US and Russia compete to be Ankara’s best friend
For decades, the saying, “the Turk has no friend but the Turk,” has resonated with the Turkish public, reflecting the general sentiment in the country. Its continued relevance was confirmed by a poll in December, carried out by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, that suggested a majority of Turkish citizens do not believe countries such as Russia and the US are friends of Turkey.
This negative sentiment toward both countries has proved to be right, given recent developments in Syria, and Ankara’s relations with Moscow and Washington in general.
The situation in Syria’s north-western province of Idlib, and the deaths of 13 Turkish military personnel there as a result of attacks by the Syrian regime, has occupied much of Ankara’s domestic and foreign policy agenda in the past week — and it seems likely to remain the top issue for some time if the dust does not start to settle soon.
On the one hand, military deployment on an unprecedented scale continues after Turkey pushed the button to bolster its presence in the area. On the other, diplomatic efforts to find a middle path, or at least defuse the tension, continue between the Turks, Americans and Russians. As the levels of diplomatic activity have increased in parallel with the levels of tensions in Idlib, the Americans and Russians have started to point the finger at each other in an attempt to show Ankara which of them is the better “friend.”
A message posted on Twitter by the Russian Embassy in Ankara late on Wednesday contained the message “We leave you to judge” alongside two conflicting screenshots that suggested the hypocrisy of the US stance of categorizing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as a terrorist group.
However, pro-government journalists criticized Russia, which does not categorize the PKK as a terrorist group while the US, EU and many other countries do so, on paper at least. Russia also drew heavy criticism from Turkish officials when the YPG opened an office in Moscow in 2016.
Since the launch in early 2017 of the Astana peace process for Syria, Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been very careful about criticizing their partners in the peace process, namely Russia and Iran. However, Erdogan’s statement after the attacks on Turkish troops was an exception and a clear indication of Ankara’s red lines. In a strong speech, he underlined the assistance that Moscow and Tehran have given to the regime forces in their battle to recapture Idlib. “The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran-backed militias continuously massacre civilians in Idlib,” he said.
The Turkish president’s comments raised eyebrows in Moscow, which in turn accused Ankara of breaching a 2018 deal. Ankara and Moscow had agreed in Sochi to halt acts of aggression and designate Idlib a de-escalation zone that would be monitored by 12 Turkish observation points.
However, the Syrian regime has consistently violated the cease-fire, launching frequent attacks inside the de-escalation zone that have killed at least 300 civilians since December and displaced 520,000 people. More than 1.5 million Syrians have moved toward the Turkish border in the past year as a result of the intense attacks.
As part of the diplomatic efforts, there has been a flurry of activity between Ankara, Washington and Moscow in recent months. First, the US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, visited Ankara to discuss the situation in Idlib with Turkish officials, pledging that his country will give as much support as possible to Turkey. In addition, Turkish and US defense ministers gathered in Brussels for a meeting with their NATO counterparts, during which they discussed the situations in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation during which they failed to reach an agreement on Idlib but did at least agree to a meeting of foreign affairs, defense and intelligence officials. This will take place in Moscow soon. It will be the third time Russian and Turkish officials have met; Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that a Russian delegation has visited Ankara twice for meetings about Idlib.
While the atmosphere remains pessimistic in the Turkish capital regarding these meetings, no one wants a war between Turkey and Syria. As the situation in Idlib escalates and enters a particularly dangerous phase — with Turkey on the one side and Assad-Russia-Iran on the other — tensions could be defused and further escalation prevented through a joint, solid stance boosted by diplomacy.
Turkey faces huge security, financial and refugee burdens as a result of the prolonged war in Syria.
Erdogan described the attack on the Turkish army as a start of a new era in Syria and vowed to take military action if regime forces do not withdraw from the de-escalation zone by the end of February. The events that unfold in the next two weeks will therefore be crucial.
Turkey’s unprecedented military deployment and Erdogan’s open message seem to suggest that Ankara is taking the matter very seriously. The situation on the ground shows that Turkish forces are the only obstacle impeding the advance of Syrian regime forces. Ankara is sending the message that it will not abandon Syria, because leaving the war-torn country would mean giving up a say in its future.
Russia and Iran are not immediate neighbors of Syria, nor are the US and European countries. Turkey is, and it faces huge security, financial and refugee burdens as a result of the prolonged war.
While the US and Russia continue to try to show Ankara which of them is the more reliable friend, Turkey has rolled up its sleeves, both diplomatically and militarily, for a new phase in the Syrian conflict.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz