Both Turkey and Russia need peace in the Middle East – and especially in Syria – and this can and should become a basis for political cooperation between them

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his speech before the heads of chambers of commerce in Ankara, Turkey, August 4, 2016. Photo: AP

In May, Ankara’s foreign policy encountered the deepest crisis it has ever known. In the shortest period of time, Turkey managed to compromise its relations with all of its partners and allies whose trust it had been gaining for years. As a result of abandoning its policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” Turkey found itself in a situation that journalists frequently describe as “zero neighbors without problems.”

A series of foreign policy conflicts hampered economic growth as well as domestic political stability: Turkey suffered through a series of terrorist attacks and a failed political coup. There is need of a fundamental change in foreign policy strategy. Ankara currently has to choose the track for such changes. However, it is proving to be an extremely challenging task.

Following the defeat of this summer’s military coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency in the country and, in fact, concentrated unlimited powers in his hands. He is using the situation to destroy his political rivals under the pretext of cracking down on the organizers of the coup and its participants.

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The current agenda includes convening a referendum on the adoption of a new constitution, which would transform Turkey into a presidential republic. That would allow Erdogan to rule the country for 12 years without any rivals in sight. At the moment, he is the only person who is responsible for choosing the country’s foreign policy track.

The former policy aimed at supporting the Arab revolutions in general and the armed conflict in Syria in particular failed. For Turkey, five years of intervention into the conflict resulted in over 2.5 million of refugees on its territory, a conflict with the European Union, the U.S., Russia and Iran, as well as the bloodiest terror attacks in its history and the collapse of the tourism market.

The Syrian initiative cost Turkey over $20 billion and that's why Ankara cannot accept the idea of its failure. These ambivalent feelings explain the reluctance of the Turkish government to openly abandon its support for the armed opposition in Syria. Moreover, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries share a similar stance on Syria, and Ankara so far has no intention of antagonizing them.

Since 2011, the U.S. actively supported Turkey and its allies in their plans to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad by providing them with ample supplies and training numerous, albeit dispersed, armed opposition units. However, the interference of Russia in October 2015 made it clear that this undertaking was doomed to fail.

Assad managed to reverse the course of the civil war to his advantage and successfully thwarted all attempts by the opposition to seize power by force. In order to prevent the triumph of pro-Russian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria, Washington followed the strategy that it once used in Iraq – placing a bet on the collapse of the state by supporting Kurdish separatism.

From the very outset of the conflict, the Kurdish authorities in Syria, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), observed neutrality regarding the main opposing forces in the conflict and didn’t openly fight the Syrian army. However, they never missed an opportunity to occupy administrative buildings, infrastructure and communication facilities within the vast territories in the north of the country.

In 2014, Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, situated in the north of Syria, became a symbol of the opposition to the advancement of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) near the town of Kobane, whose defense was made possible primarily due to the generous support from the U.S. and to the airstrikes by the forces of the international anti-terror coalition

It was only by March of 2016 that Washington finally chose its allies and paced the main bet on the Syrian Kurds. At that point, neither Russia nor the U.S. was able to ensure the participation of the Kurds in the Geneva conference, and as a result, Rojava proclaimed its autonomy.

Washington silently supported this move, immediately deployed 250 marines to support its allies and also organized a recruitment of mercenaries from the former military personnel of NATO countries.

Kurdish question

Having officially refused to recognize the Kurdish authorities, the U.S. set up two military bases near the town of Kobane and provided marines and mercenaries with funds to form Syrian self-defense peshmerga units into an army capable of fighting ISIS. [The peshmerga are the Kurdish-led military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan – Editor’s note].

As early as May, the Kurds had one of the strongest armies in the Syrian civil war – 12,000 men of the Syrian Democratic Forces (equivalent to the strength of Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in the whole territory of Syria), and with the support of the U.S. aircraft, this force proved capable of leading massive offensives against ISIS. At the same time, they engaged in clearing up Arab Sunni settlements. Thus, a tangible prospect of creating a large Kurdish enclave along Turkey’s southern border emerged.

