By Glenn Diesen, Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and an editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal. Follow him on Twitter @glenn_diesen
In the space of nearly 500 years, Russia and Turkey have fought no fewer than 12 wars against each other. Now, even without the tsars or Ottomans, the two old rivals are standing on competing sides once again – this time in Syria.
However, while backing competing factions in bloody fighting across the Middle Eastern nation, the conflict has paradoxically brought the two powers closer together. So close, it seems, that even NATO is worrying about it.
A major breakthrough in relations between Moscow and Ankara was evident when Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 air defence system in defiance of US threats. The US has subsequently imposed sanctions on Ankara and expelled Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart, Joe Biden, was not enough to mend relations.
However, the recent encounter between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in Sochi indicates that a grand Russian-Turkish deal might be in the making. A major agreement for defence cooperation could be on the cards, including the development and trade of a second batch of S-400 air defence systems, submarines, aircraft engine technologies, and fighter jets.
A military partnership of such a magnitude would likely be accompanied by a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, the immense scope of the military arrangement and possible political agreements on Syria would alienate Turkey further from the US, and Washington will likely feel obliged to impose even more sanctions on its NATO ‘ally’.
So, how did we get here?
The Syrian mistake
Much like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US war against the Syrian government is resulting in a disastrous outcome. Turkey previously had good relations with Damascus and initially had to be convinced by the US to support the regime-change war. Assad was expected to be toppled swiftly and Turkey would maintain cordial relations with the new government installed by Washington. However, the string of US-led regime-change wars in the Middle East was interrupted as Russia unexpectedly intervened in 2015, effectively turning the tide of the war.
The leading source of tensions between the US and Turkey has been Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds. The importance of the partnership with the Kurds for the US increased further as Russia pushed American generals to change their strategy. Failing to topple Assad, the US seeks to have a say in the political future of the country by illegally occupying a third of its territory, the resource-rich region in northeast Syria where the US steals the oil and wheat. Cooperation with Syrian Kurds is important towards this end. Washington considers the YPG to be the most effective military partner in the region, a group which Ankara considers to be a terrorist group that can destabilise Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.
Turkey is also apprehensive about the US maintaining the option of playing the Kurdish independence card. Promoting an autonomous or independent Kurdish state would destabilise and weaken four states with major Kurdish populations – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Israel would likely support such a policy and American policy-makers have openly played with the idea of Balkanising Syria.
Turkish officials have already accused Washington of being behind the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Erdogan responded to it by purging Atlanticist Gulenists – approximately 140,000 government employees and 30,000 military personnel. Simply put, an abundance of pro-American NATO loyalists within Turkey are gone. A cabal of American neoconservative hawks led by John Bolton have responded to the clearout and the Russian-friendly policies with fury and established the “Turkish Democracy Project” in 2021, which seeks regime change in Ankara. Thus, the deterioration of relations continues.
The language from ‘NATO-ally’ Turkey is unprecedented. Ankara accuses the US of supporting terrorism against Turkey due to its partnership with the Syrian Kurds, and Ankara demands that the Washington ends its occupation of Syrian territory and withdraws.
Towards a Russian-Turkish settlement?
The complexity of the Syrian conflicts makes any Russian-Turkish agreement difficult, yet the incentives are now in place. Russia desires an end of the war against Syria and the restoration of the government’s territorial control. Meanwhile, Turkey wants the Syrian Kurdish issue resolved and believes this can best be achieved by reasserting Syrian territorial sovereignty. Domestically, there are tensions between the Turkish public and the enormous Syrian refugee community in the country, which could be resolved by ending the conflict. Furthermore, Turkey has not been able to moderate and domesticate the jihadists it uses as proxies in Idlib, a region that the Syrian government will most likely seek to retake in the near future.
The rhetoric in Washington about Moscow attempting to reposition Ankara away from the American orbit and into the Russian sphere of influence fails to appreciate the multipolar international distribution of power. Turkey is not looking to shift from a US-led military bloc to a Russian-led alliance, as the bipolarity of the Cold War is long gone. Rather, Turkey seeks to assert itself as an independent actor in a multipolar system, which entails relations with all the major poles of power. Similarly, Russia has neither the capability nor intention of pursuing hegemony.
Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership is conceptualised as a counter-hegemonic project. Russia, in partnership with China, aims to counter American ambitions by enabling the major powers in Greater Eurasia to diversify their economic connectivity. Turkey’s ambitions for an independent and diversified foreign policy can easily be accommodated in the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which can replace the bloc politics of the Cold War, including NATO.
A grand Russia-Turkey deal in accordance with the Greater Eurasian Partnership may not materialise, but the former unipolar order is rapidly breaking down due to yet another disastrous regime-change war.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.