The strikes jointly carried out by the U.S., the U.K. and France were in fact a message aimed at Russia, sent through Bashar al-Assad.
In the recent period Russia has increased its influence in Syria while the U.S has lost its clout. The U.S. has become the least powerful state in the Syrian equation. So the strikes were a show of power staged by the U.S., with the U.K and France on its side. They sent the message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington should be taken into account when they make any moves. The U.S. thus showed that it can still play a decisive role on the ground.
As British Prime Minister Theresa May clearly put it, the attack did not intend to overthrow al-Assad or aim for regime change in Syria. It was a limited and controlled operation, which gave al-Assad enough time to evacuate targeted military facilities. What’s more, Russian soldiers and facilities were not targeted. Those three nationals did not chose targets that could have provoked a Russian military response. There was video footage showing al-Assad calmly arriving at his office the morning after the attack. Russia, Syria and Iran strongly condemned the strikes, while Turkey welcomed the action and voiced its support.
Ankara has recently moved closer to the positions of Moscow and Tehran, so what will be the consequences of Turkey’s taking a different stance on the U.S. strikes? Will Turkey come closer to the U.S., once again drifting away from Russia?
Whether or not Turkey drifts away from Russia depends on the position Putin takes. If Russia turns Turkey’s support for the Syria strikes into a crisis then Ankara may reconsider its relations with Moscow. However, the communication between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin during the operation and the messages exchanged suggest that this is unlikely to happen.
Apparently, while supporting the U.S. operation Turkey will retain its current position. However, this will not necessarily improve ties between Ankara and Washington. The reason why Turkey and the U.S. are on different sides of the Syrian equation is not related to their approach toward the al-Assad regime but the fact that the U.S. is cooperating with the Democratic Union Party/People’s Protection Units (PYD/YPG), the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Unless the U.S. drops this policy, Turkey will not forge closer ties with it.
Turkey wants the al-Assad regime toppled and on that point it differs from Russia and Iran. At the beginning, the U.S. also wanted al-Assad removed from power. However, because of developments at later stages that stopped being the U.S.’s main objective. Turkey’s main objective is preventing the PKK from establishing a state-like structure in northern Syria and opening up a corridor stretching toward the Mediterranean. With its Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, Turkey managed to achieve this goal. However, threats from the PKK/YPG/PYG still exist. The U.S. strike on Syria is therefore not a move that is likely to change Turkey’s policies; as long as the U.S. stands by the PKK, Turkey will stand against the U.S.
Air defense system
Turkey’s national interests are in conflict with the U.S.’s Syria policy. This conflict is the reason why Turkey has moved to forge closer relations with Russia. Ankara has shown that it is determined to do whatever is necessary, including the use of military power, to protect its national interests and existence.
When Turkey acts to protect it national interests, it has not completely relied on the U.S. or Russia. We have enough historical experience to know that such an approach is impossible. Ankara is well aware that what shapes a country’s foreign policy is not “friendship” or “hostilities” but rather national interests.
What’s more, it should be noted that the recent moves of global powers in Syria once again show that Turkey needs to develop its national defense industry, particularly its air defenses.