Leading scholars from Russia, Turkey and the United States weigh in on the rapidly changing strategic environment in Syria, where a new Turkish military operation has already disrupted a fragile equilibrium.
Turkish army tanks drive towards to the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, Aug. 25. Photo: Reuters
Two weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish officials met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Ankara. In hindsight, it now appears that Turkey was preparing a bold move in Syria with the assent of both Russia and the U.S.
On the same day as the Biden meeting, Turkey launched a military campaign in the northern Syrian town of Jarablus, supported by U.S. aviation. Turkish tanks and armor vehicles crossed the Syrian border ostensibly to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), but many suggest that the true goal was to weaken the position of Kurdish forces.
According to Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, another reason why Ankara started this operation was to demonstrate Turkey’s military prowess in the aftermath of the failed coup in the country. He also believes that Erdogan is sending a signal to the world and Europe that, despite numerous differences with the U.S, Washington and Ankara still are able to cooperate, driven by pragmatic calculations.
All this indicates that Ankara is trying to straddle between Moscow, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Washington, which backs the Syrian opposition and is trying to replace Assad. However, these attempts might lead to another deadlock, given the shifting nature of Russian-Turkish relations and Russia’s confrontation with the West.
“For the first time in the history of the Syrian conflict, the U.S., Russia, and Turkey are heading towards an endgame in Syria and the fate of that country — as well as the future role of Ankara in geopolitics – will depend on relations between the three countries,” Volkan Ozdemir, a Turkish expert and the chairman of the Ankara-based Institute for Energy Markets and Policies (EPPEN), told Russia Direct.
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However, many experts are puzzled, in fact, and divided in their assessments about the real reasons behind Turkey’s move in Syria and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Moscow, Washington and the balance of power in the region in general. Some pundits argue that the Turkish military operation in Syria could affect Russian-Turkish relations, which have just started recovering after Erdogan expressed his regrets for downing the Russian jet in November 2015.
Meanwhile, other experts speculate that Ankara’s Syrian gambit was coordinated with Moscow and, moreover, it was the Kremlin that gave the green light for this campaign.
“Turkey’s recent military activities in Syria are a result of the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement,” Ozdemir told Russia Direct. “Following the Erdogan-Putin meeting in St. Petersburg, it appears that Russia and Turkey are trying to find common ground for solving the Syrian crisis through a tacit agreement under which Moscow will decrease its support of the Syrian Kurds in return for Ankara giving up its attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
Moreover, after the summit, both sides agreed to create a joint military and intelligence mechanism to coordinate their activities in Syria. “So, it is difficult to presume that Turkey’s moves into Syria could have been done without Moscow’s consent,” Ozdemir suggests.
Freedman echoes this view. “Erdogan exploited the improvement of relations with Russia — although he also did change Turkey’s policy to state that Assad could have a role in Syria’s political transition, instead of demanding his ouster before the transitional period began, as he had done in the past,” he told Russia Direct.
However, such assumptions seem to contradict the responses from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which expressed its “concern about the events on the Syrian-Turkish border” and warned against “further escalation of the situation in the conflict zone.” Likewise, the Syrian authorities have also described the Turkish invasion as the violation of the country’s territorial integrity.
Turkey’s military campaign in Syria might also be a source of concern for Iran, an ally of Russia, given both Ankara and Tehran “see Syria as their Near Abroad and have a vested interest in the outcome of the Syrian crisis,” said Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State Universities for the Humanities (RSUH).
Moreover, the emergence of a new military stakeholder in the Syrian conflict exacerbates the problem to a significant degree, according to Alexander Sotnichenko, a Russian political analyst, an expert on Turkey and the Middle East.
“Considering Turkey’s position in the Syrian civil war, which has not changed in any substantial way since 2011, Ankara will be trying to gain a foothold on the ground before a new round of talks on the settlement in Syria,” he said. “Moreover, it now appears that Turkey will attempt to coordinate its position more with Washington and Riyadh rather than with Moscow.”
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In this situation, both Moscow and Damascus are aware that Ankara’s policy is hardly likely to be friendly toward them and will only add new problems to the conflict, said Sotnichenko. “For Moscow and Damascus, it means an indefinite prolongation of the conflict, with a de facto division of Syria,” the pundit warns.
Likewise, Ozdemir doesn’t rule out that the relations between Turkey and Russia could deteriorate. “The Turkish-Russian rapprochement is an ongoing process whose outcome is not clear,” he said. He pointed out that, in a worst-case scenario, Turkish forces would encourage the Free Syrian Army, one of the Western-backed opposition forces, in its military engagements against the Assad regime.
Moreover, Russia could reinvigorate its support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered by Ankara, Washington and Brussels to be a terrorist organization — in hopes that the Syrian Kurds would switch their allegiance from Washington to Moscow. That’s why the Moscow-Ankara-Washington triangle is essential, according to Ozdemir.
With the U.S. supporting Turkey’s military operation and Erdogan’s recent visit to Russia, any fears that Moscow-Ankara cooperation poses a challenge to the West seem unfounded. “While the West sees any dialogue between Turkey and Russia as a serious challenge, more extensive cooperation between the two countries could actually be a good recipe for bringing stability to the Middle East region and to the global system of international relations,” said Vladimir Avatkov, director of the Center of the Oriental Studies and a lecturer at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University).
He argues that the Russian–Turkish rapprochement should be seen as “a call for searching out pragmatic solutions to the protracted crisis in Syria as well as other geopolitical and security problems.”
Hopefully, the pragmatic approach will prevail and Russia, the West and Turkey will be able to find common ground in the Middle East, which will be also beneficial for the European Union. After all, the Syrian conflict reverberates in Europe, with the immigration crisis and terrorism threat posing a substantial challenge to EU unity and stability.