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ANALYSIS: Russia woos Turkey with ‘face-saving’ Syria alliance

Russia is using US policy mistakes in Syria, Iraq and Turkey to convince Ankara that its primary NATO ally is abandoning it
Putin and Erdogan during the 23rd World Energy Congress on 10 October, 2016 in Istanbul (AFP)

Less than a year ago, Turkey shot a Russian jet out of the sky near the Turkish border with Syria. The clash sparked a war of words and sanctions between Ankara and Moscow, and heightened fears of an escalation bringing the wider NATO alliance into confrontation with their former Soviet Union foe.

Fast-forward 11 months and Russia and Turkey, still on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict and historically uncomfortable bedfellows, are planning an alliance.

The change, according to analysts, is not just the result of careful attempts to de-escalate. It is Russia's wish to "save face" over its involvement in Syria, and exploit mistakes made by Turkey's traditional NATO allies to bring Ankara closer to Moscow's sphere of influence.

Turkish observers, spoken to by Middle East Eye, believe the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is keen to extricate his forces from Syria, or at least to see them not get further involved. They say he wants to show how Russia might change the equation in Syria while simultaneously proving that the US is not the sole deciding power.

An alliance of sorts with Turkey, which would seek a political solution for Syria, would suit both Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A Russian jet plunges to the earth after being shot down by a Turkish F16 (supplied)

The Russians were set to propose the broad outlines of such an alliance to Turkey during Putin’s visit to Istanbul earlier this week, while using economic deals as a sweetener, sources told Middle East Eye.

“This deal has been on Russia’s mind for a long time now. A succession of events like the 15 July coup attempt, and changing realities on the ground in Syria and even Iraq meant Moscow has stepped up its search for such an alliance with Turkey,” a source familiar with Turkish-Russian relations told MEE.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute this Russian desire for an alliance to Moscow’s economic troubles and difficulty in financially sustaining a long-term military presence, said the source.

“The West has been making this mistake of underestimating the Russian ability to finance military operations since the end of WWII. Russia is after an alliance because it is now on an expansionary path,” said the source. “The military training exercises with Egypt and talk of reopening bases around the world are all part of that as well.”      

The Russians are using a series of American policy mistakes with regard to Syria, Iraq and Turkey to convince Ankara that its primary NATO ally is abandoning it. It will also resort to false propaganda to promote this narrative in order to convince Ankara, the source said.

Already tense ties between the US and Turkey worsened noticeably after Washington opted to use the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), as its main ground force.

Turkey is adamant that the PYD is the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the US.

Some observers have even hinted at a potential agreement between Russia and Turkey where Moscow would permit Ankara to freely tackle the PYD and YPG forces in return for withdrawing all support for the rebel groups which it backs in Aleppo.

However, other officials with knowledge of developments in Syria have rubbished such claims.

“The only country that doesn’t recognise even the PKK as terrorist is Russia. They have been training and nurturing them for years now. They are not about to sacrifice such a major pawn in their hands for such an intangible gain,” one source said.  

Recent statements by Iraqi officials that the Turkish military outpost in Bashiqa, near Mosul, is illegal and that Ankara is not part of plans to wrest Mosul from the control of the Islamic State (IS) group has enraged Ankara as well.

Turkish tanks move into northern Syria in September 2016 (AFP)

In Syria, developments suggest the fierce fighting in Aleppo will only intensify and worsen. The threat this poses to both Moscow and Ankara is that they could unwillingly become bogged down in Syria for longer than they intended.

The US decision to permit Syrian rebels to be armed with better weaponry including shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles means Russian planes, troops, and bases in Syria are under increased threat.

Moscow’s decision earlier this month to deploy the S-300 advanced missile defence system at its naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus is also seen as a response to this growing threat to its forces.

The decision by the US and other Western countries to accuse Russia of committing war crimes in Aleppo means the prospect of seeking to negotiate a political path forward for Syria with Washington is all but dead.

Turkey’s decision to launch a military operation in northern Syria means that the slightest untoward incident involving its forces could drag Ankara into a prolonged involvement there as well.

Some reports even suggest that Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels are merely a kilometre apart from Iran-backed Shia militias fighting in some areas.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state (AFP)

In addition to the emerging threat to Turkish interests in Syria, Erdogan’s desire to boost his domestic image as a regional kingmaker and even a global leader could well make Moscow’s offer of an alliance more palatable to Ankara.

Analysts agree that Ankara can, at the very least, use any deal with Russia on Syria as a counterweight to current US actions, which it sees as harming its interests.

Ali Faik Demir, a Russia expert at the international relations department at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, told MEE that the signing of major infrastructure deals guarantees that Russia and Turkey will not come into conflict in Syria any longer.

“Any agreement between Turkey and Russia over Syria will be a good thing. Russia already has an alliance with Iran and if Turkey becomes part of that, they can create an alternative to the US in the region. Both Moscow and Ankara need to find a middle path to agree on,” Demir told MEE.

“The signing of the deal to build the Turkish Stream oil pipeline from Russia to Turkey is exactly the kind of thing that will prevent any conflict between the two countries in other places such as Syria,” he said.

Turkish-Russian ties hit rock bottom after Turkish jets shot down a Russian fighter on the Syrian border last November.

According to Nursin Guney, a professor and head of the international relations department at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, dialogue between Ankara and Moscow is paramount because Russia is an important player in Syria.

“There is every chance that economic and energy deals will lead to political talks on Syria and elsewhere. Turkey has always kept the door open to such negotiations,” Guney told MEE.

“It won’t be easy but both sides will be interested in a political solution for Syria. The main issue will be Assad’s potential role during a transition,” she said.

US actions have played a key role in encouraging Moscow and Ankara to seek each other out.

As far as Turkey is concerned US support and cooperation with the PYD is “concerning enough to seek alternatives to protect its own national interests,” said Guney.

On the other hand, Erkan Buyukakinci, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, thinks that Russian and Turkish differences are too vast to allow for any alliance or meaningful co-operation on Syria.

“Turkey will certainly use the Moscow card as a bargaining chip to try to get the US to change parts of its current Syria and Iraq policies,” he told MEE.

“Of course they will negotiate, but their interests in Syria are too different to result in a meaningful alliance. The only reason that Turkey has been pushed closer to Russia is because of the US developing ever-closer relations with the Kurds.”

Experts agree, however, that the situation in Syria, particularly on the battlefield of Aleppo, is blurred by the number of actors involved – and it is this that will play a major role in defining the future intrigues in the Russian-Turkish-US relationship.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.