Why is Ankara so concerned with the prospects of another Kurdish enclave emerging near Turkey’s southern border? After all, there is already an independent Iraqi Kurdistan on its borders.

The nuance is that members of Iraq’s Kurdish elite have never been sympathetic with the ideas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Ankara, the U.S. and the EU to be a terrorist organization.

In fact, the PKK has been seeking independence from Turkey for some Kurdish regions since 1984. Its very presence represents a huge challenge to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Moreover, there are PKK bases in Northern Iraq. However, the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq keeps maintaining extensive economic ties with Ankara. They are hardly likely to trade barbs over the PKK.

Yet the story with the Syrian Kurds is totally different. Before the civil war in Syria, there had been more than two million Syrian Kurds. However, ethnically and linguistically, they are not different from their Kurdish counterparts in Turkey. During the Turkish-Syrian “cold war” in the 1970s-1990s, the father of Syria’s current president, Hafez Assad, backed the PKK while providing it with training bases for its soldiers in Lebanon.

The PKK militants frequently conducted terrorist attacks in Turkey by crossing the Syrian border. The founder of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison, is seen as a spiritual leader for the Syrian Kurds, with philosophical works becoming the ideological foundation of Syria’s Western Kurdistan. Of course, such neighbors are unacceptable for Turkey, because it is a constant reminder for 15 million Turkish Kurds to resume their fight for independence.

Ankara regards Syria’s PYD as a branch of the PKK, responsible for many terrorist attacks in Turkey, and for this reason it doesn’t even want to establish dialogue with the PYD. That’s why the extensive support of the Syrian Kurds from the U.S. resulted in the conflict between Ankara and Washington.

Likewise, the EU also supports the Syrian Kurds: the French, British, and German militaries have their representative branches in Western Kurdistan. The image of the Kurdish national movement in Europe is positive due to its active participation in the fight against ISIS (the Kurdish ideology is secular and its women are those who are fighting against Islamic terrorists). And the Kurdish community in Europe maintains such a positive image.

Turkey's foreign policy at a crossroads

Turkey is currently close to being isolated in the foreign policy area. Its traditional NATO allies appear to be supporters of Turkey’s bitter enemy, the Kurds, which aim at destroying the current Turkish unitary state. Ankara’s new friends it acquired in the 21st century, such as Russia, Iran, Syria, and even China, completely defy Turkey’s support of the Syrian armed opposition, while the rest of its allies in the Persian Gulf turned out not to be as powerful as thought and are not so sufficient in defending Turkey’s interests.

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Therefore, Turkey has only two options: It can either put up with the policy of the U.S. and the EU of supporting the Kurds or drastically change its own Syria strategy to acquire support of the new regional leaders – Russia and Iran.

Judging by the official information disseminated by Turkish information agencies, such a decision has not been yet made. Along with harsh criticism of the U.S. position, there are also attacks on Russia for its support of the Syrian leadership and detailed media coverage of the militants’ operations in Syria.

Members of the Turkish government make controversial statements, simultaneously talking about the necessity to restore relations with Syria and then standing by the government’s position to assist the armed opposition there. Erdogan spends time negotiating with both the Iranian and Saudi leadership. All of those moves demonstrate Ankara’s attempts to test the waters while formulating its new foreign policy line by comparing positions of global and regional actors, assessing different scenarios and consequences of different moves.

For Russia, which has been relatively isolated by the West, such a situation with Turkey promises quite positive prospects not only for restoration of economic ties but also for political cooperation in the Middle East, including Syria. Both Ankara and Moscow need a united and stable Syria.

Further continuation of the Syrian civil war will only bring further deaths to Russian soldiers, as well as result in the spillover of terrorism, separatism and instability into Turkey and into the broader region. Both Turkey and Russia need peace in the region and this can become a basis for political cooperation between them.

While Turkey should cease assisting and radicalizing armed groups fighting the Syrian Arab Army and should push them towards dialogue with the Syrian government, Russia would better abandon its illusions about freedom-loving, pro-Russian Kurds, whose army and leaders have been on the U.S. payroll already for a long time.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.