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Turkey and Russia walk Syria tightrope

Chase Winter
December 16, 2016

Turkey and Russia have forged a tentative dialogue over Syria. It comes as Moscow seeks to take advantage of tensions between Ankara and the West.

Türkei Weltenergiekongress 2016 in Istanbul - Putin und Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Pala

A year ago, Turkey and Russia were exchanging verbal blows and retaliating against each other in the wake of the Turkish downing of a Russian jet along the Syrian border. Now, Moscow and Ankara are working to evacuate civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo and are coordinating an elusive ceasefire in Syria without the West.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, normally not one to bite his tongue over atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, has been relatively silent over the last three months as Syrian government forces, supported by Russia and Iranian-backed Shiite militia, have besieged eastern Aleppo.

Russia's intervention in Syria in September 2015 forced Ankara to rethink its policy of ousting President Bashar al-Assad. It was a policy that Turkish officials confess they thought at the start of the civil war in 2011 would only take a few months. With Aleppo falling to regime forces, the rebel opposition in the northwest of the country will be transformed into a rural insurgency that is largely jihadist and Islamist in nature.  

Turkey's security focus over the past year has turned instead toward fighting the "Islamic State" and blocking US-backed Syrian Kurds' political and mlitary gains. Due to economic ties and a history of close diplomatic relations, it was only natural that Turkey and Russia reconcile despite their differences. The rapprochement was accelerated by the failed coup attempt against Erdogan by rogue soldiers in NATO's second largest army.

While the West has looked on with "concern" at the post-coup purges and deterioration of the rule of law in Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian Turkey, another strongman versed in the politics of brute force, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was one of the first to show support for the Turkish government.  Moscow has little concern for human rights in Turkey and has sought to take advantage of tensions between Turkey, the EU, the United States and NATO. This comes at a time when Erdogan has repeatedly questioned his country's relationship with the West.

"Ankara is currently boasting a sort of alliance with Moscow about Syria," said Marc Pierini, an expert on Turkey at the Carnegie Europe think tank. "This is convenient since Turkey has fallen out of sync with the Western world due to its rapid dismantling of the rule of law."

Resetting relations with Moscow in June enabled the Turkish military and rebels it backs to intervene in northern Syria in August to create the de facto safe-zone Ankara had long asked for from the United States. The intervention was done with a nod from Russia and presumably the regime in Damascus, but as Pierini cautioned, "Turkey can only do in Syria what Russia will tolerate."

In northern Syria, Turkey aims to clear its border area of so-called "Islamic State" (IS) fighters. It shares this goal with Moscow and Damascus. Its second objective is to block the US-backed YPG Kurdish militia, considered by Ankara to be a terrorist organization, from controlling a contiguous section of the border.

Damascus shares Turkey's main foreign policy goal: Preventing the creation of a Syrian Kurdish statelet controlled by forces allied with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Syria has instrumentalized Turkey's fears since the start of the conflict. 

"Turkey is concerned about the Kurds," said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "Turkey's commitment to the rebels is negotiable. That is the belief of the Syrian government."

The Syrian Kurds are an expendable actor only important to Moscow in so far as they can be used to leverage its national interests. Backed by the United States, the Syrian Kurds are also viewed as a tool of Washington's influence in the Middle East. Turkey and Syria will always be more important to Russia than a Kurdish experiment in self-governance opposed by both Ankara and Damascus.

From Ankara's perspective, the United States' waivering policies on Syria have been detrimental to Turkey's core national security interests as it is faced with a reinvigorated PKK insurgency, IS terrorism, as well as a refugee crisis. US support for the Syrian Kurds against the IS has driven a wedge between the two NATO allies and helped fuel anti-Western sentiment in Turkey. While the US and Europe have tried in vain to reach a political solution in Syria, Russia has exhibited its military power, determining the course on the battlefield.

A key feature of Turkish-Russian relations is the personal relationship between Erdogan and Putin, as well as their similar styles of conducting top down diplomacy. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, it would be useless to conduct new talks on Syria with Washington, while those with Turkey could be "more effective than many months of a pointless hangout we have had with the United States."  The comments come as President Barack Obama has a month left in the White House and Donald Trump is expected to shift the United States' policy by cutting support to Syrian rebels and seeking closer ties to Russia.

Turkey, as the main backer of various rebel factions, is planning to meet with Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan in late December for a fresh round of peace talks between the regime and opposition. The location of the talks is significant. They are not being held in Geneva but in the heart of Central Asia- in Russia's sphere of influence and in a Turkic country close to Turkey. Also significant is the absence of the United States and the UN.