From Russia with love to Erdoğan
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s predetermined victory in March 18’s elections is good news for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The latest crises between Moscow and London over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter in the U.K., which has poured more fuel on Russia’s rivalry with the West, is also good news for Erdoğan.
Both these developments could not have come at a better time for him. In the first instance his continuing close cooperation with Putin has been assured for the foreseeable future. This is important given that Ankara’s reliance on Moscow has grown in proportion to Turkey’s deteriorating ties with the West.
All the indications are that this reliance will grow in view of the increasing antipathy Erdoğan and his followers have for all things Western. This antipathy is something Erdoğan shares with Putin and millions of Russians.
Putin’s green light for Turkey’s “Olive Branch Operation” in Afrin will also be doubly appreciated by Erdoğan, now that this operation has brought him the victory he desired in less time and with fewer casualties than many in Turkey feared and many in the West expected.
This is not just a victory that Erdoğan can use to poke his Western opponents in the eye with. It is also one that he will undoubtedly use in order to shore up his political position in the lead up to the presidential elections in 2019. These elections may even be brought forward now due to the favorable political atmosphere Erdoğan has caught at home.
Erdoğan is not done in Syria yet though given his vow to move on to Manbij and the east of the Euphrates River, despite the U.S. military presence there. He has promised to expel the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) — the American-backed Kurdish group Ankara considers to be a terrorist outfit and that was defeated in Afrin — from the region stretching all the way to the Iraqi border.
First, though, he has to set up Turkey’s own proxy administration in Afrin, and unify this with the administration set up by Ankara in adjoining territories captured previously by the Turkish military from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with its Euphrates Shield operation.
Erdoğan’s chief advisor and spokesman İbrahim Kalın has already said Turkey has no intention of turning Afrin over to the Syrian regime now that it has been cleared of the YPG. Ankara will need Russia’s intercession in order to ensure that Damascus does not try to complicate Turkey’s plans for this region.
Those plans clearly involve the setting up of a safe haven for the millions of Sunni refugees in Turkey and opposition fighters from the “Free Syrian Army” formed and armed by Ankara. Russia might even find it helpful to concentrate all Sunni opponents of Bashar al-Assad in one region which is being kept in check by Ankara.
As for Putin’s growing dispute with the West, the main advantage that Erdoğan will reap from this is the fact that Moscow’s need for good ties with Turkey, at a time when there is an active attempt by the West to isolate Russia internationally, will have grown.
To be able to establish close ties with a NATO member that cannot only veto anti-Russian moves by the alliance, but can also help him drive a wedge into its unity will be even more important for Putin now.