Turkey’s relations with Russia have always been characterized by ups and downs. However, there have been even greater fluctuations over the past few years.
The relations, which improved slowly after the Cold War, tended to grow smoothly until the Syrian Civil War which changed the way Turkey and Russia viewed each other. Yet they still endeavored to carry on the same kind of relationship.
The downing of the Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24, 2015, however, caused a serious rupture in the relations. After persisting for about a year, the tension began to give way to rapprochement following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey.
The two countries then carried out a successful cooperation in Syria. Currently, however, Russia is trying to keep Turkey by its side through intimidation. Failing to see that the path to take should instead be one of inspiring confidence, Russia is about to repeat a mistake that it has typically made throughout history.
Since the very first day of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has constantly supported Syria’s territorial integrity and democratic transformation. However, the Obama administration cared neither about Syria’s democracy nor its territorial integrity. On the contrary, the U.S. administration pursued an active strategy to create a deadlock.
It quite intentionally preferred a structure based on proxy wars. It also did its utmost to create a quagmire where terrorist organizations fought each other and the regional countries confronted one another.
The U.S. initially decided to support the Syrian opposition, even pressuring Turkey to give it more support. As Turkey dragged its feet though, the U.S. pressure intensified. But when Turkey began to support the opposition, the U.S. sided against Turkey.
Washington took great pleasure from watching the conflict between Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition. It also did nothing but watch the strife between Iran and Turkey. And when the Iranian-backed regime began to lose, it turned a blind eye even to the Russian entry into the conflict.
It watched all these countries and groups whittling away at each other’s power. Obama meant it when he said in a statement that Russia would suffer great losses in Syria because it was exactly what he had in mind. His expectation was to create an inextricable deadlock.
When Turkey put its foot down about not getting directly involved in the war, the U.S. and other Western countries threatened Turkey. They accused it of supporting Daesh for one. And when Turkey resisted all this, this time they blackmailed it with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) — an offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which Turkey also defines as a terrorist group.
US went too far
The implicit message was, “If you do not fight in a way that serves our interests, we will pave the way for the PYD.”
But the U.S. went too far with its pressure, leaving Turkey no space to step back. It forced the lever so much that it eventually broke. So Turkey drew itself a new route. It chose to compromise with Russia. Threats and blackmailing did not work. On the contrary, it directed Turkey towards choosing the lesser of two evils.
As far as we understand, Turkey launched its Operation Euphrates Shield as a result of a compromise it reached with Russia. According to this agreement, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was to advance up to al-Bab town with the support of Turkey. The M-4 highway would be the border between the FSA and the regime.
Thus the PYD would be prevented from forming a corridor. The FSA, which positioned itself between Afrin and the Euphrates River, would act like a shield. Daesh would be completely eliminated from all of the areas bordering Turkey. This operation was one of offense against Deash, and one of defense against the PYD. And the last link of it would be al-Bab. So it was.
If the Obama administration had remained in power, Turkey could have taken a defensive position against Daesh and launched an attack against the PYD after al-Bab. But in the meantime the U.S. administration changed. And so did the deadlock policy.
In came Trump, who antagonized Iran and China along with Daesh. Although he has not been giving out ominous signals regarding Russia, it also does not seem likely that he will nurture good relations with Moscow now that he looks intent on taking on Iran and China. Moscow is actually aware of this fact.
It also knows the following: When Turkey takes control of al-Bab, it will cease to have any further need for Russia. Trump had a quite friendly conversation with Erdogan. He implied that the U.S. would get back on ground against Iran and Daesh.
Turkey responded with similar signals. It presented a plan for cleansing Raqqah. In return, the CIA chief rushed to Ankara to deliver the White House’s message, announcing that they would be fighting alongside Turkey against all terrorist organizations.
With all of these added up, Russia began to lose its trust in Turkey. It is now concerned about the possibility that Turkey may gravitate toward the U.S.
When you are worried, what you need to do is not fight. On the contrary, if Russia does not want to lose Turkey, it should encourage it to stay with it. This is the rational behavior in this case.
Moscow and PYD
But what is Russia doing now instead? It is doing exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. It is threatening instead of inspiring confidence. Russia is spreading the rumor that it has made a deal with the PYD. Russian jets “accidentally” hit the headquarters of the Turkish troops.
