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Russia spoils Turkey’s game in Syria: Erdogan leaves Moscow “empty-handed”

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: the Kremlin press office

Russian and Turkey have not changed their differing opinions about the settlement of the Syrian conflict, as has become evident from the working visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow on September 23. Behind the official statements of the sides about their common goals in Syria – it was highlighted at all the previous high-level contacts of Russia and Turkey - there is great discontent of Turkey at Moscow’s actions in that Arab state.

Erdogan’s visit was timed to the ceremonial opening of a Mosque in the Russian capital. It was a few hours before the arrival of the Turkish president that it became known about the meeting of leaders beyond the framework diplomatic ceremonial. The full-scale agenda of the Russian-Syrian Summit was prepared for the end of the year when the bilateral High Level Cooperation Council is to meet. At that inter-state platform the full spectrum of the pressing issues, including the Turkish Stream project and the Middle East conflict, were supposed to be discussed. The opening of the mosque in Moscow proved a good opportunity for the two presidents to exchange views on some regional problems, leaving the other issues for separate, more substantial enlarged inter-governmental talks. The recent developments in Syria made Russia and Turkey coordinate their positions.

Before the meeting of the presidents, the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey met in Sochi on September 17 to make the necessary arrangements. It was at that time when Sergey Lavrov and Feridun Sinirlioğlu noted the formula of the approaches of Russia and Turkey over Syria. The formula says: Moscow and Ankara have common goals concerning the settlement of the situation in the Middle East, despite “some difference in the approaches.”

Several differences in the two countries’ approaches became evident before and immediately after the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Erdogan on September 23. Russia’s military built-up in Syria and the growing military-technical cooperation with Damascus proved nettlesome topics for Ankara. On September 21, Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu said on television that Ankara is “deeply concerned” over the emergence of the Russian troops and equipment in Syria. The Turkish prime minister called Russia’s military presence in Syria as “very dangerous.” Returning from Moscow, President Erdogan said quite diplomatically but with undisguised discontent in his voice that he found “no certainty in Russia’s views concerning the Syrian problem.”

Before Russia’s rush to Syria this August, the Turkish leadership had repeatedly reproached its Russian partners for supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Ankara took under wing the so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition and provided its political mouthpiece – National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force – a platform for meetings in the Turkish territory. The security services of Turkey launched cooperation with some anti-Assad groups operating in the north of Syria, including the one that can be called extremists without exaggeration. Meantime, Russia’s stand has not changed; it keeps supporting Assad, but has significantly increased that support by the end of summer.

Moscow made a leap forward in Syria and spoiled the game of Damascus adversaries, including Turkey that was extremely displeased with Russia’s actions in the neighbor Arab state. Turkey long-cherished dream to create a “security sector” in the north of Syria – a kind of land-based buffer and no-fly zone – was shattered. Yet before Russia’s active involvement into the Syrian affairs, Turkey’s American partners were hesitating and often simply sabotaging Ankara’s calls to establish such “sector.” Since early autumn, Washington has been demonstrating that Ankara’s plan is inadmissible to it. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on September 16, Army General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that Turkey’s proposal cannot be enforced unless U.S. land forces are sent to Syria. However, the American general said he would not recommend such step to the political leadership of the United States.

Apparently, the U.S. skepticism over the no-fly zone-related proposals of its NATO ally has grown after Russia’s decisive actions. If Russian pilots emerge in the air over Syria and strike the positions of “the Islamic State” militants – Washington shows an interest in it – establishment of no-fly zones is fraught with military conflict of the super powers. It is critical to underscore the U.S. command have decided to remove from the combat duty Patriot air defense missile systems - the technical support to the establishment of such zone located in the southern borders of Turkey - within the coming months.

Russia helps Assad retain his grip on the Syrian territories that are still under his control. President Putin openly stresses the need to maintain the state agencies operating in Syria, army and security organizations, to prevent the Libyan scenario and not let the country plunge into chaos. Isn’t it a strategic certainty in Russia’s policy on Syria, which Erdogan questioned?

