As Moscow and Ankara de­cide the fate of the last strong­hold of the Syr­ian rebels, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s grand strat­egy is be­com­ing ap­par­ent. And it is power over Turkey, not Syria, he cov­ets most, says MUSTAFA DEMIR

The New European - - Expertise -

Turkey, Rus­sia and Iran have ac­tively in­volved them­selves in the Syr­ian con­flict, each with their own di­ver­gent in­ter­ests. While Moscow and Tehran have put their sup­port be­hind Bashar al-as­sad’s regime, hop­ing it re­tains its in­flu­ence over the re­gion, Ankara has – since the very be­gin­ning of the cri­sis in 2011 – been ob­sessed with re­mov­ing the Syr­ian pres­i­dent.

So far, the three coun­tries have man­aged to ac­com­mo­date their var­i­ous aims. And the meet­ings be­tween the three pow­ers over the last two years – in Sochi, As­tana, Tehran and then again in Sochi – have all played a part. In fact, it ap­pears that Vladimir Putin’s main strat­egy since 2017 has been the con­tin­u­a­tion of this ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Last month, for ex­am­ple, he and his Turk­ish coun­ter­part, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, met in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi to dis­cuss Syria’s rebel-con­trolled Idlib prov­ince. In­ter­est­ingly, at that meet­ing, Putin re­nounced his plan (an­nounced in Tehran ear­lier in Septem­ber) to stage an all-out as­sault on Idlib. This was an ap­par­ent con­ces­sion, as Turkey had op­posed the plan at the Tehran sum­mit and had called for a cease­fire in­stead.

Back then, Putin had ig­nored Turkey’s ob­jec­tions and un­der­lined his view that the elim­i­na­tion of ter­ror­ists in the re­gion was the pri­or­ity. Con­se­quently, his lat­est con­ces­sion looks like a sig­nif­i­cant volte face.

At their 2017 As­tana sum­mit, Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey had all de­clared four re­gions – Idlib prov­ince, east­ern Ghouta, north­ern ru­ral Homs, and south­ern Syria (to in­clude Quneitra and parts of Daraa gov­er­norate) – as de-es­ca­la­tion zones. But the Syr­ian regime, with the co­op­er­a­tion of Rus­sia and Iran, sub­se­quently launched of­fen­sives into some of these re­gions on the pre­text of elim­i­nat­ing ter­ror­ist groups. One by one, the re­gions set up as de-es­ca­la­tion zones have been dev­as­tated.

There are fears in Turkey that a fullscale as­sault in Idlib would re­sult in the Er­do­gan govern­ment los­ing its sway over the rebels in the area and make Turkey a po­ten­tial tar­get for more rad­i­cal ji­hadists. Ac­cord­ing to some sources, for ex­am­ple, nearly 60% of Idlib is con­trolled by the HTS, a rad­i­cal ji­hadist group des­ig­nated as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion by the United Na­tions.

More­over, an in­va­sion such as that tabled by Rus­sia would likely cause an­other mas­sive in­flux of refugees from Idlib into neigh­bour­ing coun­tries – es­pe­cially Turkey – and from there on into Europe. Rus­sia’s bullish stance on Idlib has there­fore also been con­demned by the West­ern mem­bers of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. The ques­tion is whether these crit­i­cisms were be­hind Putin scrap­ping his de­ci­sion to in­vade or whether he has an­other mo­tive.

At their Septem­ber sum­mit, Putin and Er­do­gan agreed there should be a de­mil­i­tarised buf­fer zone es­tab­lished in Idlib by Oc­to­ber 15, sep­a­rat­ing the rebels from As­sad’s govern­ment forces. Er­do­gan said: “The op­po­si­tion will re­main where they are, but the [rad­i­cal] groups that we will de­ter­mine jointly with Rus­sia won’t be al­lowed to op­er­ate. The bound­aries of the de­mil­i­tarised zone will be su­per­vised jointly.”

