Until Syrian conflict is resolved, Russia will play decisive balancing role in realization of Turkey’s interests in Syria


Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey on Sept. 28 for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was Putin’s second visit to Turkey and the fifth meeting of the two leaders over the last year since the two countries began normalizing relations after the downing of the Russian Su-24M tactical bomber by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet on Nov. 24, 2015.

There were several issues on the leaders' agenda, including the situation in Syria and Iraq, especially the independence referendum of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems, along with a number of other political and economic topics as well as bilateral trade.

When we look at the current history of Turkish-Russian relations, we see that the bilateral relations developed with a constant acceleration rate from the mid-1990s up to the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015.

During the period before the downing of the jet, Turkey and Russia came closer, concentrating on the flip side of the relations and managed to upgrade their relations to a "strategic partnership in the new century".

Nevertheless, the escalation of disagreements between the two countries over the Middle East, especially the so-called "plane incident," had direct negative consequences on the almost two-decade Turkish-Russian modus vivendi.

The increasing disagreements, competition, and insecurity in the region lowered the chances of any improvement in the political, economic and security-related arenas. At the same time, rising tensions between the West and Russia further undermined the already fragile regional balance. Ankara appeared to be stuck in the middle.

Turkish-Russian bilateral relations developed with a constant acceleration since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin, expressing his regrets for the downing of the Russian jet.

One month later, President Erdogan paid his first visit abroad in the aftermath of the failed coup to St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, 2016. This visit marked a milestone in the bilateral relations between the two nations after an almost nine-month break, which came to be labeled as "annus horribilis" in the Turkish-Russian relations.

After their meeting in St. Petersburg, the two leaders highlighted their substantial and constructive dialogue on all issues of mutual interest and outlined a roadmap for restoring ties to a pre-"plane incident" level.

Both leaders agreed that regional problems needed to be resolved through joint initiatives, implying that this should happen under the tutelage of Turkey and Russia.

Thus this last visit meant a lot for both parties. The most explicit sign that the Russian side attributed great importance to this visit was the retinue of aides accompanying President Putin: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, Special Envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Gazprom Chairman Alexey Miller and Director General of the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation Alexey Likhachev.

The most concrete result of the meeting was the removal of the ban on Turkish tomatoes, which had plagued the countries' bilateral trade since the beginning of 2016. This ban was part of the anti-Turkish sanctions imposed by Moscow after the jet crisis, and thus its removal is an important step in the normalization process.

As it can be easily remembered, the downing of the Russian plane ruined 15 years of progress in bilateral relations in almost 20 seconds. The escalation in rhetoric was followed by a series of quick and harsh economic measures against Turkish companies and exports.

Over the next days, the two countries effectively froze diplomatic ties, hostility prevailed in the public domain, and the absence of some four million Russian tourists dealt a significant blow to Turkey’s tourism industry.

Combined with the declining number of European tourists due to Daesh attacks, Turkish tourism witnessed its worst period since the Iraq war. This crisis resulted in bilateral trade plummeting to $23.3 billion in 2015 from $31.5 billion in 2014.

At the end of the meeting, the leaders expressed their satisfaction with the current level of bilateral trade.

"While last year we observed a drop of 32 percent, over the course of the first seven months of this year, the increase amounts to 31.5 percent. So we have restored the losses and in the remaining time of this year will have a surplus," Putin observed.

Both Putin and Erdogan agreed to continue lifting trade and investment barriers to the business worlds of their countries. The most important driving projects will most probably be two major energy projects: the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

Putin noted "We have scrutinized the details of these two strategic projects," adding that Moscow hoped Turkey's first nuclear reactor, which Russia helped to build, would be launched within a short time frame.

The leaders did not mention anything regarding the delivery of the S-400 missile systems. But Erdogan has already announced the purchase despite the strong criticisms and concerns voiced by Turkey's Western allies.

At the end of the meeting, it was declared that parties discussed regional issues, including Iraq and Syria, and agreed on maintaining both countries' territorial integrity.

Syrian and northern Iraqi issues are currently the top security issues for Turkish foreign policy, not only because of their direct consequences for Ankara's diplomatic and security relations with the West and Russia, but also due to its effects on Turkey’s regional position as well as domestic developments.

Russia and Turkey, together with Iran, are now working on setting up de-escalation zones in Syria. These zones are credited with having helped to reduce the fighting.

Erdogan said they focused on the specifics of securing a de-escalation zone in Syria's northern province of Idlib on the border with Turkey, emphasizing the shared political will to contribute to the Syrian political settlement.

Putin, for his part, hailed "our friend, President Erdogan" for helping make the de-escalation deal possible, adding that it would allow to halt fighting and create conditions for the return of refugees to their homes.

The Turkish government faces a long list of Syria-related problems, such as the re-emergence of the PYD/YPG -- PKK-affiliated terrorist structures -- as international actors, the existence of al-Qaeda derivatives on Turkey’s borders, the future of the Sunni regions after the defeat of Daesh, the increasing legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the situation of the refugees, and the future of the pro-Turkish opposition in Syria.

Among these priorities, the immediate concern for Turkey is the military, diplomatic, and political support that the United States and Russia have been providing to the PYD/YPG/PKK since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.

Since the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, the Turkish authorities have been more vocal in their complaints about the U.S. providing weapons and ammunitions to the PKK and its affiliates in Syria. The authorities now assert that Russia better understands Ankara's sensitivities concerning this issue and has stopped giving military support to the YPG.

Within this context, as long as the Syrian conflict remains unresolved, Russia will play a decisive balancing role in the realization of Turkey's interests in Syria -- despite Moscow’s deceptive role as a political partner. Turkish decision-makers feel that they need Russian support to force the U.S. to change its attitude toward the YPG in Syria.

While the Kurdish issue remains a priority for the Turkish establishment and as long as the U.S. attitude toward the PYD/YPG remains unchanged, Russia can be expected to play a strong and decisive role in shaping Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

The flow of events and Ankara's diplomatic initiatives indicate that Turkish officials are trying to keep Iran and Russia on the Turkish side in Syria. This paradoxical attitude is the result of the three parties' longtime geopolitical competition in the region, which drives their periodic conflicts as well as their cooperation.

These current developments have apparently made Turkey an actor again on the Syrian battlefield; but in return, Moscow has become an important factor in Ankara's relations with the West.

Overall, this complex web of relations is proving a challenging test for Turkish foreign policy, forcing it to continually update its policies according to ever-changing circumstances.