In Syria, Turkey is using its reconciliation with Russia as a form of political leverage over the U.S., which Ankara wants to make more attentive to its own demands.
Syrian Army soldiers wave the Syrian national flag as civilians ride buses to be evacuated from the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya, after an agreement reached on Thursday between rebels and Syria's army, August 26, 2016. Photo: Reuters
Turkey’s recent military operation, which ended in the capture of the Syrian city of Jarablus, demonstrated the nation’s strong concerns about its security interests in the region. The operation not only took on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), but also challenged the Syrian Kurds under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Even though the official reason for the operation was clearing the area of ISIS forces, Turkey’s offensive had a broader strategic aim: preventing the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous political entity along the Turkey-Syria border. These Kurds affiliated with the PYD have strong ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization.
The increased diplomatic activity of Ankara allowed it to cooperate more closely with the Syrian government’s main allies. This, however, does not indicate that Turkey is stepping back from its Western allies. By acting in such a manner, Turkey is trying to draw the U.S.’s attention to its concerns, especially when it comes to the sphere of national security.
The military operation launched by Ankara in Syria made the U.S. decrease its support for the Kurds and satisfy some of Turkey’s primary concerns. In many ways, Turkey’s newly restored relations with Russia may have also caused such changes in the U.S. approach. However, it is important to look within the inner political workings in Ankara to fully grasp the situation.
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Turkey’s volatile domestic politics
After the failed coup in July, Turkey’s government and military have been busy cleansing itself of pro-Gulen elements in its ranks [Religious figure Fethullah Gulen, founder of the Gulen movement, incited the recent coup attempt, according to the Turkish government – Editor’s note]. In addition to this, the military is undergoing reforms, so as to have a more centralized command structure. It is also vital to note that many army officers who advised against direct military involvement in Syria have now been removed from their command posts.
In recent weeks, Turkey has experienced a number of terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIS and the PKK. The most recent attack exploited the exact moment when personnel in the security services were undergoing a reorganization, which weakened their operational capacities. The leaders of the PKK announced that they were ready to start an all-out war if the government refused to cooperate and start negotiations with the organization. The government has firmly refused to do this, stating that it did not negotiate with terrorists.
Turkey’s diplomatic shift
In recent weeks, there has been a noticeable shift in Turkey’s foreign policy. In August, Erdogan travelled to St. Petersburg to meet with Vladimir Putin, which ultimately stabilized relations between the two countries. This rapprochement was followed by increased dialogue between Russian and Turkish defense and military agencies. According to media reports, one of the main points of discussion between Erdogan and Putin was the situation in Syria, and ways to coordinate their efforts in order to quell the conflict.
The Putin-Erdogan talks in St. Petersburg were also strengthened by a visit of the Iranian foreign minister to Ankara on Aug. 12, and the visit of the Turkish foreign minister to Tehran on Aug. 20. The fact that Turkey’s attempts to improve its relations with Russia came against the background of Ankara’s cooling relations with its traditional Western allies (the U.S. and Europe) deserves particular attention.
Turkey’s displeasure with the West
Turkey remains displeased with Europe on a number of issues. First, according to Turkey, Europe keeps a blind eye to the activities of PKK affiliates in EU countries. Second, Ankara is dissatisfied with Europe’s reaction to the failed coup attempt. The Turkish government believes that Europe did not express a definitive anti-coup stance, and did not unequivocally support the democratically elected President Erdogan.
Ankara’s suspicions became stronger with the European position to the post-coup measures taken by the Turkish government. Turkey’s Western partners believe that the actions taken by the government following the coup attempt were made to stifle any political opposition to the ruling elite.
The United States’ position was also ambiguous. When Turkey demanded that Gulen, who resides in the U.S., be extradited, Washington asked to provide evidence that he played a part in the coup. This increased the tension between the countries.
Friction is also present when it comes to Washington’s support of the Syrian Kurds. Unlike in Iraq, U.S. military maneuvers in Syria are limited by the lack of boots on the ground. Because of this, Washington was forced to rely on the Kurds for military support to fight terrorism. This was coordinated under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party.
As for the Syrian Kurds, they used their alliance with the U.S. to increase the amount of land they controlled. This has caused concern not only in Syria but also in Turkey. In order to prevent the further expansion of the territories controlled by the PYD as well as to clear the area of ISIS forces, Turkey decided to launch the military operation in Syria.
The realization of this operation, which was thought out in 2015, became impossible after Turkey shot down the Russian jet over the Syrian desert. Because Russia controlled Syrian airspace, Turkey had to wait nine months until relations with Russia stabilized. The crossing of the Euphrates by military units of the PYD compelled the Turkish leadership to negotiate further with Russian officials.
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According to the Turkish defense minister, Fikri Isik, the operation was coordinated with the agreement of Russian, Iranian and even Syrian officials through “indirect communication channels.” The fact that consultations about the operation took place is also confirmed by the reaction of all parties involved. They expressed only formal concern about intervention and called for cooperation with official Syrian authorities.
The position of Iran and Syria concerning the Kurds is especially important when analyzing Turkey’s actions. All sides categorically oppose the establishment of a Kurdish state. In the case of Damascus, the hostility to the PYD is often outwardly adverse. In fact, on Mar. 19, there were open clashes in the city of Hasakah between the Syrian Army forces and the Kurdish militia.
The strengthening of the Syrian Kurds is strongly tied to the growth of their political ambitions, which is to eventually establish Kurdish autonomy within Syria. There are many political forces who oppose it, and not just regional powers, but also the U.S. and Russia, who are committed to the unity and integrity of the Syrian state.
The importance of Turkey’s offensive in Syria
Turkey’s offensive, called “Euphrates Shield,” was directed at creating a safe zone along the Syria-Turkey border, as well as at stopping ISIS and Kurdish forces from advancing. Of course, Russia could not have allowed Turkey to do this and strengthen its positions in Syria, if it received nothing in return.
Judging by the declarations of both Russia and Turkey, it seems that they are working on a more comprehensive plan that includes compromises on a number of issues, including the control of border posts that supply major assistance to anti-Assad forces.
The other important factor is the change of Ankara’s rhetoric towards the future fate of Assad. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that, “Turkey can see Assad as a future interlocutor.” This is to say that Ankara now views Assad as a legitimate part of the transition process. This shows a significant concession of Turkey’s position towards Syria’s president.
Turkey’s support of an anti-Assad coalition aims at increasing its own influence in Syria, while its fight with the Kurds is seen in terms of preserving its national security. It is through this prism it is vital to view Turkish relations with Russia and the U.S.
At first glance it might seem like Turkey, while experiencing problems with its traditional allies, consciously looks for closer relations with Moscow. It also signals the willingness to compromise in its relations with Russia. However, all plans between Russia and Turkey have yet to be implemented, while the U.S. and the West remain the main guarantors of Turkey’s security, despite existing issues.
Exactly at such moments, Turkey uses its reconciliation with Russia as leverage over the U.S., which Ankara wants to make more attentive to own demands. That is why the U.S. is reacting on Turkey-Russia rapprochement in a very cautious way. All of these might demonstrate increasing coordination between all parties involved, which gives more hope for positive results in the end.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.