The battle of Aleppo has changed the parameters of bargaining between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, forcing the tsar and the sultan into a position where they need each other equally. Erdogan’s about-face took a different turn in the wake of the military developments in Aleppo, which explains why Putin appeared more cautious when receiving Erdogan in St. Petersburg compared to his guest.
But the elephant in the room is the United States: Neither is Putin prepared to sacrifice his coordination with Washington on Syria and the implicit accords on several issues; nor is Erdogan prepared to cast aside his important position vis-à-vis the United States, despite his apparent escalation meant for internal consumption in the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey.
Both men need the special relations they have with the United States, but both need each other to save themselves from their predicaments in Syria and Turkey respectively. Erdogan can play a large role in rescuing Putin from a potential quagmire in Aleppo, amid voices in Russia demanding an end to Russia’s bloody involvement in Syria through accords with Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia towards a political settlement that ends the military attrition.
Likewise, Putin can rescue Erdogan from the global media onslaught and growing international isolation, as he moves to consolidate power and concentrate it in his hands in Turkey. However, the Syrian issue that is crucial for both leaders is not decided only by them both. Rather, they are both constrained and bound by others. Indeed, it was not Erdogan alone who altered the parameters in the battle of Aleppo. Rather, it was an effort with the US-led international coalition along with Gulf countries.
To be sure, the weapons that arrived in the hands of the Syrian rebels during the battle was a result of a coordinated effort between US, the Gulf and Turkey allowing the tide to turn during the battle. For his part, Putin’s calculations in Aleppo were never identical to those of Iran there, and Russia is not part of Iran’s regional-sectarian ambitions. When victory was within reach, Moscow turned a blind eye and focused on trying to win the battle.
But now that military supplies to the rebels have become a clear reality as clear as the new shift in US policy, it is a whole new discussion imposed by the battlefield. But negotiating cards are part of the discussion, in which the regional and international players and axes overlap.
Let’s start with the optimistic reading of recent developments, from Aleppo to the newfound Russian-Turkish relations. The advocates of this reading say the coming days and weeks will reveal a deal on Syria, between Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey with the consent of Iran, keen to avoid a quagmire and a “Vietnam” of its own in Aleppo. If Tehran decides the deal is unsuitable, Moscow would still not stop at the wishes of Iran, but would consider first and foremost its own interests, led by the need to avoid a military quagmire in Aleppo especially in light of the Western-Arab determination to overturn the military balance of power or prolong the war of attrition there.
If Erdogan becomes intransigent and decides he can blackmail the United States using the supply lines to the rebels and Europe using the refugee card, then he would be shooting himself in the footRaghida Dergham