Edited by Desi Tzoneva
An improvement in Russian-Turkish relations can have far-reaching consequences for the situation in Syria. The Syrian crisis became the main stumbling block in Russian-Turkish relations. Ankara, annoyed by the fact that Russian military intervention has changed the balance of power in Syria in favour of the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad, took an overtly hostile action, shooting down the Russian SU-24 in November 2015. It is remarkable that Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the first time, admitted that the warplane was shot down over Syria, but not over Turkish territory, during his interview with the TASS news agency. Sanctions that followed after this incident hit the Turkish economy hard.
However, since the beginning of this year, the geopolitical situation around Turkey has been changing. The Islamic State (IS) has begun to shell Turkish territory and to organise terrorist attacks inside the country. In this way, terrorists proved that it is impossible to completely tame extremist groups. At the same time, the weakening of the Syrian state has significantly changed the balance of forces in the region. The Kurdish national movement that has taken control of north-eastern Syria’s areas and which became an independent political force, has intensified. Shortly thereafter, this movement created the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) under the protectorate of the US. Considering the close relations between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main organisation of Syrian Kurds, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Washington has a twofold purpose: to defeat the IS in northern Syria and to use Kurds as a Trojan horse against Turkey.
According to many experts, the one of the main Russian interests at the summit in St. Petersburg included gaining Ankara’s consent to close the Turkish-Syrian border and to stop the support of anti-government groups in Syria. At the same time, Ankara’s main interest was to prevent Russia’s support of the SDF’s Kurdish armed groups, as well as Kurdish separatists’ attempts to create an independent state in the eastern and south-eastern regions of Turkey.
According to the Izvestiya newspaper, Moscow hosted a meeting of the joint Russian-Turkish Commission, which was attended by representatives of special services, diplomatic and defence ministries of both countries. According to Chairman of the Defence Committee of the State Duma, Vladimir Vodolatsky, this meeting is a continuation of the dialogue between Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among other things, steps towards the establishment of peace in Syria were discussed, too. For this reason, the Russian side, naturally, raised the issue of the closure of the Syrian-Turkish border to stop the flow of terrorists and weapons. Of course, these arrangements do not mean the achievement of a full Russian-Turkish understanding on Syria.
Moscow’s strong condemnation of the coup attempt in Turkey – which took place in the night from 15 to 16 July, the outcome of which no one could predict – also influenced Erdogan’s decision on the normalisation of relations with Russia.
It is obvious that the countries still have certain differences in their geopolitical approach to the Syrian issue. Ankara’s goal is to prevent the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, as well as to integrate friendly-for-Turkey Sunni forces into a future Syrian government. Moscow is concerned about the creation of a stable united Syria with the preservation of Russian military presence there. Despite this, it is impossible to end the Syrian confrontation quickly without Turkey’s cooperation. This creates the prerequisites for a successful political and diplomatic cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on Syria.