Turkey-Russia: New ‘frenemies?’
I don’t know who invented the term “frenemy” to refer to the implicit alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran in the wake of the U.S.-Iran deal, but it seems well-suited to describing the new Russia-Turkey friendship as well. Nevertheless, Russia-Turkey relations have gone far beyond an unspoken convergence of interests; on the contrary, both parties are eager to advertise and celebrate their companionship. It is not clear, however, if the interests of the two countries really converge in Syria and elsewhere.
After all, it is Turkey which neared the Russian position in Syria before and especially after last week’s assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov. It happened less than a day before a Russia-Iran-Turkey summit in Moscow and stripped Turkey of any chance of raising any objection to the Russian-Iranian position in Syria in general and the terms of the evacuation of Aleppo in particular. The declaration after the summit lays bare this fact as it clearly denounces the politics of regime change in Syria. Finally, it was also a declaration of the failure of Turkey’s Syria policy, which was shaped by the determination for regime change. Turkey’s only gain seems to ensure the unity of Syria as an “Arab Republic” with no mention of Kurdish autonomy. Nonetheless, Russia’s position toward the future of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria is still rather ambiguous and may turn out to be a tool for Russia to keep Turkey in tune with Russian policy.
As for the prospects of the Turkey-Russia alliance in general, it may prove more complicated and less fruitful than the expectations of the governing party. In fact, any political alliance is doomed leave such high expectations unfulfilled, since the government party has already started to rewrite the history of Turkey-Russia relations with an emphasis on common enmity toward Western powers. With a chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan musing about the prospect of “the revival of the Turkish and Russian empires,” the pro-government media is full of articles which detail the historical injustices against both Turkey and Russia while supporters of the governing party are celebrating how Turkey and Russia have challenged the hegemony of the West as they define the Russian-Turkish alliance as a game changer against Western plots in the Middle East.
Russia’s policy-maker seem to enjoy fostering these high expectations, as President Vladimir Putin most recently stated that he had started to view the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey last year under a different light, hinting that he was also ready to rewrite at least recent history. So far, the governing party has managed to put the blame for the deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations on the Gülen group and for the time being, Putin seems to agree that this “convenient enemy” is responsible. Ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who proudly took the responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane, may be another casualty of the new Russian-Turkish alliance, but after all, that is his problem; nobody in government circles care for those who have lost Erdoğan’s favor.
Finally, Russia seems happy to pull Turkey, which used to be an important NATO ally, into its orbit as leverage against the Western alliance. Besides, so far, Turkey’s ambitions in Syria have been contained within the framework of Russian policy. As for Turkey, leaving aside the great expectations, the Russian alliance is supposed to be leverage against Washington and Brussels, which are being perceived as plotting against Turkey and are thought to be responsible for Kurdish aggression within Turkey and beyond Turkey’s borders.
But it remains unclear what will happen if there is not as big a disconnection as expected between the West and Russia, especially concerning Syria, if the new U.S. president chooses rapprochement with the Kremlin. Besides, the outcomes of the Russian-Turkish alliance on the future of tarnished Turkish-Iranian relations are not clear. Finally, Russia’s policy concerning the Syrian Kurds is not particularly clear either. Nothing matters though, if the dream is as great as the revival of respective empires.