The West regarded with favor the idea to maintain the Syrian army and its security services with simultaneous efforts to establish a temporary government and launch the peace process. U.S. tends to think that Assad could stay in power for a while, as the fight against the Islamic State is the prior task for Americans. Rather, the question is how sincere are Washington’s assurances that it is committed to the fight against the “Islamic State.” However, the Syrian “moderate” opposition backed by Turkey refuses to take into account the nuances. They fear that the changes in the U.S. policy and possible coordination of operations in Syria with Russia mean that Obama Administration has decided to leave al-Assad in power for an indefinite period, more precisely, until a new president with his new team comes to the White House in January 2017. Feeling the changes in the policy of his American partner, Erdogan hinted that he may go for broke. On September 25, the Turkish leader urged the Syrian opposition he patronizes not to agree with the prolongation of Assad’s power and continue the armed conflict with Damascus till final victory.

The United States has got from Turkey everything it wanted under the mask of “fighting IS.” Incirlik Air Base in Turkey was provided to U.S. strike aircrafts, the fighters of the Syrian opposition are training in camps in the territory of Turkey. Washington signed with Ankara a pact of combined actions in Syria, which actually makes the Turkish authorities to bear with the presence of a Kurdish legitimate armed force – People’s Protection Units (YPG) – in its underbelly. Instead, Turkey received absolutely nothing. Maybe, this is one of the reasons why Europe has faced the refugee crisis. As a reminder, migrants from Middle East headed for Europe mainly from Turkey where they had been residing for the last years. It happened when the Turkish leadership felt itself among the regional “losers”…

One can understand and maybe even feel sorry for Erdogan and his government. They are feeling “tremor underfoot.” Since 2011, Erdogan’s government has received no meaningful result in its anti-Assad policy, instead Turkey has faced a bunch of problems. Along with foreign policy problems, the country plunged into local armed conflict with its own Kurdish population. The military actions in Turkey’s southeast are about to grow into a long guerilla war. Everything is so serious that some municipalities in the regions with overwhelmingly Kurdish population have declared themselves “autonomous.” In Turkish provinces of Diyarbakır, Tunceli, Ağrı, Şırnak, Kakkari, the local Kurdish activists, who are not members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), just feel sympathy for it, even speak of “independence.”

Erdogan failed to prevent the Syrian conflict spillover into the territory of Turkey. He has achieved neither benefits for Turkey nor success in overthrowing al-Assad. Erdogan failed to neutralize the Kurdish factor in the north of Syria. Neither had he managed to make its henchmen in Syria act efficiently. Erdogan’s disappointment grows even higher, as the date of the snap elections approaches (Nov 1). The war unleashed against Kurds has brought no political dividends to him. He failed to increase the number of his supporters by attracting the nationalist constituencies. The latest public opinion polls in Turkey revealed that the rating of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has grown insignificantly – from 40.9% after the June 7 elections to 41.1%. This means that Erdogan and his team may again fail to win majority.

According to Yeni Safak, a pro-governmental Turkish newspaper, “the negotiations have gone beyond whether Assad will go or not, and instead are about how the new Middle East will be shaped. This picture has images of ISIL, the Syrian “moderate opposition” the Iraqi Sunni's position, the Shias, Turkey's strategic concerns and the roles of the Kurds in the new Middle East and many other conflicting actors.” In this variety of conflicts, there is no algorithm for overcoming the dividing lines in the Middle East.

Russia’s buildup in Syria has sparked a range of processes that seemed hardly probable before, for instance, the tactical, if not timid, rapprochement of Moscow and Washington in the fight against the common enemy. Russia gives hints to U.S. for instance with the ongoing establishment of a joint information and intelligence center in Baghdad to coordinate operations against the Islamic State. The anti-terrorist center is formed by Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Time will show whether U.S. will take the hint or pretend having not noticed it.

Turkey is desperately seeking its place in the new geopolitical formula in the Middle East. It still feels the consequences of its mistakes and too high expectation from its policy of Neo-Ottomanism. Turkish strategists planned to turn the country the leader in the Middle East, but the reality proved much more modest. Actually, Turkey will mark its 100th anniversary in 2023 with a bunch of problems that existed yet at the beginning of Erdogan’s for 13-year tenure.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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