Erdogan and Putin could reach an Idlib deal, but their nations will remain forever 'frenemies'

Erdogan and Putin could reach an Idlib deal, but their nations will remain forever 'frenemies'
Comment: The Syrian conflict showcases the cyclical nature of Moscow and Ankara's volatile and complex relationship, writes Zeidon AlKinani.
5 min read
03 Mar, 2020
Putin and Erdogan at a Russian-Turkish business meeting at the Kremlin, April 2019 [Getty]
As empires then nation states, Russia and Turkey have been alternately forming alliances and engaging in conflicts for centuries, lasting throughout the Cold War.

Fast forward to the present day, their unpredictable relationship has been heavily influenced by the Syrian conflict that began in 2011, particularly due to Russia's dogged insistence on protecting its most loyal Arab ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

His regime was a target of the Turkish government, whose opposition to Assad in the early stages of the Arab Spring led Ankara to support the Syrian opposition through military support and political sponsorship and patronage. Today, Turkey finds itself waging a deadly battle -
Operation Spring Shield - against both the Assad regime and its Russian backer in Syria. 

In truth, the Syrian conflict offers a new opportunity to understand the cyclical relationship between the two regional powerhouses.

The modern history of the relationship was mainly defined by the fact that Turkey joined the western front against Russia when it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, and started to seek aid from the United States. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, saw a significant warming of ties, particularly within the energy sector.

In Syria, the governments of Russia and Turkey found themselves pitted against each other since the civil war broke out in late 2011. The relationship between Ankara and Moscow witnessed a particularly low point, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near its borders with Syria in November 2015.
After centuries of shifting relations between the two countries, the Syrian conflict offers an interesting sphere for understanding their cyclical relationship

However, the incident did not prevent Russia and Turkey from reinforcing their co-operation by establishing direct co-ordination on Turkey's operation in northeast Syria. Russia had to accept that Turkey would remain militarily active in northeast Syria in its efforts to push back the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) because of their links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), that Ankara categorizes a "terrorist organisation".

As a result, Russia always ensured that Turkey's presence in Syria would only be "temporary", and that Syria's long-term security would be monitored by Moscow and its allies: Iran and militias from Lebanon and Iraq.

Read more: As the stakes rise ever higher in Syria, refugees pay the price

So the recent status of the relationship has been something between confrontation and rapprochement. Despite their opposing aims in Syria, the high level Russian-Turkish meeting on 8 April, 2019 in Moscow, saw both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan present their strong bilateral ties to the world.

They announced bilateral trade reaching almost $26 billion, $3 billion in agriculture and $20 billion in mutual investment just in 2018. Their partnership also extended to the nuclear and gas sectors.

A solution to the Syrian conflict was put forward at the Astana talks of 2017, which brokered a trilateral agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey to create a "de-escalation" zone in northern Idlib. There is little doubt that Assad's regime benefited more than any other player from the talks, which also gave a Russian guarantee to Turkey that they would limit Kurdish expansion from northeastern Syria towards Turkey's border.

Russia even furthered its alliance with Turkey by selling it more weapons, pulling it away from NATO. Nevertheless, even that settlement
has been undermined by recent events.

The intensified Syrian government assault on Idlib that began two months ago pressured Ankara to denounce its agreement with Moscow. Russian airstrikes backed the Syrian regime and resulted in the killing of over 30 Turkish soldiers within two weeks.

Could it be that Russia's humiliation of Turkey's army and its Syrian rebel allies is a very late revenge for the jet shot down back in 2015? It certainly fits the pattern of a Moscow-Ankara relationship that cycles constantly between partnership and dispute.

Russia and Turkey are vital players in the geopolitics of the Middle East and beyond, just like their American and Iranian counterparts, and their interests are likely to clash in arenas that impact the status quo of their relations elsewhere.

In this context, Libyan military general, Khalifa Haftar - Putin's ally - is currently waging a war for control of territory, against Erdogan's ally, Fayez al-Sarraj, the chairman of Libya's Presidential Council. Erdogan views Putin's support to Haftar as a direct proxy confrontation, though the war of words is not yet on the level of the Syrian scenario. The Turkish leader threatened to conduct an 'imminent' Turkish operation in Syria in response to what it called a 'failed agreement' over northwest Syria.

Their approach is based entirely on self-interest and temporary solutions

Russian-Turkish relations today can greatly differ from tomorrow, and it remains a volatile and complex alliance. Their approach is based entirely on self-interest and temporary solutions, with no sincere desire from either side to establish a long-term sustainable relationship. 

This is clear in Syria, where both parties could have played a major role in solving the conflict, but have always allowed their own geopolitical interests to drive the situation forward. It is worth highlighting that just as Russia would not sacrifice selling its natural gas to Turkey for Assad's regime, Turkey would not sacrifice its ability to sell its goods to Russia for the fate of the Syrian opposition.

As Erdogan and Putin are set to meet to possibly reach a deal on Idlib on Thursday, it is worth remembering that these two countries, for reasons of geography and history, may be perpetually trapped in a marriage of inconvenience.


Zeidon Alkinani is an independent Iraqi-Swedish political analyst specialising in identity politics and geopolitics in Iraq and the Middle East. He holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London.

Follow him on Twitter: @z_alkinani

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.