Turk­ish-Rus­sian ties on the rocks

Arab News - - Opinion - YASAR YAKIS

Am­biva­lence has started to creep into Turk­ish-Rus­sian re­la­tions. Per­haps it had been present since the out­set but was con­cealed by the two sides’ am­bi­tious joint projects. But, as their co­op­er­a­tion in Syria has shown signs of bog­ging down and Libya has be­come an arena of ri­valry, the am­biva­lence has be­come more vis­i­ble.

The first signs of dif­fi­cul­ties sur­faced when Rus­sia per­suaded Turkey to re­duce the size of the cor­ri­dor to the east of the Euphrates River in north­east­ern Syria, from which the lat­ter sought to ex­clude the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG). Orig­i­nally, Turkey wanted to es­tab­lish an area 30 to 40 kilo­me­ters wide and 440 kilo­me­ters long, from the Euphrates to the Iraqi bor­der. It was ul­ti­mately re­duced to just 10 kilo­me­ters wide and 220 kilo­me­ters long. Fur­ther­more, Ankara ini­tially wanted to pa­trol this area with Turk­ish sol­diers alone, but Mos­cow per­suaded it to do so in co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sian troops.

There was also a ba­sic dif­fer­ence on the cov­er­age of the cease-fire agreed by UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion 2254, which called on all coun­tries “to pre­vent and sup­press acts com­mit­ted specif­i­cally by Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and all other in­di­vid­u­als, groups, un­der­tak­ings and en­ti­ties associated with Al-Qaeda, or Daesh and other ter­ror­ist groups, as des­ig­nated by the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.” Turkey was pro­tect­ing Al-Nusra Front, so it there­fore vol­un­teered to per­suade the rel­a­tively more mod­er­ate fac­tions within the group to lay down their arms. De­spite gen­uine ef­forts, Turkey could not ful­fill this ex­pec­ta­tion.

How­ever, the clear­est di­ver­gence be­tween Turkey and Rus­sia is in Libya. Rus­sia rec­og­nizes the UN-backed Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord (GNA) but also sup­ports Khal­ifa Haf­tar, who fights it. If Rus­sia suc­ceeds in hold­ing Libya, it will es­tab­lish a mil­i­tary and eco­nomic pres­ence there. The mil­i­tary pres­ence would threaten NATO’s soft un­der­belly. The eco­nomic pres­ence would al­low Rus­sia to take a share of Libya’s abun­dant oil re­sources.

Turkey grabbed a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity by be­com­ing an in­dis­pens­able ally of the GNA, which in­vited it into Libya. Ankara’s mil­i­tary sup­port changed the tide in the con­flict. Now it is ne­go­ti­at­ing with Libya’s le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment the es­tab­lish­ment of air and naval bases in the coun­try. And, with the US tak­ing a more ac­tive in­ter­est in the Libyan cri­sis, the foun­da­tions of the power bal­ance in the re­gion may be shak­ing. Many things will de­pend on whether Rus­sia and the US are able to find a mid­dle ground.

The meet­ing held at the be­gin­ning of last week in Tripoli, with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the US am­bas­sador and the head of the US Africa Com­mand, was im­por­tant. There is not yet a firm com­mit­ment by the US in Libya, but there is a clear in­crease in its in­ter­est. The US in­ter­est in Libya can­not be dis­so­ci­ated from the Rus­sia fac­tor. Turkey is aware that tilt­ing too much to­ward the US will cast shad­ows on its re­la­tions with Rus­sia.

Yasar Yakis is a former for­eign min­is­ter of Turkey and found­ing mem­ber of the rul­ing AK Party.

Twit­ter: @yak­is_yasar

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