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Turkey seeks closer alliance with Russia in Syria

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Turkey seeks closer alliance with Russia in Syria

Turkey is seeking closer coordination with Russia on regional issues, particularly in Syria, where it hopes to work with Russia to eject US forces from eastern Syria. It is not clear yet what Ankara’s latest plan is, as in the past Ankara has invaded and ethnically cleansed parts of northern Syria of minorities, particularly Kurds, in order to colonize Syria for Turkey’s interests. Russia backs the Syrian regime and is ostensibly on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict, but together both countries oppose the US role in Syria. 

This may have some ramifications for Israel because Turkey’s ruling party has been hostile to Israel in recent years, and Russia has expressed increasing criticism of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, according to reports in July. Recent talks between Israel and Russia in early September and calls with Turkey have shown a desire for some engagement on the Syria issue, meaning it is unclear if the close Ankara-Moscow ties, which are aimed at removing the US from Syria, will be an near-term problem for Israel. In the long term, a weakened US stance has negative ramifications for Israel. Iran uses Syria to threaten Israel.  

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Russia and Turkey are today working together against the US, and this was clear in a summit in Sochi in which Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that peace in Syria depends on relations between Ankara and Moscow. He was speaking in Sochi in southern Russia alongside Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, according to reports. “President Erdogan underlined the importance of his country’s joint actions with Moscow in the context of the Syrian conflict,” says TRT, a government channel in Turkey that is linked to the ruling AKP party. Turkey has no real opposition media and so the statements in Turkish media can broadly reflect the AKP party’s views. 

“For his part, Putin said that though his meetings with Erdogan were not always without problems, the institutions of their countries are able to reach resolutions,” TRT said. Other TRT reports appeared to indicate that Turkey wants a “conflict” in northeast Syria, where US forces are present and where the Syrian Democratic Forces have defeated ISIS and are trying to keep the peace. Turkey views the SDF as “terrorists” because the SDF are backed by the US and Turkey has been shelling SDF positions and using drones and pro-Turkish Syrian extremist groups to harass Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi minorities in eastern Syria.  

Under the Trump administration, Turkey enjoyed a free rein to attack minorities in Syria and seize areas. In October 2019 Turkey was even allowed to threaten US forces, carry out an offensive against the SDF and ethnically cleanse Kurds as the US retreated in the face of Ankara’s demands. High-level members of the Trump administration had close ties to Turkey and often worked at think tanks prior to working with the Trump administration, where they had a long record of pro-Ankara and pro-Erdogan views. Their argument was that Turkey should be empowered, along with jihadists and extremist groups that Turkey backed in Syria. Turkey backed a long list of extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, that were involved in crimes against humanity and attacks on minorities and women. In some cases former US officials even hinted the US should back Turkey to work with Al-Qaeda linked groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Their goal was to use the jihadists against the Syrian regime, whereas Turkey wanted to mobilize this extremist rabble against Kurds and women.  

IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil. (credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil. (credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)

When the Trump administration’s pro-Turkey policy unraveled in Turkey’s threats against US forces and Ankara’s growing partnership with Hamas, Iran and Russia, there was a slight shift to critique of Ankara. In turn Ankara began buying Russian S-400 air defense systems and became an increasing partner of Moscow and Iran on issues relating to Syria. Turkey also became more anti-Israel under the Trump administration.

Today, Turkey is reversing course a bit. Backing away from its unfettered backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, Turkey is seeking more “engagement” with countries such as Egypt and the UAE that it previously threatened. Turkey also wants to iron out its role in Azerbaijan, Libya and other areas where it had stoked conflict in recent years. The meeting in Sochi comes amidst that backdrop. Turkey wants to pressure the Biden administration in Syria but it is weighing how it might best do this.  

Reports at TRT say that “major investment projects between the two countries continue as planned and bilateral trade between them has increased by 50 percent in the first nine months this year, making up for previous losses and achieving a major rise amid the coronavirus pandemic, said Putin at the investments in Sochi, where the meeting was taking place.” In addition the reports show that Erdogan brought his usual high level delegation with him, including head of the National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. This shows the weight Erdogan puts on the meetings with Moscow and the potential strategy that may develop.  

Russia also highly values the Turkey partnership, with Russia’s TASS news agency saying the talks lasted three hours. Russia saw these talks as the most important in the last year and a half, basically raising a curtain on strengthened Turkey-Russia ties after Turkey had been weighing its options with the Biden administration. “[The talks] have ended,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS when asked whether the talks were still in progress, a report said. 

“The two leaders discussed the agenda in the economic sector and in international relations. In particular, Putin pointed to the successful cooperation of the two countries on the situation in Syria and Libya. He also focused on the work of the center to control the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Putin sees this as a guarantee. For “stability” in the region. According to Tass, “energy was on the agenda. Putin thanked Erdogan for his stance on the construction of TurkStream, owing to which Ankara feels safe amid the difficulties on the European gas market. The Turkish leader, for his part, touched upon the issue of a joint project – the construction of the first Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the country, whose first power unit may be unveiled already next year.”  

This is big news because Russia is moving forward with NordStream2, another big energy project. The goal of Russia is to sit astride Europe’s energy needs. Big money rests on the Ankara-Moscow alliance now. This is an alliance of authoritarians as well. Their goal is now to partition Syria and work together to remove the US from the region. Russia and Turkey will hope to pry the US out of areas in the northern part of the Middle East, much as Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar and others worked to remove the US from Afghanistan. Then, in partnership with Iran, it appears Russia and China may work to reduce US influence in the central belt of the Middle East, hoping to get the US not only out of eastern Syria, but perhaps Iraq as well and bring apart a new avenue for Syrian regime economic output via Iraq and Jordan. Opening up the Iranian “road to the sea” via Albukamal and Damascus will be essential. This means removing the US from eastern Syria so the US cannot sit near the Euphrates and monitor Iran’s movements from Al-Tanf base near Jordan.

Of course this anaconda-like plan and partition of Syria into spheres of influence and control may not come about via a pact between Moscow and Ankara, but rather these kinds of discussions that provide for deconfliction in Syria. This process dates back to initial talks in Astana since 2016, which came after Russia intervene in Syria in 2015 and after Turkey launched its first major operation in 2016 designed at thwarting the US-backed SDF near Manbij. At the time the Obama administration was disappointed with Ankara’s duplicity and its tolerance for extremists linked to ISIS who were flooding into Syria. Ankara was hesitant to help the US defeat ISIS, while the US, working on the Iran deal, had shifted priorities from opposing the Syrian regime to fighting ISIS. Years later, Turkey is working with Russia and Iran on Syria, after the brief attempts by members of the Trump administration to appease Turkey in order to get it to help with maximum pressure on Iran. Turkey’s goal in Syria has been to use extremists to fight Kurds and divert the Syrian revolution and Syrian rebels to become contractors for Ankara and then to marginalize them so the Syrian regime can return to power. Russia agrees with Turkey that this is the best way to remove the issue of the Syrian rebels, but even Russia cannot figure out the best way for the Syrian regime to remove HTS and regain its influence over Syria. 

Meanwhile in Geneva a series of talks backed by the UN are aimed at drafting a new constitution for Syria. These largely mythical discussions that are a sideshow of the real power politics are used by Moscow and Ankara to stoke hopes among Syrians in exile that they might get a new constitution in Damascus, whereas the real power regarding Syria is now held by Moscow and Ankara, not the UN and Geneva. 

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Turkey seeks closer alliance with Russia in Syria