Turkey Pulse

Why Ankara now feels vulnerable to Russia

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Article Summary
The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara has engaged Turkey to the Russian option in Syria, while Russia sees it as an opportunity to create an alternative axis in the Middle East

The assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Ankara Andrei Karlov by an off-duty Turkish police official at an art event Dec. 19 has made Turkey extremely vulnerable. It didn’t take long for the ramifications of the assassination to affect foreign politics.

During a Syrian meeting held in Moscow between Russia, Turkey and Iran a day after the assassination, a trilateral solution proposed by Russia was approved. The murder has weakened Turkey’s standing to the extent that it can’t express any reservations. From now on it seems we will distinguish relations with Russia as “pre-Karlov” and “post-Karlov.”

For well-known and much-discussed reasons, Turkey’s Syria policy over the past year has been one of upheavals and turbulence. To restore relations with Moscow after shooting down a Russian jet on Nov. 25, 2015, Turkey was compelled to end its support of the opposition forces in Aleppo and mediate in their evacuation. Now just as Turkey was figuring out how to benefit from the availability of opposition fighters, Karlov was assassinated. Turkey had already lost one arm to Russia after shooting down its plane; now it lost its other arm.

According to a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the Dec. 20 Moscow meeting, two key points were agreed on:

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  • Turkey, Iran and Russia have become the guarantors of a comprehensive cease-fire and political solution process between the opposition groups and the Damascus regime.
  • The three countries have agreed that the priority is not to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, but to combat terror.

Under normal circumstances, guaranteeing a cease-fire means halting logistic support and weapons transfer to Syria via Hatay and Kilis in Turkey. Turkey feels that if it halts its support to the opposition forces, then the groups on the side of the regime should also be denied support. In their joint press briefing in Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the three countries have promised to fight the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jahbat al-Nusra) and affiliated groups that have no benefit for Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the same briefing said the cease-fire envisaged for Syria does not cover IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and foreign assistance to groups that are covered by the cease-fire, including Hezbollah, should cease.

Another point to note is the perceptible shift in the negotiation process for Syria. Although the Moscow troika said they were not promoting an alternative to the Geneva process, a new solution concept that sidelines the West-Gulf axis is in the making.

President Vladimir Putin had said earlier they were in the process of organizing new peace talks that would exclude the United States and the United Nations and that such talks could be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. “All efforts by the United States and its allies to coordinate their actions have failed. None of their moves have really affected the situation on the ground,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

The role envisaged for Turkey in this new concept is to prepare the opposition groups for the change. Russia’s strategy when intervening in the Syrian crisis was first to cripple the armed groups, then to identify among them those who were willing to discuss a political solution and finally declare all the rest as terrorists and crush them. Russia has been working on Turkey to adopt this course of action, but Ankara has not been having an easy time acquiescing. While including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and affiliated groups in their list of terror groups, Iran and Russia have also expanded it to cover other groups supported by Turkey. How much longer can Turkey be the guardian of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham that are linked to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham? Will Turkey be asked to abandon them? After the assassination, can Turkey resist Russian political pressures?

Turkey’s only hope is for Russia not to treat the ambassador’s murder as an act of sabotage against the relations of the two countries but as a murder by an off-duty police official who has adopted the slogans of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Is there a new axis being shaped?

If the Iran, Russia and Turkey partnership succeeds, certainly it could open the way to a new axis that will reshape Middle East politics. But it will be a folly to ignore the reactions to the Moscow declaration. Not everyone is delighted with it. There are many issues that will test the feasibility of this declaration, such as:

  • What is going to happen to Idlib where Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has set up its own emirate, now beefed up by fighters coming from Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus? Is Idlib the next target after Aleppo? If so, where do the refugees go? Will Turkey accept members of armed groups and their families?
  • If Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its allies are to be targeted, what will be the policy against groups protected and helped by Turkey? Will they also become targets?
  • What will be the attitude of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been supporting armed groups in Syria?
  • What will happen if logistics channels from Jordan are activated after Turkey closes down its supply lines?
  • What will be Washington’s reaction to the alternative axis?
  • Will Turkey continue with Operation Euphrates Shield, which is becoming more costly for Turkey with mounting casualties in the army?
  • What will happen to Turkey’s condition of terminating autonomy moves by the Kurds in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)? Will Turkey insist on transforming Operation Euphrates Shield into a wider war against the Kurds? Will Russia tolerate Turkish operations against Kurdish People's Protection Units forces in Rojava?
  • Turkey was thinking of recruiting the fighters evacuated from Aleppo as soldiers for Euphrates Shield. Russia was against it. What will happen now?

Turkey’s shift to the Iran-Russia axis on Syria will surely affect the field. After all, about 70% of the logistics, arms and personnel needs of the Syrian front were being met from Turkey.

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Found in: vladimir putin, turkish policy on syria, turkish intervention in syria, syrian regime, syrian opposition, russia in middle east, andrei karlov

Fehim Tastekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Radikal and Hurriyet. He has also been the host of the weekly program "SINIRSIZ," on IMC TV. As an analyst, Tastekin specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He is the author of “Suriye: Yikil Git, Diren Kal,” “Rojava: Kurtlerin Zamani” and “Karanlık Coktugunde - ISID.” Tastekin is founding editor of the Agency Caucasus. On Twitter: @fehimtastekin

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