Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Between Russia's Caesar and Turkey's Sultan … What the deal in Syria and elsewhere is about

Monday 11/November/2019 - 07:03 PM
The Reference
Roland Lombardi
Rivalry and the lack of confidence are not new to relations between Russia and Turkey. The two states passed through ten major historical conflicts (12 wars between 1567 and 1918, including the Crimean War between 1853 and 1918). 
What came to be known as the "Arab Spring protests", which were backed by Turkey and dealt with apprehensively by Russia, opened the door for a geopolitical confrontation between Ankara and Moscow over the fate of Bashar al-Assad whose secular regime is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan called, however, openly for bringing Assad down and instituting his Muslim Brotherhood friends in Damascus instead of him.
Differences between the Russians and the Turks are so deep, regardless of what is happening in Syria and Assad's fate. This is especially so when it comes to religion as an issue. Erdogan's strategic vision is based on promoting political Islam. This is why the Turkish leader actively backs the Muslim Brotherhood, to which his ruling Justice and Development Party, one of the components of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, belongs. The Russian leader, on the other hand, views political Islam as a source of unrest in the region.  
Erdogan was caught off guard by repeated Russian military victories in Syria as of September 2015 and the weaknesses of his Western allies who started to gradually pull back from Syria as of 2013. 
Putin, who enjoys military support from Iran and diplomatic support from China, is in Syria to support Assad. He has scored major successes in this regard. 
The US, for its part, was busy putting a lid on the invasions of the Islamic State group (aka ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, it formed an international coalition to defeat the radical group. The US was also busy offering support to the Kurds who proved to be courageous allies of Washington against ISIS. However, this made Ankara angry. 
Erdogan started facing terrorist attacks inside his own country. Public strife was growing at home. A huge stream of Syrian refugees, about 2 million, was also flowing towards his country. Erdogan's international isolation also increased. He was only left with financial support from Qatar. 
Erdogan, who was let down by the Americans, felt desperate because of Western withdrawal from the Syrian arena. Nonetheless, he continued to provoke and threaten Russia. He stood behind the failure of talks between Syria's dissidents and the Russians. He also threatened to send his army into Syria to fight the Kurds. 
Erdogan preferred escalation. He wanted Russia to commit a mistake so that he could invoke article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which would have made it obligatory for his Western allies to intervene to help him. 
In November 2015, tensions between Russia and Turkey reached their peak, when Turkish air defenses shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet, near Turkey's border with Syria. This amounted to a "stab in the back" as Putin described it. The incident raised the tension between the two countries. 
The Russians could not respond proportionately at the military level against a NATO member state. They kept their calm, lest they should fall into the trap. Russia only took vengeful economic and trade measures against Ankara, including suspending a series of economic cooperation agreements, tightening supervision over food and medicine imports from Turkey and warning Russian tourists against travelling to Turkey. 
Russian officials, meanwhile, complained at the United Nations and to US military officials against Turkish supplies to Syrian dissidents, including arms, ammunitions and food, and most importantly, the fuel Turkey bought from ISIS. They used satellite images showing all these processes. 
US officials remained silent. They said they could not do anything because the drivers of the trucks involved in the supplies were either civilians or workers at humanitarian organizations. 
The Russians said they would have to act if US jets had not dealt with these trucks. This was what the Russians did less than a week later. 
On July 15, 2016, there was a coup attempt against Erdogan. Putin could not find a serious alternative to Erdogan. This was why he acted pragmatically by reducing tensions with the Turkish president. 
Russian-Turkish relations have become important for peace in Syria. Moscow and Ankara are allies, only because they need each other. Putin allowed Erdogan to enter northern Syria to kick the Kurds of the Democratic Union Party out. In return, Turkey stopped its support to Syrian dissidents, especially when the Syrian army slaps a siege around their strongholds, including in Aleppo, Homs and Ghouta. This is expected to happen in Idlib as well. 
Russia believes that its cooperation with Turkey will for some time sideline a NATO member state. Turkey, on the other hand, believes that its concord with Russia will give it the chance to play a role in Syria, even if it will not achieve its original goals. This will give Turkey freedom in dealing with the Kurds. 
Relations between Turkey and Russia allow the former to blackmail its Western partners, especially the US. Nevertheless, Ankara and Moscow practice caution in dealing with each other. Despite the presence of common interests, both Erdogan and Putin cannot hide their differences. 
The Kremlin, which is the master of the whole game, knows well that Turkey is very weak at the domestic level. Turkey faces a problem of energy as well as deteriorating economic conditions. Erdogan's party's defeat in the mayoral elections in Istanbul proved the weakness of his party.
Turkey is only also backed by Qatar. It faces intense pressure from US President Donald Trump. Its influence in the region is becoming less strong also because of another ally of Moscow, namely Iran. The Egyptian-Emirati-Saudi axis also trims Turkey's influence in the region. This axis fights Turkey's political and ideological model all throughout the Arab world. In this, it does what Russia does.