Alwaght- A significant regional event this week was the visit of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Russia for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about the bilateral ties and recent regional developments, mainly the Syrian crisis.
The Moscow-Ankara relationship under the presidency of Erdogan has undergone many ups and downs. Now it is on the cooperation mode. That is exactly what is motivating Erdogan to seek to eliminate the political and security deficit his country’s interests are facing in its ties with the West and mainly the US through expansion of the relations with Turkey’s strong northern neighbor Russia.
Syria developments: Erdogan’s Idlib game card
The Syrian developments, both on the battleground and in the politics, have been taking place even faster after the US President Donald Trump in late December 2018 announced a plan to remove his forces from the Syrian fronts, pushing the key actors on the ground to review their strategies in the war-ravaged country. Meanwhile, with the pullout of the Americans from the northern and eastern Syria, their main points of concentration since the uninvited US intervention in 2014 under a Washington-led Western military alliance, the Russian role will be even greater than before. That is what drives the Turkish leadership to find crucial the Russian siding with Ankara to implement its policies and plans on the Syrian soil.
Idlib, a northwestern Syrian city still controlled by a number of militant factions, is a case of conflict between Moscow and Ankara. In Idlib case, Russia and Turkey stand on the opposite sides, with Putin supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Erdogan supporting the president’s armed opponents. The two sides so far cooperated on Idlib managing to check the confrontation through a set of initiatives and dialogue rounds, especially two known as Astana and Sochi peace processes with the essential collaboration of Iran, a game-changing party defending Syria in a fierce war of terrorism against the Arab nation. So far, the two presidents have maintained their desire to keep alive the clash-curbing Idlib deal, a ceasefire reached in late September between Putin and Erdogan.
In the meantime, over the past few weeks, the tensions have been escalating with further power gain of Jabhat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, in opposition to anti-Assad armed groups Turkey and the West call “moderate opposition”, raising the legitimacy status of possible Syrian government’s campaign to take back the city, the last major one still held by terrorists. So, possibly, Turkey is struggling to organize an operation to suppress Tahrir al-Sham. For the time being, the Turkish Syria interests rest in preventing Damascus control of Idlib and the Russian interests lie in keeping Turkey in line with Moscow-backed political dialogue. Putin knows he can use Erdogan to bring the opposition on the negotiating table and also deepen division inside NATO, a security rival for Russia in a broader global competition for influence for decades.
Syria’s north also has a special place in the two leaders’ negotiations. The government after a couple of years managed to enter Manbij in December, a development never appealing to Turkey. Turkey wants to control a safe zone in northern Syria proposed by Trump two weeks ago. To Erdogan’s frustration, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week said the so-called safe zone should be under Damascus control.
Warning the US by S-400 missiles contract
The crucial issues on the trip agenda aside, the visit of Erdogan, regardless of the results, appears to bear a strong message to the US and the West which according to the Turkish leaders have disregarded their strategic ally Turkey’s interests in the largely decisive Syrian developments and have taken the side of Ankara’s enemy, namely the Syrian Kurds, deemed by Turkey the extension of the PKK terrorist group fighting Ankara at home for decades.
The Turkish-Russian ties, went frayed after Turkey in 2015 shoot down a Russian bomber carrying out attacks on terrorists in Syria’s north, have not yet fully healed. Some Russian sanctions against Turkey remain in place to date. After all, their annual trade reaches about $30 billion and that is important to Erdogan. On the other side, as the West adds to its anti-Russian sanctions, Putin finds it a must to expand ties with new trade partners.
The US snub of the Turkish interests in relations with the Syrian Kurds sharpens Erdogan’s motivation to bolster ties with Moscow. The Turkish leader so far made the most of the Russian-Western rivalry. In his trip, Erdogan, eyeing further pressures against the West which needs Ankara accompanying in a confrontation with Moscow, said plans to procure S-400 air defense systems from Russia were moving forward and the Russians will build also a nuclear power station for Turkey.
A day before the Erdogan’s trip, Ibrahim Kalin, chief counselor to the president, said there is no conditional link between the S-400 systems and the US-made Patriot air defense contracts, recently offered by Washington for sale to Ankara in return for the cancelation of contract with Moscow. The comments indicate Turkey intends to diversify partners in foreign policy instead of utterly siding with the West’s policies.