Turkey-Russia: The Sultan and the Tsar need each other

The battle of Aleppo has changed the parameters of bargaining between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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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 foot

Raghida Dergham

Context of Syria

What Erdogan gave Putin in the context of Syria is declaring that Russia is key to a political solution in Syria. By doing so, the Turkish president gave Russia they key to a solution in Syria. This is an important development once we compare it to previous stances, based on excluding others from political solutions because of disparate visions and aims. In other words, Erdogan may have implicitly told Putin that the decision is now his: Either lead the political solution or continue his military involvement and bear the consequences.

The details of the deal are almost self-evident, based on resuming negotiations with Assad remaining in power for a provisional period, without powers.

Putin and Erdogan shrouded their negotiations on Syria with a lot of secrecy, but conducted them in the presence of senior intelligence, defense, and foreign ministry officials from both sides. Both sides seem to be in agreement over Syria’s unity: Turkey fears partition because it is concerned this would lead to Kurdish statehood; and Russia wants to preserve Syria’s state and army as a reliable strategic ally. Both sides are also in agreement over the need to fight ISIS, but they differ over the definitions of rebels who must be part of negotiated settlement and terrorists.

Both countries also agree Iran must have a role in any future accords in Syria, and both have reservations on Iran’s projects for Syria in the context of its regional expansion from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria.

Both Russia and Turkey want good relations with Israel, and are keen for Tel Aviv to consent to their actions in Syria and the region in general. Some are even speaking of a tripartite coordination axis between the three countries, which does not conflict with another tripartite axis of accords that might emerge in Syria, comprising Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Syria is thus an arena for contradictions and deals.

The Gulf element is not absent from the Syrian arena, both politically, militarily, and diplomatically. Currently, there is an American-Gulf-European convergence when it comes to supporting Syrian rebels such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and other factions, to fight ISIS and stop the regime’s advances in Aleppo and other cities now crucial to all sides.

Russia is keen, at least nominally, to maintain good relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states through the Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum which could convene in the UAE next year. However, informed sources in Russia say there is no coordination whatsoever between Moscow and Gulf capitals, and that the Russians are unhappy with the American, Gulf, and European positions and military/political escalation and obstruction of the political process, as Moscow sees it.

Gulf sources say Erdogan has continued to coordinate with Saudi Arabia, including shortly before meeting with Putin, and that he took to Moscow a Gulf determination and American shift with regard to Aleppo. Erdogan understands that the battle in Aleppo has weakened Putin and denied him some bargaining chips. He addressed his friend-foe from a position of strength, on the basis that Aleppo is a major Sunni city that could not be abandoned.

Vladimir Putin understand pragmatism. He understood that the fighting in Aleppo has weakened him, and that many around him do not want to be implicated in a war with Sunnis in their stronghold, and invite broad revenge. Putin reads well the importance of the relationship he has forged with the United States and the partnership in Syria.

Playing cards cautiously

Perhaps Putin and Erdogan could find in Aleppo a way to make a breakthrough in Syria through regional and international accords favorable for them, and rescue Putin from his Syria predicament and Erdogan from his internal problems. Perhaps they will play their cards cautiously and benefit from the prospects of making deals without the temptation for revenge and blackmail.

But if Putin becomes intransigent and decides to stake his bets on a full victory in Aleppo in partnership with Iran to consolidate the regime’s hold over its ruins without making concessions, the price will be high because that path will bury the political solution and render the military solution the equivalent of quick sand for the Russians and their allies.

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 foot. To be sure, the Turkish president remains in a precarious position, no matter how much the battle in Aleppo has given him a boost and allowed him to appear like a wounded peacock in St. Petersburg. All equations in Syria are temporary, all bargains fleeting, and all deals are being cooked with the limbs of innocent Syrians.

Some Russians have come to believe that Erdogan is forced to retreat regionally to shore up his internal position, and thus believe he is more willing to make concessions on issues like Syria. But the surprise came during the battle of Aleppo, after which Erdogan arrived to meet Putin without retreating regionally and while being less willing to agree to the Russian terms.

Yet this does not invalidate the fact that Erdogan needs Putin, and the need to forge a new kind of relationship between the two countries for which the Turkish leader is willing to go farther than apologize. Erdogan needs to collect the cards he needs to finish his realignment and revenge on his previous Western friends that he now accuses of conspiring against him, and Russia remains his main outlet of necessity.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on August 12, 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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