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Russia, Turkey rebuild ties: What this means for the Syrian conflict

Moscow’s swift condemnation of the coup has further contributed to a thaw in bilateral relations

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

Following the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, the country’s relations with the United States and Europe have deteriorated due to its perception that Western allies had not stood by it during this episode.

In contrast, Moscow’s swift condemnation of the coup has further contributed to a thaw in bilateral relations, analysts say.

While Turkey’s relations with the West are strained, Ankara and Moscow are trying to rebuild ties through the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Aug. 9 in St Petersburg.

“We thank the Russian authorities, particularly President Putin. We have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month.

The Turkish F-16 pilots who last November shot down the Russian fighter jet near the border with Syria, greatly hurting bilateral relations, are now being accused of being members of the Gulen movement, the alleged coup mastermind. One of the pilots took part in the bombing of Ankara on the night of the failed coup.

The meeting on Tuesday is expected to focus mainly on counterterrorism cooperation and finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict, as recently announced by Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov.

Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said: “In cooperation with Russia, Turkey would like to facilitate a political transition in Syria as soon as possible.”

However, Kalin said such a solution would be unthinkable with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.

Russia sides with Assad and has partnered with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Ankara supports Syrian opposition groups and is concerned by the YPG, which it sees as an offshoot of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

“Russia and Turkey could at best go back to a compartmentalized relationship in which they’d cooperate economically, agree to disagree on strategic issues, and pay attention to not stepping on each other’s toes directly,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara Office of the German Marshall Fund, told Al Arabiya English.

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, an aerial image shows what it says is a column of heavy trucks carrying ammunition hit by a Russian air strike near Aleppo, Syria. (AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, an aerial image shows what it says is a column of heavy trucks carrying ammunition hit by a Russian air strike near Aleppo, Syria. (AP)

He added that Turkey would lower its profile in Syria but not fundamentally change in its approach, and certainly not endorse Assad publicly.

However, just days before the coup attempt, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim hinted at the government’s willingness to normalize relations with Syria, adding: “For the fight against terrorism to succeed, stability needs to return to Syria.”

Meeting

A plan to jointly fight ISIS in Syria is reportedly expected to be announced following the meeting between Putin and Erdogan.

Yury Barmin, Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, does not believe that this visit could lead to major changes in their positions on Syria.

“Russia is unlikely to withdraw its S-400 [missile] systems from the Hmeymim airbase… and won’t give up on Assad. Erdogan won’t give up on the rebel groups that he has supported throughout the conflict,” Barmin told Al Arabiya English.

“I think there’s already an understanding between Erdogan and Putin that they need to avoid each other in Syria for the time being to prevent plunging into another diplomatic crisis.

“In a sense, the failed coup may help Russia and Turkey return trust and cooperation between the two countries to the levels before Nov. 2015.”

A combination picture taken from video shows a war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border November 24, 2015. (Reuters)
A combination picture taken from video shows a war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border November 24, 2015. (Reuters)

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), told Al Arabiya English that Erdogan “will want to use this meeting [with Putin] to demonstrate to Turkey’s partners in the West that as a result of its disillusionment with their behavior in the post-coup environment, Ankara could seek to further its relationship with Russia.”

For Putin, the meeting is an opportunity to undermine NATO’s cohesiveness at a time when Russia’s relationship with the alliance remains tense, Ulgen added.

“It’s still premature to talk about a strategic realignment between Turkey and Russia,” Ulgen said.

“However, there’s a window of convergence given Ankara’s inability to continue to push its more ambitious aim of regime change” in Syria.