RD Interview: To discuss the role of the Turkish factor in U.S.-Russia relations, Russia Direct sat down with Arif Asalioglu, general director at the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation (MIRNaS).

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a bilateral meeting in Paris, France, in December, 2015. Photo: AP

Given the increasingly confrontational nature of Russia-Turkey relations as well as signs of new tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations, we could be seeing the start of a reconfiguration of relations between Moscow, Ankara and Washington.

To understand how the conflict in Syria is leading to a re-thinking of relations between all three of these powers, Russia Direct interviewed Arif Asalioglu, general director at the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation (MIRNaS), on the sidelines of last weeks Valdai Discussion Club conference on the Middle East in Moscow.    

Russia Direct: What is the role of the Turkish factor in U.S.-Russia relations?

Arif Asalioglu: For the last 50 years, Turkey had maintained good relations with the U.S. Turkey is a NATO member. But over the last three or four years, the attitude of the U.S. to Turkey has changed. Today, U.S.-Turkey relations are not what they had been before. This is a fact.

The Russian factor plays a role here. When Russia started to influence events in Syria, Turkey has been against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S., too, did not welcome the Russian support for Assad. Yet, relations between the U.S. and Turkey did not get better. It is possible to assume that Turkeys relations with the U.S. could have improved after Turkey downed the Russian jet, but it did not happen. The opposite has happened. Today, U.S.-Turkey relations are even worse.

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, on the slippery slope to direct confrontation"

Relations between Turkey and Russia have also worsened. During the last few months we see that the U.S. and Russia have been negotiating in an attempt to agree on common approaches that benefit the region.

RD: You say that relations between Turkey and the U.S. are not what they used to be. When did the relations between the two NATO allies start deteriorating?

A.A.: In my opinion, the main factor here is the personality of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He envisioned leadership of Turkey in the region of the Middle East and saw himself as a major leader in the region. Some political scientists argue that he wanted to create something like a caliphate.

Naturally, regional leaders did not appreciate this approach. Americans did not like it, too. In my opinion, had Turkey refrained from intervening in the Syrian crisis, the crisis would not have had such a scope. Erdogans policies in Syria is one of the causes why we witness such a huge flow of refugees from Syria.

RD: Did Turkeys position in NATO change after the incident with the Russian jet?

A.A.: When we talk about NATO, we talk about the military. And the military establishment, the general staff in Turkey, did not change their opinion with respect to NATO. The army does not support the line of the political leadership of Turkey in the Middle East. Naturally, the general staff obeys the authority of the political leadership. But, at the same time, unwillingness to intervene militarily in Syria is a predominating opinion of Turkeys general staff. They also do not want to engage militarily with either Iran or Iraq.

RD: Do you mean that Turkeys top military brass competes with the political elite over Turkeys policy towards the Middle East?

A.A.: Yes. A week ago, the Turkish military announced that they would never intervene in Syria without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council.

RD: How can the competition between military and political leadership affect Turkeys policy in the Middle East?

A.A.: Of course, it can influence the policy and it can also affect the situation inside Turkey. The military establishment has always played an important role in Turkeys internal politics. There have been four coups in Turkey before.

During the last few years, Erdogan had introduced many changes in other bureaucratic establishments. He had reshaped the judicial sector, media policies. Nevertheless, the military establishment maintains its own opinions on many aspects of Turkeys politics and the army is ready to protect the interests of the state.

RD: There is an opinion that the U.S. had sacrificed to a certain extent its relations with Turkey when it concluded an agreement with Russia on the Syria ceasefire. Do you agree?

A.A.: After the U.S. and Russia announced that they had reached an agreement on Syria, Turkeys Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, mentioned that Turkey sees a red line with respect to implementation of the agreement. It means that in case the Russian military continues its bombing campaign in Syria, Turkey might need to react.

Also read: "Is Syria on the path to peace or on the verge of a new war?"

But, in reality, this scenario is unlikely for Turkey because the U.S. and the United Nations are against Turkish involvement in the Syrian crisis. And any hasty decision might lead to the situation where Turkey will be left on its own. The military will not enter the Syrian conflict alone, without support of other international actors.

RD: Do you see Russia-Turkey relations improving or deteriorating even further in the near future?

A.A.: For the past five centuries, Russia and Turkey were able to construct positive relations only in the 1990s, after the Cold War. But the friendly relations were maintained only until Nov. 24, 2015, when the incident with the Russian jet happened.

Still, efforts to build constructive relations since the 1990s have produced some positive results. Russia and Turkey had a close relationship not only on the global level but also on the interpersonal. There are probably 200 or 300 thousand intercultural marriages between Russian and Turkish people. Many Russians live and work in Turkey. Many Turks live and work in Russia, too. I mean that this interpersonal factor may help Russia and Turkey to build more constructive relations.

The second factor is an economic one. Turkey purchase oil and gas mainly from Russia. Turkey simply cannot buy such volumes of gas from anywhere else in the world. Of course, President Erdogan visited Qatar for negotiations, but to assume that Turkey will be able to completely substitute the Russian supply is unrealistic. The economic factors dictates that Turkey and Russia must maintain positive relations. Maybe the crisis in Russia-Turkey relations will continue for the next six months or for the next year, but eventually we must work to rebuild the relationship between the two countries.

RD: Will Turkey comply with the U.S.-Russia ceasefire deal and refrain from bombing Kurdish forces inside Syria?

A.A.: There is a risk in this regard. There are approximately ten million Kurds in Turkey. Not all of them support creating a separate Kurdish state, but many do. There is a problem of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed by Turkey to be a terrorist organization.

Turkeys political leadership has been struggling with the PKK for the last 30 or 40 years. It was possible to contain this conflict inside Turkeys borders until recently. Now, we see that Kurds control a portion of territory in Syria. Turkeys government is concerned that the Kurds in Syria will attempt to connect with their counterparts inside Turkey.

RD: How do the political and military elites in Turkey see U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria?

A.A.: Had Turkey allowed its Kurdish population to preserve their culture, to study in their native language, they would have avoided many problems. The U.S. and the United Nations have always been pressing the Turkish leadership to grant greater freedoms to the Kurds.

Russia, too, has maintained relations with the Kurds. Therefore, Russia and the U.S. support the Kurds and this inevitably causes a conflict with Turkey. I think Turkeys political leadership must change their policy and their attitude to Kurdish people and it may solve many problems.