Moscow is attempting to involve the PYD in the Astana process although this is tantamount to placing explosives under this fragile process. Russia is failing to see that Turkey will not cooperate with it as long as it resorts to such methods.
In a nutshell, Russia is doing whatever it takes to lose Turkey. When you look at it this way, it is obvious that Russia has been displaying an extremely irrational behavior. What it should be doing instead is to persuade Turkey of the U.S.’s unreliability.
To approach Turkey with a clear-cut plan about the PYD, Turkey’s expectations are very clear. Even a few steps in the right direction would be enough to appease Turkey. For example, Russia has still not closed the PYD’s office in Moscow.
Instead of reassuring Turkey in regard to the PYD, it is still keeping PYD as a blackmail tool. It cannot see that the PYD blackmail will backfire.
Let us be frank here. If Russia fails to approach Turkey with a better deal than that of the U.S., Turkey will get closer to its NATO ally. Russia needs to be a step ahead of the U.S. If it loses Turkey, it may be left alone with Iran against the Western alliance.
But if it manages to convince Turkey to cooperate, it will also have managed to create a rift in the Western alliance. That is also the way to disrupting the idea of unity in the NATO. Thus, it will not be isolated in Syria. Turkey cannot be considered in isolation. It is a NATO member country.
If the U.S. comes up with a holistic plan and the United Nations confronts Russia, a more effective coalition might be set up that would exclude Russia. How long could Russia possibly withstand such a struggle then?
All its years-long investment in Syria may as well come to naught. Moreover, a polarization that may arise in Syria would probably put Russia in a difficult situation in Ukraine as well. Syria cannot be dealt with in isolation. Syria is the trigger for Ukraine.
Just as Ukraine had triggered Syria, Syria may now trigger Ukraine. What allowed Russia the steps that it took in Ukraine and Syria was the fragility and weakness in the Atlantic line. But things in the Trump era will not be the same as they were during Obama’s term.
On the contrary, the loose screws, as it were, will be tightened. Russia is also aware of this actually. And it is why it is worried. And as it gives in more and more to this fear, it is losing its control. As it falls deeper into a spiral of threat, it will push away Turkey.
In fact, this attitude should not surprise anyone. According to American diplomat and political scientist Henry Kissinger, Russian diplomacy is based on fear. You can find many instances of this in the history of Russia.
During the Cold War, it treated its partners as satellites instead of allies. It increased the pressure on the communist countries that it was afraid of losing. As the pressure mounted, its fears also grew. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring were results of the same kind of mistake.
Russia has in the past tried a similar threat but ended up with bad results. For example, it tried to corner Turkey after the Second World War using the issue of Straits and making territorial demands which in turn led Turkey to develop closer ties with the U.S. In doing so, Russia triggered an early polarization during the Cold War era.
Kenneth Waltz, another American political scientist, implied that state heads were free to do stupid things but could not possibly do them repeatedly. He added that those who repeated stupid mistakes were bound to go down in history as losers.
But in fact, different generations can repeat the same stupidity many times over. Rather than encouragement, they can opt for threats. Putin might repeat Stalin’s error. He may alienate Turkey rather unnecessarily. But in that case, it may take another 50 years before it can get such an opportunity again.
If Russia has not understood what the PYD issue means to Turkey, even a cursory look at the process in which the U.S. alienated Turkey should suffice as an example. America’s threats and blackmailing attempts also failed to persuade Turkey. They were counterproductive in that they pushed Turkey closer to Russia.
The PYD is such a central threat to Turkey that it can risk a lot to eliminate it. And in fact, Turkey will be determined to use the force that it has as a NATO member. The PYD has already been confined to a particular area. Turkey is thus less concerned now. It will wait to walk together with the one giving reassurance, not the one hurling threats.
Let us all wait and see how Russia will interpret this issue and what kind of choice it will make. If it acts with reason rather than fear, it should leave aside its threatening and blackmailing ways and proceed with the mutual transaction phase.
But for now, it is difficult to say that it is able to display such prudence. It seems like what it fears could come true indeed.