things may further complicate as Turkey and the US are expected within days to jointly conduct a military operation to drive ISIL from the Turkish border, the 79-kilometer-long stretch of land.

In such a scenario, Russia may easily get some ISIL elements to shoot down one or several Turkish jets in retaliation.