Turkey blocks Russian armed forces’ air route to Syria

News

Turkey has banned Russia’s armed forces from using its airspace to reach Syria in a bid to increase pressure on Vladimir Putin as Ankara tries to revive peace talks with Ukraine.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russian military aircraft would no longer be able to transit through his country en route to Syria, where Moscow has played a key role in propping up the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.

“We have closed our airspace to Russian military flights and even civilian flights that are carrying military personnel to Syria,” he told journalists on a visit to Uruguay, according to state-owned broadcaster TRT.

Analysts said the move will further complicate logistics for Russia in Syria, after Turkey limited the passage of foreign warships from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean shortly after the Ukraine war began.

Charles Lister, director of the Syria programme at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said on Twitter that Moscow’s only “viable air supply route” would now be via Iran and Iraq.

Turkey will remain open to commercial flights to and from Russia, declining to follow the EU in closing off its airspace to Russian flights due to the importance of the country’s tourists to its economy.

Cavusoglu said that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had informed Putin of the decision and that the two leaders were continuing to engage in dialogue.

Ankara has been winding down permission for use of its airspace by the Russian military in Syria since Russia’s renewed offensive in Ukraine began, three people familiar with the matter said. But the decision to fully close it, and go public with the move, marked a significant escalation.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the US and other nations had been asking Turkey to use its leverage over Moscow in Syria and increase the pressure on Putin.

“It took some time for Ankara to get on board, but after almost two months Ankara has taken another step to squeeze Moscow in Syria over Ukraine,” he said.

Turkey has sought to perform a delicate balancing act since Putin’s invasion created the largest war on European soil in 80 years. Most European nations closed their airspace to Russian flights soon after the war began but Ankara instead sought to mediate.

Turkey has also supplied armed drones to Ukrainian armed forces, although it has resisted signing up to western sanctions.

Ankara’s decision to pressure Russia in Syria, where Turkey controls several swaths of territory and has a large military presence, underlines the complex relationship between Erdogan and Putin.

The two leaders have built a close personal rapport in recent years but have also repeatedly been on opposing sides of battlefields in Syria, Libya and the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ankara had sought to facilitate peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. The countries’ negotiators held two high-level meetings in Turkey in March and April but evidence of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops undermined efforts.

Speaking on Friday, Erdogan said that his officials were seeking to set up phone calls in a bid to restart the discussions.

Omer Ozkizilcik, an Ankara-based foreign policy and security analyst, said that pressuring Russia in Syria was an attempt to force Russia “to be more serious in the negotiations”.

He said: “If you want Russia to make a deal and come to terms, you need to be strong in the field and you need to use hard power. Turkey has been doing this over the last few years and is still doing it.”

Ozkizilcik said that Ankara, which this week launched a new offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, could seek to use its leverage over Russia to get a green light for a similar operation in northern Syria.

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