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US-Russia split on Syria: Turkey sits on the fence

The situation in Syria has surprised even the most prominent Middle East experts, not to mention politicians. It has become a lasting war which has gone on for far longer than anyone predicted and it does not look like it is going to end anytime soon.

With each passing day, the constant violence in Syria not only increases the number of people who are losing their lives and are forced to leave their country, but also increases the number of state and non-state actors involved in the conflict.

As the number of actors in Syria multiplied, alliances were re-established and the cards were re-dealt among the various players. Then, last week, the US struck a Syrian air base in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack, triggering a mixed reaction from regional and global actors who all have diverse stakes in the Syrian crisis. Needless to say, this development altered the balance of power on the ground and may also impact bilateral relations between the various actors engaged in the Syrian conflict.

In international politics, a country’s attitude toward a regional issue determines its position in the region and its ties with other regional powers. Turkey was among several countries to declare support for the US missile strike on Syria, describing the move as a “positive and concrete step against the war crimes of the Assad regime.” However, this support is likely to create new challenges for Turkey in its relations with Moscow and Tehran, with which Ankara treads a fine diplomatic line on Syria.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Washington has hesitated to take concrete steps on the issue of Syria, despite calls by Turkey and other allies. The American reluctance disappointed its allies and led to further Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis which ultimately allowed Assad a stronger hand in the conflict. However, with the first direct US assault on Syria’s regime coming after six years of war, Washington is now back in the game. 

What US action means for Turkey

This new development poses both positives and negatives for Turkey. It is an advantage as Turkey’s long-standing calls for action against the Assad regime came to fruition. However, it is also a disadvantage as this situation may cause a tense period in relations between Turkey and Russia.

After a fragile bout of rapprochement, both Ankara and Moscow are striving to keep bilateral ties on track. However, challenges emanating from Syria pose pitfalls to Turkish-Russian rapprochement. Although both countries do not see eye-to-eye on several political issues — including the Assad regime, Syrian Kurds, Crimea and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia — both Ankara and Moscow try to agree to disagree on their policies. Due to economic and energy relations, the two countries essentially seem to believe that politics and business should not mix.

Given the uncertainty over the future of US policy toward Syria, Ankara is likely to follow a middle path between the Trump and Putin administrations in a bid to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

Sinem Cengiz

Still, this does not change the reality that Turkey and Russia are on a slippery slope, particularly after Turkey lauded the US bombing of the Syrian air base. While Moscow strongly condemned the bombing and called it a violation of international law, Turkey expressed hope that more intervention would follow.

Can Turkey walk a midway line between the US and Russia?

Given the uncertainty over the future of US policy toward Syria, Ankara is likely to follow a middle path between the Trump and Putin administrations in a bid to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

As one of the nations involved in the crucial Astana talks with Russia and Iran over Syria’s future, Turkey is keeping dialogue channels open with all the actors involved in Syria in order to achieve its own goals. Turkey’s priority in Syria is not only to overthrow the Assad regime but also to get rid of Daesh and to curb the expansion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Also, as a country with a military presence on Syrian soil, Turkey needs to walk a thin line between the US, a NATO ally, and Russia, Assad’s main backer, in order to avoid confrontation with all parties.

Turkey keeps adjusting its Syria policy due to changes on the ground and faces a difficult challenge because of its 910-km border with Syria and the fact that it hosts the greatest number of Syrian refugees — all this while attempting to work with opposing international powers.

Given that the American-Russian divergence over Syria became even more apparent after the cold meeting between Russian officials and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, Ankara must now wait and see how determined the US will be in Syria and how far Russia can go in supporting Assad.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.