Russia needs Turkey in the war on ISIS

Turkish policy, whether local, regional, or international, is passing through an interesting phase, if not a surprising one

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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Turkish policy, whether local, regional, European, or international, is passing through an interesting phase, if not a surprising one, reflecting a tactical change in the vision and strategy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The man who hardly admits mistakes apologized this week to Russia, and drank the poisoned chalice as he bowed his head down to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the downing a Russian jet several months ago.

The man who backed Hamas and challenged the Israeli leadership, and engaged in one-upmanship with the Palestinian leadership, decided this week to seek reconciliation with Israel and restore ties with Tel Aviv, claiming that Israel had met Turkish conditions, drawing ire both in Turkey and abroad. His policy on Syria has changed a lot, and the Turkish president is no longer the spearhead of the battle against his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, or the spearhead of the support for the armed Syrian rebels, as he appears ready to climb down from both these positions.

Moreover, ISIS’s war on Turkey did not come from a vacuum, but is the result of a radical change in Turkey’s dealings with fighters it reportedly allowed to cross into Syria via its borders, before it became a partner in the US-led coalition against ISIS, opening its airports for planes to strike the radical group in Syria and Iraq. The war being waged by ISIS on Turkish cities is a retaliatory war for what the group considers the betrayal of the Turkish leadership, whose backing ISIS assumed to have had.

Perhaps ISIS was infuriated by Ankara’s détente with Israel and Russia, its arch-enemy. But most likely, the radical terror group had prepared the attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in response to Turkey’s new alignment on the side of the implicit American-Russian agreement in Syria and explicit agreement against ISIS. Today, following the results of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership in favor of Brexit, Turkey and Russia are likely to gain from European weakness and possibly fragmentation after London leaves the EU, each for its own reasons.

But clearly, the Turkish president has returned to the drawing board to review his policies that he had boasted of and pledged not to reverse. This requires a close watch on his coming positions, locally, regionally – e.g. vis-à-vis the Gulf, Iran, and Egypt – and internationally, for example as regards restoring ties with Russia and Israel.

One will also have to watch the implications for the Syrian opposition represented by the High Negotiations Commission (HNC) and the internationally backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprise both Arab and Kurdish factions. The deal struck by Erdogan with Hamas and Israel were a slap in the face of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority represented by President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt and its president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, given the direct Turkish presence in Gaza along the border with Egypt now and the boost it gives to the Muslim Brotherhood both in Gaza and Egypt.

Vladimir Putin has benefited from this about-face, not only because he enjoyed hearing Erdogan apologize, but also because he won him over in Syria

Raghida Dergham

Blow to reconciliation

Practically speaking, the Turkish president dealt a blow to the reconciliation negotiations in Palestine and to Palestinian national unity, because he affirmed Hamas’s weight in the Palestinian arena at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. He engineered a truce between Israel and Hamas, and an agreement among the three parties that it would be a permanent truce. The lifting of the blockade will normalize life in Gaza, into which Turkey will bring building material and build hospitals as a prelude to having a permanent say in Palestinian affairs.

This is a big achievement for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as it consecrates his role in Gaza and his support for Hamas, his understanding with Israel, his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, his challenge against el-Sisi’s Egypt, and his assault on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. There is no change here, but there is affirmation of Erdogan’s attitudes against the Palestinian Authority in support of Hamas. Erdogan converges with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the common desire to destroy the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian unity, and Hamas stands to benefit by acting as the guarantor of the common Turkish-Israeli vision.

Egypt will not be comfortable by this great breakthrough achieved by Turkey, and will see Turkish presence in Gaza as directed against Egypt. What will the Egyptian leadership and diplomacy do? They have started efforts with the Palestinian Authority and Israel but the proposals are not clear yet. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the issue is a very serious one for Cairo for both its Palestinian and Muslim Brotherhood angles, and it is no doubt preparing to respond in one way or another to Ankara.

Ankara made a demarche this week with Moscow, which considers Cairo a strategically important asset in its Middle East and North Africa outlook. Both Moscow and Cairo are categorically opposed to the rise of Islamists to power. Ankara adopts the opposite position, because Erdogan is the engineer of the rise of Islamists to power and a proponent of spreading the Turkish model of “moderate Islam” as the West views it.

The Russian leadership may not adopt hostile attitudes toward the Turkish leadership for challenging the Palestinian and Egyptian leaderships in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. But it will keep its gazed fixed on Egyptian-Turkish relations. For Russia, Egypt is a strategic friend while Turkey is a strategic rival.

The Russian leadership understands that Erdogan’s apology was out of necessity rather than volition. The Turkish president found himself in a predicament in Syria, and decided he needed Russia to extricate himself. Vladimir Putin has benefited from this about-face, not only because he enjoyed hearing Erdogan apologize, but also because he won him over in Syria.

Putin is fighting a fateful battle in Syria. He is determined not to make true the dreams of those who want him to venture into a quagmire. Putin knows he is not yet out of the woods, and thus sees a huge advantage in Erdogan reconsidering his Syria policies, where he has become a de-facto partner of the US and Russia in the war on ISIS, especially after the latter decided to target Turkey and its security and economy in retaliation.

Putin also realizes that ISIS must be planning similar attacks against Russia. Indeed, Russia is the logical next stop for ISIS, given that Moscow is a military ally of the regime in Damascus and is staging strikes against ISIS meaning to destroy it. ISIS’s attacks have struck in European capitals, US cities, and several Turkish sites, and perhaps the group is preparing its most formidable attacks yet against Russia. Therefore, the Russian leadership is willing to accept Turkey’s apologies and open a new page, as hard as that will be, because it too needs the Turkish partner in the war on ISIS.

The other element in the page of open accords among the members of the international coalition, including the US, Europe, Russia along with the latter’s Iranian ally in Syria and Turkey and its friends in the Gulf, has to do with the question of which Syrian rebel faction can be the most effective on the ground, and which groups fighting in Syria should be added to the list of terror organizations.

Among the groups the international coalition and Russia both believe to be militarily effective on the ground are the SDF, which comprise both Arab and Kurdish factions. If Turkey is now a backer of this grouping, because it is fighting ISIS on the ground with air cover from coalition planes flying out of Turkey, the question is whether the deals include the Kurdish element, at least in Syria.

The common denominator between Turkey and Iran is their shared problem related to the Kurdish element, which they both see as a threat to their national security. Both are determined to block Kurdish security if it is at the expense of Turkish or Iranian security.

Erdogan has a working relationship with Iran that intersects with his good relations with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Indeed, he believes that containing Iran helps reassure Gulf countries, and he believes he is able to navigate complex relations regionally and internationally along a trajectory that secures his internal political positions.

His relations with the European Union overlap with his local calculations. To Erdogan, Brexit creates two opportunities simultaneously: the prospect of Turkey acceding to the union in light of the latter’s drive to expand its borders. And the possibility of further “exits” from the EU by one or more of its 27 member states, and the possibility of the EU weakening or even collapsing. Both possibilities benefit Turkey, whose efforts to join the EU have so far been blocked despite being a NATO member.

If a miracle happens and Russia and Turkey seek a serious partnership, they will both benefit greatly from a weakened and fragmented Europe. But now, it is too early to tell whether Putin will remain at the height of his power because victory in Syria is still elusive and the prospect of a quagmire there is very real. It is too early to tell as well whether Erdogan’s new tactics will be rewarding, especially since he is in the eye of the storm blowing from Syria.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jul. 01, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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