Has the Russia-Turkey Vendetta Put Disputed Turkish Hatay on the Block?
The poisonous feud between Moscow and Ankara is reopening territorial issues never resolved between Turkey and Syria. .
On Feb. 23, four days before the umpteenth ceasefire of the Syrian war was scheduled to take hold, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia and Syria of conspiring to create what he called a “terror belt” in northern Syria, consisting of the Islamic State and the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia.
“Turkey is aware of these games aiming to make Turkey the neighbor of a terror structure and will not allow it," he declared in an address to parliament.
This was an outburst of fury and frustration over the YPG militia’s success this week in advancing along the 90-km stretch of Jarabluz-Azaz corridor of northern Syria to points close to the Turkish border – in the face of all Ankara’s blocking efforts. (See attached map).
Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, is constrained from embarking on military intervention in Syria to shore up its interests by fear of Russia’s response – as DEBKA Weekly has reported several times during the past few weeks.
The Obama administration has furthermore warned them off. In secret messages to Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, President Barack Obama advised them both that if they intervened, they could find themselves taking on the Russian army singlehanded.
Ankara is therefore left with the sole option at this stage of cross-border artillery shelling of YPG targets in northern Syria, trusting that Moscow will not retaliate by sending its warplanes against the artillery batteries of a NATO member state, a step that carried the risk of overturning its expanding ties of cooperation with Washington for ending the Syrian war.
(See also the lead article on Russian-Iranian-Syrian plans for a "ceasefire offensive.")
However, some Turkish generals suspect that President Vladimir Putin has not finished punishing Ankara for the downing of a Russian Sukhoi-25 warplane last November over Turkey’s Hatay Province.
This southern Turkish province on the Mediterranean coast has two main towns: the port city of Iskenderun and the administrative capital of Antakya.
What Turkish generals fear now is that Putin may be planning to invade and occupy Hatay, or the part of this formerly independent state which Turkey annexed 85 years ago. Syria has never recognized this annexation and insists up until the present day that it is occupied territory.
This is the Turkish leaders’ predicament: A decision to send troops across the border to halt the intolerable Kurdish advances risks bringing down on them a Syrian counter-invasion to grab Hatay backed by the Russian air force and navy – with dire repercussions for all parties concerned.