reflections

What the Restored Turkey-Russia Relationship Means for the Middle East

6 MINS READAug 12, 2016 | 03:20 GMT
What the Restored Turkey-Russia Relationship Means for the Middle East
(ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met near St. Petersburg on Aug. 9. The Turkey-Russia relationship is rapidly evolving.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the cozier relationship between Russia and Turkey better than the lunch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin had from plates painted with a picture of the two shaking hands — but potential joint strikes on the Islamic State come close. On Thursday, Turkey and Russia began meetings in St. Petersburg focused specifically on how to address the Syrian conflict under the framework of a "trilateral mechanism" involving Damascus. Iran, too, is trying to get in on the action. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is expected to meet with his Turkish counterpart and Erdogan on Aug. 12 in Ankara, and rumors are circulating that the dialogue between Iran, Russia and Turkey could soon expand to also directly include Syria.

For Damascus and its allies, the possibility of striking a bargain with Turkey on the Syrian civil war is a golden opportunity. Turkey plays a pivotal role in supplying the rebels fighting the al Assad government. Without Turkey's support, the rebels — who recently lost ground in the south and have shifted their focus decidedly to the north and the city of Aleppo — would be much weaker in the face of the Iranian- and Russian-backed loyalist offensives already wearing them down. As part of a deal with the Syrian government, Turkey could not only stop helping the rebels, but because of its location it could also halt the flow of other rebel aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In fact, if Damascus were able to convince the Turkish government to change its policy on Syria, it would be tantamount to ensuring victory. This kind of swap on Turkey's part, however, is highly unlikely.

But even if Turkey will not abandon support of the Syrian rebels, it may engage with Iran and Russia on shared goals, including containing the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels. Given the international and domestic forces working against the Turkish government right now, it makes sense for Turkey to set aside its differences with Russia and Iran over some aspects of the Syrian conflict so as to collaborate where they have shared interests. For example, Turkey, like Russia, already has considerable economic links with Iran: On Aug. 10, Turkey's customs minister announced that since sanctions against Iran were lifted in January there has been a 30 percent increase in trade between the two countries. Both would like to continue fostering those ties. 

Playing Syria

Even though Turkey will not completely abandon the rebels or its agenda of expanding Sunni influence in Syria, it may change its strategy in the country to appease Iran and Russia. Erdogan has only to look to Putin for guidance: Russia portrayed itself as a pragmatic actor in negotiations with the United States even as it primarily targeted U.S.-backed rebel forces in Syria. Similarly, the Turks can work to strike bargains with the Russians and Iranians without ceasing their support for the rebels. In fact, if those bargains helped Turkey gain greater access to the Syrian battlefield, Ankara could deploy its air force in northern Syria against the Islamic State and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey could very likely make concessions to Iran and Russia on Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that no Syrian solution is possible without Russian support and that negotiations on Syria should start with areas of common ground. Furthermore, Turkey has indicated that it is willing to reconsider its opposition to Russian strikes in Syria if they target only the more extreme rebels. Turkey's recent closure of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, even if temporary, could be a Turkish concession already made to Russia. And, of course, if any agreement can be reached, the Islamic State is the common stated target. The visions of each power will become clearer in Syria as the task of defeating that common enemy nears completion.

In any negotiation, all parties involved will try to promote their own interests. In reconciling with Russia, Turkey wants to clear the obstacles in northern Syria preventing it from targeting the Islamic State and Kurdish militias and to boost its economy. By proposing to wage joint strikes with Russia against the Islamic State, Turkey wants to reduce the risk of reprisal from Russia for its action in Syria. Russia, though, is determined to maintain tight control over the Syrian battlefield. Russia (and Iran) also, however, could benefit from aligning with Turkey — a U.S. ally and NATO member — to make it appear as though the United States is the lone irrational outlier in Syria. Russia's interests, therefore, seem to contradict one another. However Russia responds to Turkey's proposals, it will help determine the trajectory of the Syrian conflict.

Iranian Arbitration

Equally important will be the rumored meetings scheduled between the Turkish and Syrian governments facilitated by Iran. Though Turkey is highly unlikely to ever support Syrian President Bashar al Assad, it could decide to talk directly with al Assad or support a transition government that includes him. For Iran, supporting al Assad has been a critical part of its regional strategy, and it is in Iran's interests to maintain that relationship. One thing — and possibly the only thing — Turkey and Syria can agree on, however, is opposition to the YPG.

It might seem that with Turkey's new willingness to negotiate, anything is possible, but Turkey also must be careful that its diplomacy with Russia and Iran does not backfire. If Turkey becomes too friendly with either country, its relationship with its Syrian rebel proxies could crumble. In fact, some rebel groups have already distanced themselves from Ankara. Even more critical is the potential damage to Turkey's already tense relationship with the United States and its other NATO partners. Turkey's membership in NATO is crucial for both Ankara and the alliance, and Turkey will undoubtedly be careful in how it develops its new relationships with Russia and Iran, two NATO foes.

Ultimately, though, Turkey is not completely defying the United States by becoming more friendly with the regional allies traditionally seen to oppose Washington. The United States itself is considering expanding its cooperation with Russia. For a conflict as complicated and intractable as that in Syria, it only makes sense that the countries involved explore their options for tactical compromises, even if their strategic interests remain fundamentally opposed.

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