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U.S. Warily Watching Russia-Turkey Talks On Syria

By Nicholas Danforth

Thursday, August 11, 2016

This week’s meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin went about as well as could be expected for two longtime geopolitical rivals currently engaged in a bloody proxy war. In their comments, both leaders made it clear that they intended to focus on restoring mutually beneficial economic relationships, mentioning long-standing projects such as the Turkish stream pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

At the same time, they sought to explicitly set aside their differences on Syria, where, as Putin politely put it, they had not always seen eye-to-eye. In short, the meeting suggests a return to the uneasy status quo that existed before Turkey downed a Russian jet last fall—“certain events” as Erdoğan politely put it—rather than the sweeping geopolitical realignment some in Washington have feared.

The meeting suggests a return to the uneasy status quo that existed before Turkey downed a Russian jet last fall.

Is there any chance, though, that the current rapprochement could lead to a new Russian-Turkish consensus on Syria that would, in turn, facilitate a more lasting improvement in relations? Following the St. Petersburg meeting, Turkey’s foreign minister announced that the two countries would establish a Syria “mechanism” bringing together military, intelligence, and diplomatic representatives from both sides. He added that when it came to humanitarian aid, the ceasefire, and a political solution in Syria, the two countries’ thinking was “more or less” the same.

One scenario that other analysts have suggested is that this harmony of views has come about because Ankara is essentially resigned to a regime victory in Syria, especially now that Turkey’s military is in disarray following the July 15 coup attempt. Indeed, Turkey’s newfound willingness to work with Assad in limiting Kurdish gains in northern Syria, as well as the military setbacks experienced by Turkish-backed rebels over the past year, both give credence to this possibility.

Yet with weapons shipped into Syria from Turkey currently facilitating rebel victories around Aleppo, it is far from clear that Turkey is ready to completely abandon its support for the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria to make nice with Moscow. In this case, would Russia be willing to consider offering real concessions to Ankara’s interests in an effort to woo Turkey away from the West? A ceasefire that recognized rebel control in Idlib and parts of Aleppo might prove a tempting offer for Turkey, especially if it were coupled with Russian support in confronting the Syrian Kurds.

Washington should avoid allowing its growing frustration with Turkey to stand in the way of coordination and cooperation in Syria policy.

Over the past year, of course, Russia proved perfectly content to violate a similar ceasefire it had agreed to with the United States, viewing such violations as a way to undermine Washington’s credibility and influence in the region. But in other circumstances, following the right arrangement with Turkey, abiding by such a ceasefire, and compelling Assad to do so as well, would suddenly become the most effective way to weaken Western unity. Moreover, a ceasefire along these lines might serve Russian interests in a variety of ways. It would not only enable Moscow to play the role of arbiter in the region, but also lay the groundwork for an enduring frozen conflict while maintaining Assad’s dependence on Russian support. And while Russia has previously been quick to support the Kurdish Democratic Union Party as part of a broader anti-Turkish policy, its interest might now be served by reversing course here as well. Indeed, weakening the hand of independence-minded Kurds would further bolster Assad in maintaining the unity of the country and the legitimacy of his government.

Ultimately, of course, bringing peace and stability to Syria will require some degree of convergence between Washington, Ankara, and Moscow. The challenge for Washington is to ensure that this convergence happens on its terms, not Russia’s, and that it strengthens NATO unity instead of undermining it. With this in mind, Washington should avoid allowing its growing frustration with Ankara to stand in the way of coordination and cooperation in Syria policy. Marshalling the political will to press for a fair settlement in Geneva and treading carefully with regard to Turkish concerns over Syrian Kurdish forces will help provide common ground in an increasingly strained relationship. Without being unduly concerned over Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia or offering unnecessary concessions in other areas, Washington can still take these concrete steps to advance U.S. and Turkish interests while preventing Russia from playing the two against each other.

KEYWORDS: BASHAR AL-ASSAD, KURDS, NATO, PYD, RUSSIA, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, VLADIMIR PUTIN