As a coup attempt unfolded in Turkey in July 2016, leaders in Ankara tried desperately to persuade Washington to strongly condemn the plotters and support the democratically elected government. But the US administration only sat on the fence. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contrast, was on the phone with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that same night. Putin offered to send special forces to Erdogan’s rescue, in case the coup attempt succeeded.
This incident set the tone of the relationship between Russia and Turkey. And, ultimately, this relationship will determine the fate of Syria.
Last week, the Turkish president travelled to Sochi to talk to Putin about establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria, following a similar deal with the US government to secure the withdrawal of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which Turkey considers to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – to 30km south of the Turkish border. In as far as he aimed to crush the Syrian Kurds’ experiment with self-governance, Erdogan succeeded. But this success came at a price.
After years of supporting opposition groups that fought the Assad regime, Turkey had to agree to the redeployment of pro-regime forces all the way up to its southern border. The agreement calls for the extension of the regime’s military presence across all Kurdish-controlled territory in north-eastern Syria. Turkey has tried to unseat the Assad regime for much of Syria’s eight-year civil war by supporting opposition groups that operate in Idlib and in the north of the country. But Erdogan has now had to concede that Bashar al-Assad has essentially won the war.
While the US-Turkey deal gave Turkish forces full control of the 120km-wide, 30-km-deep stretch of territory between the Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, the Sochi deal limited Turkey’s access to 10km into Syria, with joint Turkish-Russian military patrols along the border. It also called for the Syrian regime to establish 15 military outposts in the Turkish-controlled zone. (A potential sticking point in the Sochi agreement is that the Syrian regime is essentially responsible for verifying the YPG’s withdrawal from the border. Given that Kurdish forces have struck their own deal with the Syrian regime to avert a Turkish incursion, this will likely be a persistent cause of disagreement between Ankara and Damascus.)
Still, what matters to Erdogan more than anything else is being able to say that he ended Kurdish self-governance in Syria. His government views the deal as a testament to its ability to act independently of Washington even in areas where there is a US military presence.
There is far more to the Erdogan-Putin dynamic than their give and take in Syria.
In many ways, the Sochi deal enshrines the spirit of the burgeoning alliance between Turkey and Russia. It is ad hoc, not couched in either country’s institutional culture, and largely based on a personal relationship of trust between the two leaders. Putin can persuade Erdogan to accept things no other leader could – such as the continuation of the Russian military offensive in Idlib and the return of Syrian regime forces to areas near the Turkish border. Their symbiotic relationship also helps Ankara operate in Syria to disrupt what it sees as the existential threat of Kurdish self-rule.
But there is far more to the Erdogan-Putin dynamic than their give and take in Syria. Ankara is building a strategic alliance with Russia by partnering with it in major infrastructure and procurement projects, such as the Turkish Stream pipeline – designed to transfer Russian gas and oil to Europe – Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air-defence systems, and the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant.
Erdogan has skilfully used his ties with Putin to further his interests in the West. The Turkish president has met with Putin eight times this year. Instead of hurting Turkey’s standing in the West, Turkish-Russian rapprochement has provided Ankara with leverage in dealings with its Western partners. Fear that Turkey will peel away from the West has led to greater leniency in NATO and in Washington on issues such as Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 and energy cooperation with Russia. Despite pressure from Congress and the US government bureaucracy, President Donald Trump has refused to impose sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of S-400s.
But, if history is any guide, Ankara’s pivot to Russia may be more of temporary adjustment than a permanent realignment. There were several instances of rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow in the last century, each of which ended when Turkey felt threatened by its historical foe and sought Western support. In a Middle East in turmoil – and with an unresolved Kurdish conflict on Turkey’s doorstep – it is too early to say whether the Putin-Erdogan friendship will become a lasting force in the region. In all likelihood, Turkey will continue its roller-coaster ride between the United States and Russia until the Syrian conflict has ended, all the while hoping to boost its geopolitical role in the Middle East.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.