ANKARA: A planned Turkish cross-border offensive into northern Syria is pushing Ankara into talks with Moscow over the use of airspace in the disputed area.
Experts say Turkiye is likely seeking Russian permission to conduct the operation and avoid damaging bilateral ties that have long been hostage to regional crises.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced on Saturday that the long-speculated air and ground operation will target the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, and that Ankara held talks with Moscow about the details of the operation, including the opening of airspace.
Turkiye considers the YPG militia a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which it lists — together with the US and EU — as a terror group.
Ankara, which hinted at a full-scale ground operation against Syrian Kurds, accused the PKK and YPG of a Nov. 13 Istanbul bombing that killed six people and injured more than 80, although the PKK and the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, spearheaded by the YPG, denied any involvement.
In late November, rockets fired from northern Syria hit the Turkish border town of Karkamis and killed three civilians, accelerating Ankara’s plans to strike back.
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkiye-Russia relations, said that Russia opening Syrian airspace will require the consent of the Bashar Assad regime.
Ankara is looking to mend ties with the Syrian government, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently telling reporters that Turkiye might be “back on track” with Syria.
However Sezer noted that Turkish F-16 jets can strike YPG targets from a considerable distance.
“What Ankara negotiated is to ensure the withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish forces up to 30 km into Syria. In official statements, the Kremlin always underlined that they convinced Turkiye against a ground operation,” he told Arab News.
In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, Erdogan suggested a trilateral mechanism between Turkish, Russian and Syrian leaders to discuss joint counter-terrorism strategy.
In late November, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia understood Turkiye’s security concerns but warned against further escalation, hinting at Moscow’s disapproval of a Turkish ground operation.
Turkiye has already carried out three large-scale military operations into Syria — Euphrates Shield in 2016-17, Olive Branch in 2018 and Peace Spring in 2019.
Since late November, Ankara’s Operation Claw-Sword has targeted the Syrian Kurdish militia with long-range strikes and drones, sparking US criticism after the strikes landed near coalition bases where American soldiers are deployed.
Levent Kemal, an expert on the Middle Eastern defense policies, said that Turkiye does not require the opening of Syrian airspace to launch an effective operation.
“From Turkish airspace, our aircraft can hit the predetermined targets without entering Syrian soil,” he told Arab News.
“But the Kremlin could bring some preconditions like the opening of airspace for an operation in the eastern Euphrates or convincing Erdogan to have a public appearance with Assad at an earlier stage,” Kemal said.
He noted that Turkiye prioritizes establishing a security corridor along its southern border with Syria and is targeting the cities of Tal Rifaat and Manbij. Therefore, Russian mediation between Ankara and Damascus is expected to focus on striking the cities in Aleppo province during the upcoming offensive.
On Dec. 3, Erdogan said during a meeting near the Syrian border that “attacks will not dampen our resolve” and that the security corridor will “certainly” be completed.
During a recent phone call with Putin on Dec.11, Erdogan reiterated the importance of creating the security corridor in accordance with a 2019 agreement between the two countries.
Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said that Turkey delayed its operation in Syria for months in order to give Russia time to coordinate.
“Since about a month, the Russian side was negotiating with Syrian Kurds to find a middle ground and convince them to withdraw from Turkish border,” he told Arab News.
The Russian efforts failed, however, with Syrian Kurdish officials insisting on keeping local forces near the border.
As a result, Ankara is moving forward with the military option, Orhan said.
He added that access to Syrian airspace might be necessary in certain locations.
“For instance, in Tal Rifaat, the Turkish military would need aerial depth,” he said.
“Therefore, agreeing with Russia is necessary in order to conduct this operation as part of a bilateral agreement.
“Otherwise, it could undermine Turkiye-Russia ties on several other fronts and complicate some other deals, including military ones.
“The only precondition of Moscow for giving a green light for the airspace use would be to ask for some guarantees from Turkiye to normalize ties with the Assad regime, and to propose an exit plan after the operation,” he added.