Could Turkey join forces with Russia in Syria?

After having demonised Russia’s involvement in Syria even before the jet downing raised tensions, Turkey has been increasingly saying that it sees Moscow playing a role in solving the country’s civil war.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St Petersburg, on August 9, 2016. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo
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BEIRUT // Not all that long ago, Turkey and Russia were exchanging words of war. The strongmen of the two countries – Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin – are both leaders who command almost fanatical support among their followers, crush dissent when it arises and aspire to their county being a dominant power in the Middle East. And when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border last November, both men predictably puffed out their chests. Neither is the kind to back down from a fight.

But just nine months later, Mr Erdogan did something that does not come easily to a strongman. He went to Saint Petersburg, shook Mr Putin’s hand, admitted he was wrong and said he was sorry.

They didn’t just shake hands and make up though. After having demonised Russia’s involvement in Syria even before the jet downing raised tensions, Turkey has been increasingly saying that it sees Moscow playing a role in solving the country’s civil war. And within days of the meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, Turkey publicly suggested that the two countries cooperate militarily against ISIL in Syria, despite Ankara and Russia actively backing opposing sides in the country’s civil war.

But then, a lot has happened since last November. Turkey’s economy took a battering when millions of Russian tourists stopped coming and lucrative business deals were frozen. The European Union held back on its promise of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in exchange for Turkey taking in refugees.

And then came last month’s attempted coup, followed by a purge of those allegedly suspected of being involved in the failed putsch from almost every sector of society. This was in turn followed by a disappointing reaction – in Turkey’s opinion – from its western allies.

The EU made it plain it considered the clampdown as excessive and warned Ankara that reinstating the death penalty, as Mr Erdogan has advocated for since the failed coup, would end its dreams of joining the bloc. Washington’s reluctance to hand over US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen – the man Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup – simply on Turkey’s say-so, meanwhile, infuriated the Turkish leadership. The US and EU were accused of being complicit in the coup and turning their backs on Turkey at a time of need.

“This coup attempt really changed Ankara’s relationship with the West, “ said Theodore Karasik, a senior analyst with the Dubai-based Gulf State Analytics. “Therefore, Ankara is now facing east.”

For president Putin, the attempted coup and Turkey’s increased feeling of isolation is an opportunity to widen division in Nato and expand Moscow’s power in the Middle East.

“Putin is always very good at taking advantage of such opportunities and this is a classic example of how Putin is using an international situation to turn another country away from the West,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia’s Middle East policy with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank based in the US capital. “Turkey has turned away from democracy a long time ago under Erdogan, so it’s not surprising that this is basically an easy win for Putin.”

Turkey has also reached out to Iran, suggesting the two countries cooperate over Syria. In contrast to the condemnation from Turkey’s western allies, Iran and Russia have heaped praise on Mr Erdogan for the way in which he handled the coup and its aftermath.

Other experts are less convinced by Turkish overtures to Moscow.

“Turkey remains well embedded in the western architecture,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe policy research centre and a former Turkish diplomat. “That is the case for the security relationship, that is also the case for the economic relationship. In fact, Russia has very little to offer Turkey.”

Yury Barmin, an analyst on Russia’s Middle East policy, agrees.

“Clearly Erdogan is never going to ditch Nato in favour of Moscow and he’s never going to join whatever mythical Eurasian security organisation that Russia is trying to create,” he said. “Because he knows that the benefits he can get from the EU are far more important than the breadcrumbs that Russia can give to Turkey. As soon as Erdogan gets his visa-free regime with the EU, I think we’ll see a reverse trend where Ankara will be integrating with the EU and Nato and will be distancing itself from Moscow.”

Then there is the Syria question. Turkey has backed the opposition in Syria from the early days of the war and Mr Erdogan continues to call for the removal of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Russia meanwhile has been using its air force to bomb Syrian rebels for almost a year, and as of this week has deepened its military role in Syria by launching bombers from Iran.

“Ankara and Moscow continue to be on different wavelengths regarding Syria,” said ex-diplomat Mr Ulgen. “Those differences have not evaporated, so there is little convergence on the views of Turkey on Russia and Syria.”

The two nations are also deeply divided on Syria’s Kurds. Moscow has supported the most dominant Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara views as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is at war with the Turkish state. Though the Syrian Kurds have proved to be the most effective fighting force on the ground against ISIL, Ankara has sought to hamper them, and even acted militarily against them, because of fears that a strong Kurdish presence in Syria will help bolster Kurdish insurgents at home.

But Akin Unver, an assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University believes Turkey could eventually cooperate with Russia and Iran out of pragmatism because aligning with Nato strategy in Syria has proved a mistake for Turkey.

“Turkey couldn’t get the support it wanted from its allies on the refugee problem [or on countering] growing Kurdish nationalism in Syria – and thus, ended up getting alienated from Nato’s involvement in Syria,” he said.

And Mr Unver suggested that if Russia and Iran can make certain guarantees to Ankara, namely that Syrian Kurdish forces will be prevented from expanding into Sunni Arab Syrian territory and that a safe zone for refugees will be established in northern Syria, then Turkey could even end up working with Moscow and Tehran – the biggest backers of a man who Turkey has spent more than five years trying to get rid of.