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How Russia views Turkey’s role in Syria

To Russia, tumultuous Turkey is a work in progress on a journey of self-discovery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks during a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan following their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RTSRNKN

As experts on Russia and Turkey are wondering just how receptive US President-elect Donald Trump will be to their agendas in the Middle East, Moscow and Ankara have been involved in a series of talks over Syria.

Indeed, Turkish officials have become frequent guests in Moscow. The most recent visit, on Nov. 1, brought high-ranking military and intelligence officers, triggering rumors about a potential joint pursuit of ideas over the fate of Syria. But as the content of the negotiations remains confidential, Russia believes the significance of these contacts goes beyond Syria.

One needs to understand the world’s perception of what drives Turkish foreign policy and the political situation in the country.

The way Russia sees it, Turkey is going through a feverish transition process that has a direct impact on its political course, including contacts with key global actors.

To the United States, which has seen Turkey as its right-hand man in the region, Ankara has become much too independent regarding its international policy.

As for the European Union, even if its leaders toy with the idea of integrating Turkey, they see it as a supporting partner state, not as a country with big geopolitical ambitions. The US policy of becoming involved in the politics of countries of interest is showing signs of failing in Turkey, as lately there seems to be very little chance of changing the regime, be it through revolutionary or evolutionary ways.

Turkey’s power-loving president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, doesn’t understand the EU’s attempt to compel Turkey to accommodate the flow of refugees from the Syrian war. Not only did Erdogan ignore the European logic of managing the situation, he tried to use the refugee crisis to his own advantage. However, in his attempt to elevate a regional actor to a world power, he overestimated his potential.

With that rift, as well as complications in Turkey’s relationship with the United States, the political situation pushed Turkey to reactivate ties with Russia. Ankara found it possible to start a dialogue on the most sensitive issues, including Syria.

Since August, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have conducted two state visits with each other and had numerous telephone conversations. The parties agreed to resume cooperation on key economic projects, and Russia has gradually lifted anti-Turkish sanctions. Even so, there have been doubts about the relationship’s progress all along the way, especially regarding geopolitics and security-related issues.

As an active NATO member, Turkey until recently interacted frequently with potential NATO member states and insisted on increasing the alliance’s presence in the Black Sea so that it didn’t turn into a “Russian Sea.” Moreover, Turkey has its own opinion about developments in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and this opinion rarely coincides with Moscow’s.

However, Syria is undoubtedly the major issue. The view in Moscow is that Erdogan, seeing the rapid regime transformations in 2011 during the course of the Arab Spring, was planning to use the moderate opposition to his own advantage, change power in the neighboring country and in due time construct a natural gas pipeline from Qatar. Despite their previously friendly relations, the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became a primary political goal for Erdogan. Thus, Turkey made a U-turn in its rhetoric and actions, and yesterday's friend turned into a “dictator” and “assassin.” For Moscow, which rejects regime change accomplished in illegitimate ways and which has had a very positive relationship with Syria, it was unacceptable.

Nevertheless, both Moscow and Ankara from the very beginning insisted on the integrity of the states in the region, though each had its own reason. Turkey, with a large share of the region’s Kurdish population, was apprehensive of the possibility of creating Kurdish states or autonomies. Although Russia interacts with all subjects in the region, it maintains the principle of Syria’s territorial wholeness, which actually narrows the gap between Erdogan's and Putin's positions.

More and more voices in Turkey are rising against the United States for favoring the division of Syria and the region according to ethnicity, which contravenes the interests of Turkey, with its big Kurdish faction. Besides, despite the controversy at the interstate level, the Turkish population seems to assess Russia’s position on Syria in a rather positive manner. And as a source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, some in the Turkish military favor strengthening ties between the two countries, and the idea of buying Russian air-defense systems has surfaced again.

Russia neither objected to nor expressed support for Turkey’s military Operation Euphrates Shield. It seems that in the course of talks, Putin and Erdogan have reached a certain agreement on the issue, although it is too early to talk about an alliance. What could be asserted is that Russia and Turkey are negotiating not only about the gas pipeline, but also the destiny of Syria after the war on the Islamic State (IS) is over.

In the supposed dialogue, Turkey is maneuvering to save face and step up its influence in northern Syria, while Russia aims to save face and all its opportunities in the Syrian Arab Republic, including the military bases. Can we expect Turkey to try to expand its influence to northern Iraq as well? Taking into account the instability of regimes in the Middle East and the necessity to speed up the victory in the operation against IS, Moscow could agree to this on the condition Ankara demonstrates a consolidated, independent course.

It is important that Ankara’s and Russia’s general staffs and intelligence services establish good communication. This could be the first sign of stabilization of their bilateral relations and improved regional stability.

Moscow perceives Turkey as fighting and searching for its new identity. The fight and search are not easy; they include the arrest of those who oppose the “New Turkey,” and Erdogan’s policy that Turkey’s present-day borders were imposed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and do not correspond with the aspirations of Turkey in the south and west. There’s an opinion in Russia that interfering with these self-searching processes will increase instability in the already unstable region.

Strengthening Ankara’s independent policy has its risks for all major players. Yet it gives Moscow hope for more transparency in cooperation. Historically, Turkey lies at the crossroads of major economic, political and military routes. The given geopolitics is not likely to change, but it is possible to influence the perspectives of development.

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