Turkey-Russia out of crisis mode

Turkey-Russia out of crisis mode

The crisis between Turkey and Russia has been brought under control, as expected. Yet the unexpected also happened: Their relations seem to be rising from their ashes, leading to even more intense coordination. 

French President Francois Hollande first met with American counterpart Barack Obama and then Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. His press conference with Putin totally crystallized the brand new picture of Syria. 

“France is ready to work hand-in-hand with Russia to fight [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIL,” Hollande said. The two leaders agreed to exchange intelligence on ISIL and step up their air campaigns. This was certainly unimaginable only two months ago, when the West got into a great panic upon Russia’s intervention in Syria. 

Today, Russia has become a partner of France, in other words, of the anti-ISIL coalition which was pioneered by the U.S. The statements of the two presidents even signaled upcoming joint airstrikes in Syria.

But how did we get to this point? First ISIL hit a Russian plane in Egypt on Oct. 31. This started to shift Russia’s priority from saving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fighting against ISIL. Russia, being targeted by ISIL for the first time, all of a sudden found itself sharing the same destiny as the West.

Only 13 days later ISIL hit Paris, which shifted the priority of Europe, and particularly France, which had been arguing along the same lines as Turkey that al-Assad should step down. Now Paris is insistently emphasizing that ISIL is its top priority. Moreover, it has intensified its airstrikes in Syria.

In short, the ISIL attacks have made both “camps” meet mid-way. Moreover, it is widely expected that Hollande might bridge the differences between Obama and Putin, which would pave the way for more U.S.-Russia cooperation in the near future.

In addition, in January 2016 the plan for a political transition in Syria, which the foreign ministers of almost 20 countries agreed on during the Vienna talks, will get off the ground. In other words, “a transition with al-Assad” and a ceasefire between the regime and opposition groups will slowly start to be implemented.

This signals a major mindset shift. The transition from a military solution to a political solution for Syria is finally taking place. And Russia is one of the most critical actors sitting around the table. It is worth remembering that Moscow is the most active international power in Syria holding the strongest cards in its hands.

The U.S., on the other hand, doesn’t want the table to break up. It doesn’t want Turkey, who Washington is in the closest cooperation with on Syria, and Russia, who has become a partner of the coalition, to drift into a crisis which would only greatly benefit ISIL in the end. Hence, the U.S. has repeatedly called for moderation and calm.

The second message between the lines of the Putin-Hollande press conference was the following: Putin has been after two objectives in Syria. The first one is to shape Syria according to its own taste and upon that increase its influence in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. 

Secondly, to force the U.S. to fight together with Russia against ISIL, which Putin has already managed to a certain extent. In his press conference with Hollande, Putin emphasized a couple of times that Moscow and Washington are in direct military coordination with regard to their airstrikes in Syria.

And now he is trying to do the same with Turkey, pushing it to act together with Russia. Yet is such a direct dialogue possible between the two countries, especially after the drowning of the Russian jet?

Yes it is. As an important security source from Ankara told me yesterday, Russia made an offer via its military attaché in Ankara to the Turkish Armed Forces on Oct. 15 to form a hotline for instant information sharing.

The Turkish General Staff, in turn, asked the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which is still evaluating the proposal, for approval.

Yet in light of the current international context, it looks indispensable that Ankara and Moscow establish military coordination which would also ward off similar accidents in the future.

On the other hand, an important military source from Ankara told me yesterday that the declaration of Russia’s Defence Ministry, that they had suspended all cooperation with the Turkish military, doesn’t reflect reality. According to him, the Turkish General Staff suggested to Russia on Nov. 25 the formation of a joint commission of military experts which would convene in Moscow to share all information about the Russian jet. He said Moscow’s approach has been quite positive.

My source also added that on Nov. 25 the commanders of the upmost operation centers of the two countries talked on the phone, and a Turkish general shared all technical details about the incident with his counterpart.

“Every cloud has a silver lining” is a widely used phrase in Turkey. Doesn’t it make sense?