The Russian Defence Ministry said on January 18 that Russian and Turkish air forces launched a joint operation against Islamic State (IS) militants holding the town of al-Bab northeast of Aleppo.
Lieutenant-General Sergei Rudskoi, the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, said it was the first time the air forces of Russia and Turkey were engaged in a joint operation. The air strikes were conducted with the consent of the Syrian government.
A group of Russian aircraft, consisting of four Su-24Ms, four Su-25s and one bomber Su-34, as well as eight Turkish fighter jets, four F-16s and four F-4s, participated in the first joint air strike. The action comes one day after the US military said on January 17 that it had carried out airstrikes to support the Turkish offensive to free al-Bab from the Islamic State.
The action took place after the United States was rebuked by Turkey for not doing enough to facilitate its ground offensive. In response, US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the United States -led military coalition, counted four strikes in recent days against the jihadists’ targets that he said were in both countries’ «mutual interest». If so, then this is the first time Russia and the US delivered strikes against a common target – the formations of IS deployed at al-Bab.
The alliance between Russia and Turkey has been getting increasingly close recently, especially after the two countries brokered a Syria truce in late December to join together preparing Syrian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, to take place on January 23.
It does not boil down to Syria only. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey mulls joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or Shanghai Pact, abandoning the effort to become a member of the EU. Turkey’s SCO accession would be a milestone development bringing together the organization and the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (CCTS) – an international organization of Turkic countries, comprising Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. The international organization also functions as an umbrella body for all other autonomous collaboration mechanisms like the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA), International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), and Turkic Academy.
Turkey is in talks with Russia on purchasing the advanced long-range S-400 air defense systems to protect its skies. Hardly anyone but Russia could offer Turkey a better deal on air defense. It is widely believed that the S-400 is the best air defense system in the world. With Russia’s help Turkey could start the production on its own soil to greatly enhance its industrial base.
Ankara also seeks procurement deals in electronic systems, ammunitions and missile technology. General Hulusi Akar, the head of the Turkish armed forces’ General Staff, visited Russia last November to discuss military cooperation.
During the August 9 summit in Saint-Petersburg, Russia and Turkey signed a declaration on unprecedented partnership in defense industry. The parties have also agreed to form a joint military and intelligence mechanism to coordinate their activities in the Middle East.
According to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, Turkey will do everything needed for cooperation with Russia on Syria. He said «a new page has opened» in the history of defense cooperation with Russia. The evacuation of opposition groups from Aleppo was a result of Russian-Turkish interaction. Ankara’s close military dialogue with Moscow was particularly important for the liberation of strategic towns like Jarablus and Dabiq from the IS.
Turkey appears to abandon its previously declared goal of removing the Syrian president from power. It has made statements about the probability of normalizing relations with the current Syrian government.
After the summit in St. Petersburg, the Russian and Turkish leaders met twice more in person and spoke many times on the phone to discuss the situation in Syria. President Putin’s visit to Turkey in October 2016, was particularly important as the parties signed the agreement for the construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline. Turkish Prime Minister Yıldırım visited Moscow in December 2016. It’s worth mentioning that Russia was the first country the Turkish president visited after the failed coup.
Turkey is a key party to the upcoming Astana talks to begin on January 23 – the event President Assad has supported. On December 20, Russia, Turkey and Iran adopted the Moscow Declaration on the immediate steps to promote the settlement of the Syria’s crisis. The three countries agreed to take on the role of guarantors to facilitate the process preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and spreading the cessation of hostilities to all parts of the country.
The Moscow process is quite important as it is the first time that Turkey, Russia and Iran have come together in an independent platform and joined their efforts for a solution to the Syrian crisis. Russia, Turkey and Iran and are the leading actors to influence the events in Syria.
All hopes to cooperate with the US have been dashed. No result has been so far reached within the framework of UN-brokered International Syria Support Group. The US-led coalition has failed to make any significant gains fighting the battles to free Mosul and Raqqa from IS militants.
No doubt, sooner or later the IS will be driven out of Syria. Russia and Turley will face the question about what to do next. Along with Iran, these two nations will lead the peace management process. It could be a start of forming a broader alliance to fight global terrorism beyond Syria’s borders, encompassing other areas of cooperation and bringing in other actors.
The formation of an alliance between Russia and Turkey has become a visible trend. The statement made by the Russian Defense Ministry is an event of outstanding importance. The two great nations, one of them a member of NATO, have become comrades-in-arms – a game changing development unimaginable some time ago.