Through Glenn this one, professor at the University of South East Norway and editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Follow him on twitter @glenn_diesen
In nearly 500 years, Russia and Turkey have waged no less than 12 wars against each other. Now, even without the Czars and the Ottomans, the two former rivals once again stand on the opposite side this time in Syria.
However, while supporting competing factions in bloody fighting across the Middle Eastern nation, the conflict has paradoxically brought the two powers closer together. So close, it seems, that even NATO is worried.
A major breakthrough in Moscow-Ankara relations was evident when Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system in defiance of US threats. The United States subsequently imposed sanctions on Ankara and expelled Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Joe Biden was not enough to restore relations.
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However, the recent meeting between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in Sochi indicates that a big Russian-Turkish deal could be underway. A major defense cooperation deal could be on the cards, including the development and trade of a second batch of S-400 air defense systems, submarines, aircraft engine technologies and d fighter planes.
A military partnership of this magnitude would likely be accompanied by a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, the immense scope of the military arrangement and eventual political deals on Syria would move Turkey further away from the United States, and Washington will likely feel compelled to impose even more sanctions on its “ally” in Syria. NATO.
So how did we come to this?
The Syrian error
Much like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States’ war against the Syrian government has a disastrous result. Turkey previously had good relations with Damascus and first had to be convinced by the United States to support the war of regime change. Assad was to be overthrown quickly and Turkey would maintain cordial relations with the new government installed by Washington. However, the series of US-led regime change wars in the Middle East were cut short when Russia unexpectedly intervened in 2015, turning the tide of the war.
The main source of tension between the United States and Turkey has been Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurds. The importance of the partnership with the Kurds for the United States grew further as Russia pushed the American generals to change their strategy. Failing to overthrow Assad, the United States seeks to have a say in the country’s political future by illegally occupying a third of its territory, the resource-rich region of northeastern Syria where the United States steal oil and wheat. Cooperation with the Syrian Kurds is important to this end. Washington views the YPG as the region’s most effective military partner, a group Ankara sees as a terrorist group that can destabilize Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.
Turkey also fears that the United States will maintain the option of playing the Kurdish independence card. Promoting an autonomous or independent Kurdish state would destabilize and weaken four states with large Kurdish populations – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Israel would likely support such a policy, and US policymakers have openly toyed with the idea of balkanizing Syria.
Turkish officials have previously accused Washington of being behind the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Erdogan responded by purging the Atlanticist Gulenists – around 140,000 government employees and 30,000 military personnel. Simply put, an abundance of pro-American NATO loyalists in Turkey have vanished. A cabal of American neoconservative hawks led by John Bolton reacted with fury to the cleanup and pro-Russia policies and established the “Turkish Democracy Project” in 2021, which calls for regime change in Ankara. Thus, the deterioration of relations continues.
The language of Turkey as a “NATO ally” is unprecedented. Ankara accuses the United States of supporting terrorism against Turkey because of its partnership with the Syrian Kurds, and Ankara demands that Washington end its occupation of Syrian territory and withdraw.
Towards a Russian-Turkish settlement?
The complexity of the Syrian conflicts makes any Russian-Turkish agreement difficult, yet the incentives are now in place. Russia wants the end of the war against Syria and the restoration of territorial control of the government. Meanwhile, Turkey wants the Syrian Kurdish issue to be resolved and believes the best way to achieve this is to reaffirm Syrian territorial sovereignty. Domestically, there are tensions between the Turkish public and the huge Syrian refugee community in the country, which could be resolved by ending the conflict. Furthermore, Turkey has been unable to moderate and domesticate the jihadists it uses as proxies in Idlib, an area that the Syrian government will most likely seek to recapture in the near future.
The rhetoric in Washington about Moscow attempting to reposition Ankara away from the US orbit and into the Russian sphere of influence fails to take into account the multipolar international distribution of power. Turkey is not seeking to move from a US-led military bloc to a Russian-led alliance, as the bipolarity of the Cold War is long gone. On the contrary, Turkey seeks to assert itself as an independent actor in a multipolar system, which implies relations with all the major poles of power. Likewise, Russia has neither the capacity nor the intention to pursue hegemony.
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Russia’s Great Eurasian Partnership is conceptualized as a counter-hegemonic project. Russia, in partnership with China, aims to counter American ambitions by allowing the great powers of Greater Eurasia to diversify their economic connectivity. Turkey’s ambitions for an independent and diverse foreign policy can easily be accommodated in the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which can replace the Cold War bloc policy, including NATO.
A great Russo-Turkish deal under the Great Eurasian Partnership may not come to fruition, but the old unipolar order is quickly collapsing due to a new disastrous war for regime change.
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