Turkey seeks closer alliance with Russia in Syria

Turkey hopes to work with Russia to eject the US out of eastern Syria.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Istanbul, Turkey January 8, 2020 (photo credit: SPUTNIK/SERGEI GUNEEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Istanbul, Turkey January 8, 2020

Turkey is seeking closer coordination with Russia on regional issues, particularly in Syria, where it hopes to work with Moscow to eject US forces from eastern Syria. It is not clear yet what Ankara’s latest plan is, as in the past it has invaded and ethnically cleansed parts of northern Syria of minorities, particularly Kurds, in order to colonize Syria for Turkey’s interests. Russia backs the Syrian regime and is ostensibly on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict, but both countries together oppose the US role there. 

This may have some ramifications for Israel because Turkey’s ruling party has been hostile to the Jewish state in recent years, and Russia has expressed increasing criticism of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, according to reports in July.

Recent talks between Jerusalem and Moscow in early September and calls with Turkey have shown a desire for some engagement on the Syria issue – meaning that it is unclear if the close Ankara-Moscow ties, which are aimed at removing the US from Syria, will be a near-term problem for Israel. In the long term, a weakened US stance has negative ramifications for Israel, with Iran using Syria to threaten the Jewish state.  

Russia and Turkey are today working together against the US, and this was clear in a summit in Sochi in which Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that peace in Syria depends on relations between Ankara and Moscow. He was speaking in the southern Russian resort city alongside Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, according to reports.

“President Erdogan underlined the importance of his country's joint actions with Moscow in the context of the Syrian conflict,” says TRT, a government channel in Turkey that is linked to the ruling AKP Party. Turkey has no real opposition media and so the statements in Turkish media broadly reflect the AKP Party’s views. 

“For his part, Putin said that though his meetings with Erdogan were not always without problems, the institutions of their countries are able to reach resolutions,” TRT said. Other reports from the news agency appeared to indicate that Ankara wants a “conflict” in northeast Syria, where US forces are present and where the Syrian Democratic Forces have defeated ISIS and are trying to keep the peace.

Turkey views the SDF as “terrorists” because it is backed by the US. It has been shelling SDF positions and using drones and pro-Turkish Syrian extremist groups to harass Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi minorities in eastern Syria.  

IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil. (credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil. (credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)

UNDER THE Trump administration, Turkey enjoyed a free rein to attack minorities in Syria and seize areas. In October 2019, it was even allowed to threaten US forces, carry out an offensive against the SDF and ethnically cleanse Kurds as the US retreated in the face of Ankara’s demands. High-level members of the Trump administration had close ties to Turkey and often worked at think tanks prior to working with the administration, where they had a long record of pro-Ankara and pro-Erdogan views.

Their argument was that Turkey should be empowered, along with jihadists and extremist groups that it backed in Syria. Ankara backed a long list of extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which were involved in crimes against humanity and attacks on minorities and women. In some cases, former US officials even hinted that the US should back Turkey to work with Al-Qaeda-linked groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Their goal was to use the jihadists against the Syrian regime, whereas Turkey wanted to mobilize this extremist rabble against Kurds and women.  

When the Trump administration’s pro-Turkey policy unraveled in Ankara’s threats against US forces and its growing partnership with Hamas, Iran and Russia, there was a slight shift to critiquing Turkey. Ankara in turn began buying Russian S-400 air defense systems and became an increasing partner of Tehran and Moscow on issues relating to Syria. Turkey also became more anti-Israel under the Trump administration.

TODAY, TURKEY is reversing course a bit. Backing away from its unfettered backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, it is seeking more “engagement” with countries such as Egypt and the UAE that it previously threatened. Turkey also wants to iron out its role in Azerbaijan, Libya and other areas where it had stoked conflict in recent years. The meeting in Sochi comes amid that backdrop. Turkey wants to pressure the Biden administration in Syria, but is weighing how it might best do this.  

Reports at TRT say that “major investment projects between the two countries continue as planned and bilateral trade between them has increased by 50% in the first nine months this year, making up for previous losses and achieving a major rise amid the coronavirus pandemic, said Putin at the event in Sochi, where the meeting was taking place.”

The reports also show that Erdogan brought his usual high level delegation with him, including National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. This shows the weight Erdogan puts on the meetings with Moscow and the potential strategy that may develop.  

RUSSIA ALSO highly values the Turkey partnership, with its TASS news agency saying the talks lasted three hours. Moscow saw these talks as the most important in the last year and a half, basically raising a curtain on strengthened Turkish-Russian ties after Turkey had been weighing its options with the Biden administration. When asked whether the talks were still in progress," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS that they "have ended," a report said. 

“The two leaders discussed the agenda in the economic sector and in international relations. In particular, Putin pointed to the successful cooperation of the two countries on the situation in Syria and Libya. He also focused on the work of the center to control the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Putin sees this as a guarantee for “stability” in the region.

According to TASS, “energy was on the agenda. Putin thanked Erdogan for his stance on the construction of TurkStream, owing to which Ankara feels safe amid the difficulties on the European gas market. The Turkish leader, for his part, touched upon the issue of a joint project - the construction of the first Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the country, whose first power unit may be unveiled already next year.”  

This is big news because Russia is moving forward with NordStream2, another big energy project. The goal of Russia is to sit astride Europe’s energy needs. Big money rests on the Ankara-Moscow alliance now. This is an alliance of authoritarians as well. Their goal is now to partition Syria and work together to remove the US from the region. Russia and Turkey will hope to pry the US out of areas in the northern part of the Middle East, much as Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar and others worked to remove the US from Afghanistan.

Then, in partnership with Iran, it appears Russia and China may work to reduce US influence in the central belt of the Middle East, hoping to get the US not only out of eastern Syria, but perhaps out of Iraq as well and bring apart a new avenue for Syrian regime economic output via Iraq and Jordan.

Opening up the Iranian “road to the sea” via Albukamal and Damascus will be essential. This means removing the US from eastern Syria so it cannot sit near the Euphrates and monitor Iran’s movements from Al-Tanf base near Jordan.

OF COURSE, this anaconda-like plan and the partition of Syria into spheres of influence and control may not come about via a pact between Moscow and Ankara, but rather from these kinds of discussions that provide for deconfliction in Syria. This process dates back to initial talks in Astana in 2016, which came after Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 and after Turkey launched its first major operation that year, designed to thwart the US-backed SDF near Manbij.

At the time the Obama administration was disappointed with Turkey’s duplicity and its tolerance for extremists linked to ISIS who were flooding into Syria. Ankara was hesitant to help the US defeat ISIS, while Washington, working on the Iran deal, had shifted priorities from opposing the Syrian regime to fighting ISIS.

Years later, Turkey is working with Russia and Iran on Syria, after the brief attempts by members of the Trump administration to appease Turkey in order to get it to help exert maximum pressure on Iran.

Turkey’s goal in Syria has been to use extremists to fight Kurds and divert the Syrian revolution and Syrian rebels to become contractors for Ankara and then to marginalize them so the Syrian regime can return to power. Russia agrees with Turkey that this is the best way to remove the issue of the Syrian rebels, but even Moscow cannot figure out the best way for the Syrian regime to remove HTS and regain its influence over Syria. 

Meanwhile in Geneva, a series of talks backed by the UN are aimed at drafting a new constitution for Syria. These largely mythical discussions, which are a sideshow of the real power politics, are used by Russia and Turkey to stoke hopes among Syrians in exile that they might get a new constitution in Damascus, whereas the real power regarding Syria is now held by Moscow and Ankara, not the UN and Geneva.