Nev­er­the­less, one thing is clear – while Turkey has man­aged tem­po­rar­ily to stall an in­va­sion of Idlib, Rus­sia will be keep­ing a close eye on the sit­u­a­tion. The deal re­quires those des­ig­nated ‘rad­i­cal’ rebels to with­draw from the de­mil­i­tarised zone – and if they don’t, Rus­sia and As­sad will have a pre­text to re­turn to their orig­i­nal plan.

Doubt­less Rus­sia will also in­cre­men­tally ap­ply pres­sure on Er­do­gan, at least tac­ti­cally, by mak­ing Turkey re­spon­si­ble for re­mov­ing the ‘rad­i­cal’ ji­hadist groups from Idlib. This would make Turkey more vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ror­ist at­tacks, and a vul­ner­a­ble Turkey would need fur­ther help from Rus­sia, as the new hege­mon of the re­gion.

It is clear, there­fore, that Putin’s strat­egy is not merely to sup­port his main ally, the As­sad regime, in Syria. It is also to use the con­flict to break the in­flu­ence of the West­ern al­liance in the re­gion and tie NATO mem­ber Turkey more closely to Moscow. It seems that Rus­sia has never aban­doned its Cold War strat­egy to in­vest in grow­ing ten­sions be­tween NATO al­lies.

In­deed, Cen­giz Çan­dar, a veteran Turk­ish jour­nal­ist and au­thor, the­o­rises that Putin is pri­ori­tis­ing this dis­mem­ber­ing of the West­ern al­liance over sup­port­ing the Syr­ian regime, its tra­di­tional ally. In this con­text, the re­cent Sochi sum­mit can be seen as Putin’s way of bring­ing Er­do­gan closer to Rus­sia. This, it seems, is Putin’s ‘grand strat­egy’.

Al­though Turk­ish in­ter­ests in Syria ap­pear to con­form with those of the West and NATO, this grow­ing asym­met­ric de­pen­dence on Rus­sia is forc­ing Er­do­gan to make con­ces­sions to Rus­sia at many lev­els, from se­cu­rity to the econ­omy. Turkey’s re­cent move to pur­chase S400 air de­fence mis­siles from Rus­sia is one ex­am­ple of many.

In fact, the tra­jec­tory of this asym­met­ric de­pen­dency is rais­ing the ques­tion of whether Turkey is be­com­ing a Rus­sian proxy. A Rus­sian proxy which is also a NATO mem­ber would be the very

thing Rus­sia wants in or­der to gain fur­ther lever­age in its global con­test with the US and NATO.

From NATO’S per­spec­tive, the po­lit­i­cal rap­proche­ment be­tween Rus­sia and Turkey has so far been seen as tac­ti­cal. But the con­ver­sion of this rap­proche­ment into a grow­ing asym­met­ric in­ter­de­pen­dence that favours Rus­sia is cast­ing doubt on Turkey’s al­ready frag­ile com­mit­ment to the West­ern al­liance. And, as Turkey gets ever more sucked into the Syr­ian con­flict, so it be­comes harder for Er­do­gan to dis­en­gage from Putin.

With the Syr­ian con­flict right on its borders, and Rus­sia and Iran in­creas­ingly shap­ing the re­gion’s pol­i­tics, Turkey is be­com­ing be­holden to NATO’S en­e­mies.

The sit­u­a­tion sug­gests that to achieve se­cu­rity within its borders Turkey may be asked to re­sign it­self to the de­sires of these two pow­ers – two pow­ers that would do any­thing to weaken the West and NATO.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

CALM BE­FORE THE STORM: Syr­ian rebels from the Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front (NLF) on the front­line in­side the de­mil­i­tarised zone, in Idlib prov­ince Right, pres­i­dents Putin and Er­do­gan are key play­ers in Syria’s fu­ture

Mustafa Demir is an as­so­ci­ate lec­turer in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Stafford­shire Univer­sity; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

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