The Future of Turkish-Russian Cooperation in Syria

During his official visit to Moscow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the meeting, although it has been discussed variety of subjects as the bilateral relationship gets deepened, the foremost issue came forward was US-Turkey S-400 crisis. The recent events indicate that Turkish-Russian relationship has been empowered at a significant scale, and yet it is often subjected to examination. Recurrently, both countries encounter number of issues need to be solved.

That is that the pragmatic nature of the relations became apparent in 2016 despite the opposite directions followed in Syria as it turned out both parties need each other in the region. For that reason, both parties must put more efforts in order to maintain cooperation which has already been institutionalized in Syria. That is why the success of Turkish-Russian relations is crucially important in shaping of the future of Syria.

Although shut down of Russian military plane by Turkish jet fighters on 24 November 2015 caused detrimental effects on the bilateral relations, it was successfully normalized within a short time of period. The normalization process which has been initiated on 27 November 2016 brought about collaboration in Syria. As the cooperation in Syria worked out well, it is further improved on institutional basis.

Considering pre-2016 contrariness, it is quite interesting the point that is reached today between the two. The reason lies behind that transition is the policy pursued by the US and its Western allies which aimed at isolating Turkey. Not only in terms of its policies in Syria, but also in its national security issues, the US did not back Turkey up. Therefore, Turkey choose to fix problems with Russia and counter-balance the US.

Despite initial success, it is still obvious that Turkish-Russian interests are clashing at some primary points and the new conjuncture emerged after the US withdrawal from Syria have pointed out them once again.

The new US strategy over Syria to strengthen the Russian position at both operational and diplomatic level. From that point of the fact, it was quite puzzling what President Trump had decided upon. It can be referred that he left the mess for Russia to tide up and focus on the Middle East in broader sense rather than spending substantial amount of money.

The preliminary objective is to form a set of alliance in order to counter Iran. Still, that action means Russians and Assad can free-float in the region. However, it does also render Assad regime capable of consolidating power without Iranian assistance. At this point, it must be emphasized the Arabic countries’ efforts to engage in dialogue with Assad regime. In addition, Russian need for Iranian military presence and diplomatic support will no longer be the case.

Trump’s decision would also mean Turkish-Russian confrontation. The decision had been taken in a period when Turkey was in preparation to launch military operation towards the east of the Euphrates River. Therefore, PYD/YPG felt the necessity to approach Russians and the regime closer. It can be considered that; this is going to be the first reason the Turkish-Russian relationship to be tested. Russians are not going to abandon their policy of leverage through PYD/YPG. As a matter of fact, the Assad regime and PYD/YPG have never involved in a direct conflict. The rapprochement between the two would pave the way Assad to expand it territories in a legitimate way. On the other hand, Russia would not prefer YPG/PYD over Turkey since Turkey may help a lot in obtaining diplomatic success from the military achievements on the ground.

Another matter of disagreement between Turkey and Russia is security zone issue. Russia is going to be the foremost actor in this issue despite the timing of the decision overlaps with the Trump retreatment. Yet, Russia is quite reluctant about setting up a security zone.

Indeed, Russia does not willing to witness another Turkish military conduct in Syria, and instead offers to keep PYD/YPG under control in order not to constitute threat to Turkey. This can be seen as part of the scenario which also includes re-establishing the relations between Turkey and the Assad regime. With this regard, 1998 Adana Agreement is to be underlined.

The Agreement is indicated as a basis for the (in)direct contact between the two parties over the years that enables Turkey with advantageous position in tackling with terrorism while some responsibilities are to be on the Assad’s shoulders. In the end, Russians are in effort to kill several birds with one stone; to hinder another Turkish military operation, to re-make the relationship between Ankara and Damascus, to fill in the US positions after her withdrawal, and lastly to control PYD by forcing them to cooperate with the regime.

Without a doubt another dimension to the Russian concern is Idlib. A military operation option was postponed after the summit in Sochi, Russia. Although Russians do favor the agreement reached during the Summit, it is repeatedly emphasized that Turkey does not wholly fulfill her commitments. Idlib is where the opponents centralized, and therefore it draws Russian attention. Thus, it would not be surprising if Idlib is going to be a matter of negotiation between Russia and Turkey.

Several issues over Syria had been emerged and solved thoroughly with Turkish-Russian initiatives before. Both countries put great emphasis on what had been accomplished throughout the Astana Process that prevent them to jeopardize the bilateral relations.

The US brand new Syria strategy, despite the ambiguity it creates, is mostly relied on cooperation with Turkey. Therefore, the US wants Turkey on her side and challenges Turkish-Russian rapprochement over the purchase of S-400 missile system by implementing economic sanctions. That is to say, the US-Turkey relations in the short/medium term is going to be one of the crucial determinants that shapes future Russian-Turkish relations.

At this point, it is worth to remember how it had been mitigated the crisis with Russia that paved the way for deepening of the relations. It was the Western attitude towards Turkey that caused the Russian-Turkish rapprochement in spite of the opposition over Syria. The emergence of problems with the US and the West which overlapped with crisis with Russia could be noted as a period when Turkey’s balancing policy distracted from its usual course of foreign policy making.

Since fighting at several fronts against the great powers is not a policy that can be maintained, Turkey embraced a different way of balancing; she immediately fixed its relationship with Russia while reducing her dependency on the West and balanced with Russia and vice versa. If Turkey manages to keep this balance functioning, then the relationship with Russia would be on a firmer basis.

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Dr. Öğr. Üyesi Emre OZAN
Dr. Öğr. Üyesi Emre OZAN
ANKASAM Türk Dış Politikası ve Uluslararası Güvenlik Danışmanı

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