They are nearly the same age, have been in power for about two decades and have seen their popularity challenged of late due to economic turmoil. They oversee increasingly nationalist-driven states that seek to reclaim the glory and influence of a fallen empire. Both are known for their macho swagger and see a bit of themselves in the other.
“This is a person who keeps his word, a man,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in December.
The feeling seems to be mutual. “He is straightforward and keeps his word,” the Turkish leader said of Mr Putin. “It is rare to have such strong relations with any state.”
The bromance behind the surprisingly elastic Russo-Turkish alliance will be renewed this Wednesday when the two meet for talks, along with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Expectations are high following Mr Erdogan’s criticism of US-Turkey ties in New York last week. He pointed to displeasure with US President Joe Biden and to American sanctions levied last year for Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems. “The current trajectory does not bode well,” Mr Erdogan said.
This may signal a shift, as it is Turkey’s ties with the US, and the West more broadly, that often shape its Middle East policies. US’s alignment with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS, for instance, spurred Turkey to shift from staunch support of the anti-Assad regime rebels to embracing the alternative Astana peace talks, led by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and countering the Syrian Kurdish militants.
In early 2020, the understanding that Europe, much like the Turkish electorate, was unwilling to accept another wave of refugees prodded Ankara to step in militarily, rather than open its borders, when some two million displaced Syrians in Idlib province faced a Russian-backed offensive from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Despite a long history as regional rivals, Turkey and Russia made a ceasefire deal that March that has held to this day, and it is Idlib – the last rebel-held territory in Syria and a microcosm of the fraught Turkish-Russian partnership – that is expected to be the focus of talks in Sochi. Moscow and Damascus have recently stepped up their air strikes in the province, where three Turkish soldiers were killed in the past month. Last week, Turkey dispatched thousands of additional troops to the area, possibly to deter a major offensive.
One should not assume that Moscow and Ankara supporting opposing sides in Syria will be a wrench in the works. Perhaps because Mr Putin understands that achieving one of his objectives – driving a wedge between Turkey and its Nato allies – was never going to be a walk in the park, making progress amid dispute has emerged as the defining element of this relationship. In December 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet along Syria’s northern border. In response, Moscow levied sanctions against Turkey, which were lifted in time for 2016 summer tourist season, leading to tacit Russian approval for Turkey’s Syria incursions.
Between the public assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara in late 2016 and the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib by a joint Russian-Syrian strike in February 2020, Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin were able to agree on Ankara’s landmark S-400 purchase and jointly celebrate the opening of the TurkStream pipeline. During this same period, Turkey’s intervention in Libya faced off against Russia-backed forces, Azerbaijan overtook Russia as Turkey’s top gas supplier and Ankara’s budding alliance with Ukraine, and support for Crimean Tatars, put it in direct opposition to Moscow.
In Idlib, the latest Russia-Turkey ceasefire may have run its course. For Moscow, Ankara has failed to hold up its end of the bargain – to round up and eliminate the extremists of Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), which controls much of the province – enabling Russian-Syrian intervention. After meeting Mr Al Assad last week, Mr Putin said that Damascus’ main hurdle to consolidating control of the country was the continued presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate – a clear reference to Turkish and American forces.
The Assad regime feels the war is all but over, and after retaking Daraa last week, it hopes to reclaim the last chunk of territory– other than Kurd-controlled areas in the north-east, still beyond its control. For Turkey, the increased Syrian and Russian air strikes in Idlib “oblige Ankara to review the existing agreements", as pro-government Daily Sabah put it.
What’s more, Ankara seems to have tired of waiting for HTS to move away from extremism and embrace moderation in order to gain international acceptance. The problem is that the alternative, eradicating HTS through force, would incur Turkish military losses and clear the way for an Assad regime offensive, spurring another humanitarian crisis as the regime's foes flee the province.
One issue that may influence the Turkish side is rising frustration within the military: five generals resigned last week, reportedly to protest Syria missions they view as no longer dictated by military strategy, but by the politics of an individual leader. If, as many argue, one of the drivers behind Turkey’s military presence in Syria is to whip up nationalist sentiment back home, it’s possible that this resentment could prod Mr Erdogan to give greater consideration to Turkish exit strategies.
Is there a way for Turkey to sharply reduce its military footprint in Syria without allowing another refugee wave or the SDF’s return to areas along its border? It would surely require considerable compromise and horse-trading, possibly involving Damascus and Tehran, the Syrian Kurds, HTS and the Turkish-allied Free Syrian Army. The Idlib situation is endlessly complex, with plenty of moving parts. But Mr Erdogan has said he expects an important decision to be made in Sochi, one that will further upgrade Turkish-Russian relations. Whatever the outcome, expect little benefit for the transatlantic alliance, or for those doing the lion’s share of the living and dying on the ground in Idlib and beyond, and more of these two leaders’ mutual admiration society.