President Erdoğan’s first state visit after the July 15th coup attempt to St Petersburg offers insight into what could lie ahead for Syria.
Russia’s President Putin was one of the first leaders to reach out to Mr. Erdoğan following the coup. This occurred just months after Ankara’s diplomatic maneuvering to recover Turkish-Russian relations in an apology letter over Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November last year.
Both leaders have emphasized that they have high expectations for their respective roles in Syria. These expectations differ widely however, leaving questions of Syria’s own expectations unresolved.
Turkey is committed to fighting its one-time ally, Bahsar al-Assad, while Russian operations in Syria are in support of the besieged regime. Given this, it is unclear how long Turkey and Russia’s rapport will last.
Turkey and Syria – before the war
Before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, relations between Erdoğan and Assad were openly warm, spurring various political and economic initiatives between the two countries including mutual visa removal for Turkish and Syrian citizens. Trade flourished on both sides of the border, and Turkey was effectively indifferent to Syria’s politics as a part of Davutoğlu’s ‘zero-problems with neighbors’ policy.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign policy guru and later foreign minister, crafted this much-contested pro-active foreign policy based upon the revival of neo-Ottoman values and an imagined Ottoman past. His Strategic Depth doctrine.
According to this doctrine, Turkey had everything necessary to become a regional power thanks to its historical, cultural, and political affinity with the Muslim world, and critically, the Middle East.
Soon after the Syrian protests began 2011, Erdoğan requested Assad make the reforms demanded by the Syrian people, continuing this dialogue well into 2012. When Assad refused, Turkey pushed for an election in the hope that a government with Islamist leanings would secure Turkish interests in the region. This too fell on deaf ears. As a last resort, Erdoğan began supporting rebel groups, some of which had strict interpretations of Islam, and branding Assad a murderer, terrorist, and villain. Since then, relations have obviously devolved.
Russia steps in
A major blow to Turkey’s ambitions in Syria came when Putin decided to back the Assad regime, Russia’s only supporter in the region. Given this, it is fair to say that relations between Russia and Turkey would be greatly affected if a political consensus on Syria was reached. Increasingly, such consensus seems to favor Assad.
True, ISIL is a common enemy of both Turkey and Russia, and an increase in joint-efforts against the group will likely emerge from the recent meeting between Putin and Erdoğan. But Russia’s Syria still differs greatly from Turkey’s.
Turkey’s agenda has long focused on toppling Assad’s regime and establishing a pro-Turkey government. But this possibility now seems so unlikely that Turkey is increasingly forced to recognize the need for a total overhaul of its Syria policy. The danger of this is that it might lead to the full recovery of Assad in Syria.
Tangled web of influence
The tone the US and EU’s approach to Turkey in the coming days is going to play a vital role in reshaping Ankara’s Syria policy. Feeling abandoned and betrayed, Erdoğan has time and again expressed his dissatisfaction with the West’s tepid reaction to the attempted coup.
The President argued that the US needs to make a decision between Turkey and Fethullah Gülen – the accused orchestrater of last months’ coup – a statement later seconded by Bekir Bozdağ, the minister of justice. Bozdağ claimed that Gülen’s extradition is a matter of politics rather than law. Whatever the US decides, it will alter Ankara’s relations with Washington and by extension, with Syria.
If the US refuses to extradite Gülen to Turkey, this will complicate the situation in Syria further by pushing Turkey towards Russia: plausibly uniting Turkey, Russia and even Syria in their ill-feelings towards the West.
This may be the stuff of Putin’s dreams as it would be a sign of Turkey’s weakening relations with NATO, which may in turn halt NATO’s expansion in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. However, this would be a risky venture for Erdoğan.
Although speculative, given Turkey’s softening stance and growing consideration of a Syria solution that includes Assad, it is entirely plausible that the coming months may well see Erdoğan extending another apology. In order to legitimise a U-turn in Turkey’s stance on Syria, Turkey could employ the FETÖ defense, as with Russia: arguing that FETÖ, the terrorist organization apparently behind the coup attempt, had pressured him into hostile relations with Syria. Just as the Turkish pilots who shot down the Russian jet were accused of membership in FETÖ.
Yet if the US agrees with the evidence sent by the Turkish government to Washington and decides to send Gülen back, then Ankara will have a stronger card to play against Russia in Syria – a possibility that might prolong the civil war. The alternative sees Turkey and the US entering a crisis point in relations.
The Kurdish guerilla groups, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) are ensnared within the Syrian conundrum as well. Turkey has been less than pleased with Moscow and Washington over their support for the YPG and by extension, the PKK, even in their fight against ISIL. Turkey is, and likely will remain, alone in combatting the Kurds in Syria while trying to pull Russia and the US on side.
Despite these enduring sticking points, and the complexity of great power play between the US and Russia, the fruits of the Putin- Erdoğan meeting are many: chartered flights between the two nations will resume, sanctions lifted, and cooperation agreements in the energy sector adhered to once more.
But agreement on “all but Syria” is not a sustainable option for Turkey and Russia, as we have seen in their tumultuous relations in recent years. The future of cooperation depends upon many variables that are beyond Turkey’s control. Amongst all these variables, the Assad question stands out. Although Ankara is in no position to amend relations with Syria currently, signs of rapprochement with Russia and the increasingly desperate need to resolve this conflict are indicative that a new approach to Assad may be on the horizon.
An earlier version of this piece was published on Foreign Policy News and has been syndicated here with permission.