On the surface, Russia and Turkey may be close to a rapprochement. But both sides are clearly maneuvering for power and influence in Syria, where their interests are not yet aligned.
Syria figures prominently among the political contradictions that divide Russia and Turkey. Photo: RIA Novosti
Just as quickly as Russia-Turkey relations deteriorated in November 2015 following the shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 over Syrian skies, they swiftly got back to normal in St. Petersburg, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met for the first time in ten months — or so the two presidents wanted everyone to think. In reality the Russia-Turkey relationship is now, more than ever, a zero-sum game where neither side has a meaningful strategy.
The body language of the two presidents showed how uncomfortable both of them felt about the sudden rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. Putin was visibly cool and reserved, something characteristic of him when meeting counterparts that he doesn’t like. Erdogan, on the contrary, was overly friendly and almost apologetic, thanking Putin several times in the course of the meeting. All in all, it looked as if Putin was extending a favor to Erdogan by receiving him in Russia, which is not at all out of the question.
Following the failed coup in Turkey in late July, Erdogan’s policy has been changing swiftly both on the domestic front and internationally. With renewed vigor he embarked on a campaign to eliminate his political enemies inside the country, both real and probable.
Quite naturally, Turkey’s allies within NATO were vocal about these developments and condemned what appeared to be political purges taking place within the country. Moscow was one of the few capitals whose stance on Erdogan’s reassertion of power was flexible, if not tacitly approving.
And this is the key to understanding the Kremlin’s new approach to dealing with Ankara: Putin will watch Erdogan isolate himself internationally and struggle domestically — and then embrace him when the Turkish president has no one to turn to.
Despite grand expectations on the eve of Erdogan’s visit, the meeting had no highlights that would indicate that the parties are not just going back to square one. In short, they didn’t come up with ways to boost cooperation. The presidents expressed their determination to restore friendly ties and revived several economic deals, but the political contradictions that were the source of the crisis in the first place were not even addressed in public.
Among these political contradictions, Syria figures prominently. An impressive Turkish political team that landed in St. Petersburg meant that Erdogan came for serious talks with Putin. The arrival of Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, meant that Moscow and Ankara would be discussing the most sensitive issues related to their operations in Syria. It also hinted that there could be a breakthrough as a result of this meeting. Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming and disappointing.
Putin and Erdogan agreed to set up a mechanism that would involve their intelligence services and respective foreign and defense ministries to prevent unwanted military incidents in the future. In other words, Russia and Turkey simply agreed to avoid each other in Syria. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that the two have disagreed on almost every single issue since the start of the conflict.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria made things even worse. The very same Hakan Fidan who arrived in St. Petersburg had previously called the Russian operation anti-Islamic. He also suggested that it contradicted the principles of international law back in autumn 2015. Putin himself has labeled Turkey the “accomplice of terrorists.” So even avoiding each other in Syria and taking steps to prevent accidents will require a lot of effort on both sides.
Following the downing of a Russian Su-24 by Turkey in November 2015, Moscow embarked on a path to cut cooperation with Ankara in almost all spheres, including tourism, trade and military cooperation. The incident also made the Kremlin reevaluate certain aspects of its operation in Syria, opting for stronger defense to prevent such incidents from happening again.
Shortly after the shoot-down, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced steps that would overturn the security status quo in Syria. Moscow decided to deploy its state-of-the-art S-400 air defense system at the Hmeymim base in Latakia, whose operating range covers Syria’s coastal areas, Damascus, as well as the northern region of the country.
In other words Russia managed to create a unilateral no-fly zone over the territory controlled by Syria’s Turkish-backed opposition as well as some Turkish regions bordering the country.
Additionally, Russian fighter jets were equipped with air-to-air missiles capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 60 kilometers (approximately 37 miles) in an attempt to deter Ankara from chasing Russian aircraft. Apart from making it virtually impossible for Turkey’s own fighter jets to operate inside Syria, Russia also started pounding areas controlled by Ankara-supported militias. Immediately after the Su-24 incident, Russian forces launched a series of strikes along the Turkish border against rebel-held border crossings and rebel supply lines leading into Aleppo.
Just before Erdogan’s visit to Russia, Putin made a decision that did not receive much coverage in the media. He sent the agreement on the deployment of the Russian aviation group to Syria, which Moscow and Damascus had signed in August 2015, to parliament to be ratified. The urgency to ratify the document at a time when Russian lawmakers are on vacation sheds light on Russia’s future moves in Syria.
As Russian senator Franz Klintsevich confirmed to the media, the ratification of the agreement paves the way for transforming the Hmeymim base into a permanent Russian military base in the Middle East. This means that the S-400 air defense system is there to stay and so is the entire defense infrastructure that Russia has created in Syria.
This system had paralyzed Ankara operationally, and is obviously something that Turkey would prefer to have rolled back. By sending such a strong signal to Erdogan, Putin essentially says that Russia takes Turkey’s promises of cooperation in Syria with a grain of salt for the time being.
That is not to say, however, that the meeting to solidify the rapprochement was useless. The message that the two presidents sent to their foreign partners and opponents was crystal clear. Erdogan’s calculation was that his trip to Russia would be a red flag for his NATO allies, which it was indeed. The revival of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project was, in a sense, a message to the EU designed to demonstrate that Ankara may hold the key to Europe’s economic security. It essentially encouraged Europe to be more flexible in its approach to Turkey.
For Putin, a meeting with Erdogan presented another opportunity to prove that Russia is not isolated, something that he has relished pulling off lately. But more importantly, a potential standoff between Russia and Turkey in Syria further destabilized the situation in the region. With the rapprochement being a fait accompli, the two remove the variable of a Russian-Turkish skirmish from the equation. They may also weaken the role the United States plays in the Syrian settlement, something both Ankara and Moscow will gladly accept.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.