Russia and Turkey’s charm offensive to the West
There is no doubt that the developments in Syria in the course of the past six months have had positive effects on Turkish-U.S. relations.
Ever since the Obama administration, preceding Donald Trump, opted to cooperate with the YPG in northeastern Syria, this course of action, which was continued by the Trump administration, has poisoned relations. According to Ankara, the YPG is the illegal PKK’s wing in Syria, a claim no longer contested by Washington.
The U.S. administration’s justification that this was not a strategic but a limited, tactical cooperation to fight against the ISIL only served to fuel decades-old conviction in Ankara that Americans seek to weaken Turkey by supporting its “existential enemy.”
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring last autumn into northeastern Syria and the ensuing decision of Trump to withdraw the main bulk of the U.S. military forces have not weakened this conviction, but ceased up to a certain degree Turkish concerns over the significant PKK presence on its Syrian border.
Ankara was happy to see the psychological and political/military hit the PKK received in Syria, as they were pushed away from the border while watching the Turkish incursion with feelings of disappointment of having been let down one more time by a foreign power. Never mind that this came at a cost for Turkey in terms of additional sympathy for the “Kurds” in the international public and supplementary sanctions from the U.S.
Currently, Turkey and the United States seem to have struck a working relationship in northeast Syria. After all, Ankara is used to U.S. double games. While the two capitals won’t go public on that, no doubt Turkey’s strikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq are taking place with actionable intelligence from the US.
While the situation in the northeast evolved in favor of Turkish-U.S. relations, the exact opposite has happened in northwestern Syria in terms of relations with Russia.
Things in fact turned extremely ugly with the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib region under Bashar Al-Assad’s forces’ fire. I am sure Ankara is convinced this could not have taken place without the blessing of Russia.
While the ensuing talks between Russian and Turkish military were held behind closed doors, it was obvious even to the naked eye that Ankara was extremely disturbed by the intransigence of the Russians. Not only were they not a bit apologetic, on the contrary, they appeared satisfied of the shock the death of Turkish soldiers created and appeared hopeful that this will serve to make their demands pertaining to Idlib be accepted by Ankara.
The tension seems to be under control ever since the meeting that took place between the Turkish and Russian presidents on March 5, even though there has been difficulty in terms of implementing the agreement reached during that meeting. With conflicting interests, the Idlib issue will continue to be a real headache poisoning relations between Ankara and Moscow.
One can attribute Turkey’s decision to postpone the activation of the Russian-made S-400s anti-ballistic missiles to the downturn in relations with Moscow. But there were already rumors that the decision to postpone was maturing in the first two months of the year. The realization that Trump might not prevent the implementation of sanctions designed by the U.S. Congress in case of the activation and that the sanctions would further deteriorate the economy, which was already ringing alarm bells, must have been the key determinant factors.
No doubt, the deterioration of the situation in Idlib might have facilitated the decision on the S-400s. But make no mistake, the death of Turkish soldiers will have much deeper consequences over the Turkish-Russian relations as this has left a very deep scar especially among the military ranks. Having said that, one should not expect relations to turn sour. Ankara is aware of the fact that it has to work with Russia if it wants to see some kind of normalcy in Syria. Russia also remains and set to remain a very important trade partner to Turkey.
In the short run, it would not be a surprise to see Turkey’s relations with the West to improve, not only because the Idlib ordeal has increased its value as a counterbalancing actor but also due to the country’s economic difficulties which are expected to be exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In immediate need of foreign currency, it will not be Moscow, which has its own difficulties with the drop in oil prices, but Western capitals that Turkey will turn to.
While part of the ice has melted with the U.S. due to Syria, in the absence of a more binding assurance that the S-400s will not be activated, Russian missiles have the potential of blocking any economic opening from the U.S. side. As to Europe, we will see whether Turkey’s democratic backpedaling will continue to block the economic gates with Europe. It might take more than a charm offensive of medical supplies.