Turkish-Russian relations and the Syrian crisis: A personal account

Turkish-Russian relations and the Syrian crisis: A personal account

Burcu Gültekin Punsmann
I have been a passionate advocate for Turkish-Russian reconciliation for more than a decade. I consider the dynamic of rapprochement between Turkey and Russia that started at the end of the 1980s and gained momentum in the 2000s to be a truly historical process for our region, potentially comparable to the effect of German-French reconciliation for Europe. 

Russia and Turkey, which have waged war against each other 16 times in history, realized that they have no reason to fight. The mutual interdependence woven by trade and increased interactions progressively helped to overcome a long history of negative images and suspicion.

I wanted to make my very modest contribution to this reconciliation process, so I moved to Moscow, started learning Russian, and traveled around Russia. I have never thought economic sanctions are an efficient policy tool and considered that Turkey’s inaction in the aftermaths of the Crimean annexation was justified since it prevented the fall of a new iron curtain in the Black Sea. 

My grandfather was born in Damascus. I had the chance during this last decade to travel to and do some research in Syria. In 2014, I spent my last year on the Turkish-Syrian border working for an international humanitarian organization. We were working across the border, delivering aid into Syria and trying to support children and their families. Most of my colleagues were Syrians. I learned what courage and resilience mean. The Syrian crisis has become a regional crisis of global implications; I believe, though, that the micro level remains important. The micro level is about human lives; furthermore, settlement in a civil war requires intervention at the micro level. In the northwest of Syria, destruction comes from the sky, as airstrikes and barrel bombs have become almost routine. The protection of the airspace is, of course, of vital importance. 

I know quite well the Turkish side of this portion of the Syrian-Turkish border where the Russian aircraft was shot down. Other planes were shot down while I was on the border.  The feeling of being protected is tremendously important. I found myself calming down Syrian friends living in Turkish border cities that were alarmed by the sound of aircraft, telling them they were on the right side of the border. I am scared at the idea that hundreds of thousands of people are concentrated just on the Syrian side of the border; the proximity to the border with Syria provides them with an illusion of protection. “The rules of engagement” defined by Turkey don’t provide them any protection, though. The two operational border crossings near Reyhanlı and Kilis, where Russia bombed trucks a few days ago, are the lifeline for the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

In 2011, in the early stage of the Syrian crisis, Russia made a bet that Bashar al-Assad would win. Today, Russia considers that al-Assad’s victory is still possible with Russian support. No one will be victorious in this war. Truly speaking, I fear the collapse of the Syrian regime as much as its attempts to take back the so-called liberated areas. I don’t want to see Latakia and its still mixed population under attack, and Damascus destroyed as Aleppo has been. Turkey cannot be kept out of the Syrian context. Turkish and Syrian nationals are neighbors all along the 1,000-kilometer-long border – families ties exist not only with Turkmens, but also Kurds, Sunni and the Alawites of Syria. A significant number of Syrian Alawites, as well as many Syrians from Damascus, have found shelter in Turkey. 

There have also been regions over which Turkey and Russia’s interests and claims have clashed. In the 1990s, Moscow and Ankara were extremely cautious so as to prevent a spillover of their tension in the Caucasus from infecting the rest of their bilateral relations. Syria, though, has become a domestic issue for Turkey. Syria can’t be “pacified” as Chechnya was. 

Will the sanctions and the disinformation campaign that the Russian government has launched against Turkey untie the links binding Turks and Russians? Is a divorce possible? Cross-border family ties have proven to be very strong in this region. I am not very worried about economic sanctions. I am more concerned about travel restrictions put on middle-class Russian citizens. I spent memorable holidays in Crimea and Abkhazia; Foros and Pitsunda are lovely. Russian tourists shouldn’t be kept encapsulated within the CIS. We will not erect walls from our side, and I am sure that many in Russia still believe in the importance of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations.

* Burcu Gültekin Punsmann is a researcher at the Ankara Policy Center.