Putin and Erdogan Cozy Up to Divide Syria

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Something big and important must be at the heart of a relationship in which both sides are able to overcome the pain they repeatedly inflict on each other. Russia and Turkey, historically adversaries and newly active allies, are one such case.

While the United States is sending conflicting signals about its Syria policy, Russia, Turkey and Iran are negotiating a pragmatic framework of coexistence in the region, which is torn by international and sectarian conflicts.

Russia and Turkey in particular seem to have found a way of pursuing larger goals while agreeing to disagree on the many diverging interests that will always keep the two countries apart.

The two countries’ mutual history is rough. They clashed incessantly and waged war on each other once every quarter century when they were still empires. Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey ended up on opposite sides of the Cold War divide.

Russia and Turkey have gravitated toward each other during the post-Soviet times, mainly on economic grounds, but could have lost each other a number of times in recent years. Russia and Turkey have been supporting opposing forces in Syria. And yet some major force has been bringing them back together. It must be bigger than immediate politics.

Earlier this month, a Russian bomber operating in the area of the northern Syrian city of al-Bab and said to be targeting jihadis hit a building where Turkish troops were deployed. The errant attack left three Turkish soldiers dead and 11 wounded. It was the latest in a streak of “friendly fire” accidents that both sides have had to accommodate.

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In a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, President Vladimir Putin expressed his “sadness and condolences” over the episode. Both militaries said they had launched an investigation.

Last December, a radicalized Turkish police officer attacked and shot dead the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. Karlov was only the fourth Russian ambassador ever killed in the line of duty. Still, the two countries avoided even a minor rift. “It may have been an attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey,” Putin’s spokesman said. “But our two countries will only cooperate closer and more effectively against those who carried out this provocation.”

In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter bomber that was allegedly taking a shortcut across its airspace. Nothing comparable had happened between Russia and a NATO member in at least five decades.

02_28_Erdogan_Putin_01 Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit on September 5, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Maxim Trudolyubov writes that Trump is trying to draw Russia and Iran apart, which is not going to be easy. Ramil Sitdikov/Host Photo Agency via Getty

Putin called the downing a “stab in the back” and the two leaders stopped talking to each other as Russia, a major market for Turkish goods and services, retaliated by imposing economic sanctions on its southern neighbor. It took at least half a year of mostly track two diplomacy to repair the relationship.

President Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the incident in June 2016. The following month Turkey became the scene of a military coup attempt during which the Kremlin unequivocally took the side of the sitting government. The Russian military intelligence was reported to have passed on to the Turkish side a warning about the impending coup, something it never confirmed or denied.

The aftermath of the aborted coup drew the two countries even closer together: as opposed to Turkey’s Western partners, the Kremlin never questioned Erdogan’s sweeping crackdown on media, nongovernmental organizations and other institutions of Turkish society deemed by Ankara to have been complicit in the coup.

Alexander Dugin, an ultra-conservative Russian political writer and a self-styled leader of an international Eurasian movement, told Bloomberg recently that he had played a key role in bringing Russian and Turkey back together. Dugin, Bloomberg reports, “was delighted to watch Russia and Turkey take the reins in resolving the Syrian crisis, elbowing the U.S. aside.”

The United States may or may not have been elbowed from the region, but Russian-Turkish cooperation on the ground in Syria is a major development and a possible harbinger of how regional powers are going to build relationships with the United States absent or sending conflicting messages to its international partners.

Trump has signaled he would focus on fighting the Islamic State militant group, ISIS, while being more accommodating of Russia and, therefore, of Russia’s support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But the U.S. president also said he would be adamant about containing Iran, Syria’s and Russia’s best ally in the region.

The Trump administration is exploring ways to draw Russia and Iran apart, news reports have said, but this does not look like an easy bet, to put it mildly. To further complicate matters, the United States has been allied with YPG forces, the main armed service of the predominantly Kurdish northern Syria. Turkish and Kurdish forces are of course sworn enemies.

Russia has been busy building bridges with Turkey. Moscow has conceded the Turkish prerogative to treat the YPG as “terrorists” and fight them. In December Turkey, originally opposed to Bashar al-Assad, returned the favor by enabling the Syrian armed forces, backed by Russian air power, to capture Aleppo. The next stop is ISIS-held al-Bab, the city in northern Syria.

Russia and Turkey have apparently concluded a deal whose exact nature is not quite clear. “Russia and Turkey have agreed that the pro-government forces, not the rebels, will enter the city,” The New York Times reported.

While the Russian-supported Syrian forces are closing in from the south, the city will likely be taken by Turkish and Turkish-supported forces, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported. This seems to be a Russian-Turkish deal, the newspaper says in a piece headlined “Russia and Turkey Carve Up Northern Syria.”

Russia is also leading an international diplomatic effort to reconcile the interests of the maze of proxies and opposing groups fighting on the ground. Russia clearly intends to stay in the region. And this is one reason it will be working closer with Turkey than the United States.

I would not exaggerate Dugin’s power or any ideological reasons for the two countries to gravitate toward each other. The reasons seem to be mostly pragmatic and negative in nature: both powers identify as non-Western; both have gone through a deep disillusionment with their attempts to join the institutions of the West; even their political systems are converging: Erdogan seems to be learning a lot from Putin.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and editor-at-large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

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