Moscow and Ankara Keep Working Together on Syria Despite ‘Geopolitical Incompatibility’

The recent meeting between the leaders of Russia and Turkey in Moscow demonstrated that both sides are determined not to do anything that could jeopardize their bilateral relations, which they both see as very beneficial, said Galip Dalay, a visitor academic at the University of Oxford Department of Politics and International Relations, non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution Doha Centre and research director at Al Sharq Forum, in an interview with on Friday.

The Putin-Erdogan meeting, held in Moscow on January 23, was focused on Syria, where a new reality on the ground is emerging following the announced withdrawal of US troops. According to Dalay, the discussion of the “safe zones” along the Syria-Turkey border is going to become a new factor of the intra-Syrian settlement. With all actors in Syria having different goals and visions, this discussion is likely to become a process, not a deal, he believes.

“There is going to be a new process between Turkey and the US, which is likely to include some other actors, like France,” Dalay said. “But if it turns into a process rather than a deal, the question for Turkey will be how to manage both sides at the same time: the Astana partners on the one hand and most of its western partners on the other hand, who will be discussing the eastern part of Syria.”

Where Does the US Pullout from Syria Leave Turkey and the Kurds?
Guney Yildiz
Russian and Iranian willingness to go along with Turkey's plans in Syria largely stems from the U.S. presence there. It is doubtful that Moscow and Tehran would tolerate Turkey getting control of oil-rich north-eastern Syria as well as strategic dams and fertile agricultural fields. What Ankara would have preferred was a continuing US presence in Syria and an agreement with Washington that would have green-lighted a limited Turkish cross-border military operation into Northern Syrian towns.

There will be some overlap and friction between these two processes, but Turkey will most probably want to send a message to its Astana partners that its engagement with the US is not coming at their expense, the expert believes.

Importantly, Russia and Turkey have completely different visions and different objectives regarding the northeastern part of Syria, controlled by the US-backed Kurdish formations, he said. “Russia is advocating that these areas should come under control of the Assad regime and is promoting a deal between the Assad regime and Syrian Kurds. On the other hand, Ankara is demanding some form of Turkish control along the border with Syria, although the extent and form of this control is still being debated. But it is clear for Turkey that this control should be in line with its security goals vis-à-vis PYD, SDF or Syrian Kurds in general. So there is a mismatch on many levels.”

But both Russia and Turkey seem to have the motivation to set aside their differences on northeastern Syria and avoid turning it into an issue that can damage their bilateral relations and also the regional situation.

When it comes to Idlib, there is a broad agreement between Turkey and Russia that it needs to be secured from any form of radical organizations, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is now gaining ground vis-à-vis other “moderate opposition” forces including those supported by Turkey. “I do not think that Russia wants to use this as an excuse for a full-fledged military campaign which would put Turkey in a very difficult position. Although there is much disagreement, one point of convergence is that this area must be cleared of HTS,” Dalay said.
Future of Idlib Depends on Turkey and Russia
Sinan Oğan
The security zone in Idlib has two guarantor states: Turkey and Russia. Assad is not fully out of the game because his biggest supporter and most important ally, Russia, is both on the ground in Idlib and sits at the table in Sochi to find an appropriate solution for Idlib. Assad would probably focus on the other problematic regions in Syria.

The Turkish-Russian relations are to a large extent informed by geopolitical incompatibility, the expert pointed out. “If you look at many areas – not only in the Middle East, but also in the Balkans, Caucasus or East Mediterranean – almost everywhere the strategic priorities of Russia and Turkey are not in alignment,” he said.

But even though these relations are competitive rather than cooperative, this may be the reason that made Russian-Turkish cooperation quite necessary. “The fact that Turkey was the main backer of the opposition and Russia was the main international patron of the Syrian regime is what is giving meaning to this process,” Dalay said. “The Astana process would not have started without Russia, but it would not have gained international legitimacy without Turkey, which brought in the Syrian opposition. In this regard, the strategic incompatibility between Turkey and Russia is both an issue and something that motivates them to engage each other more. When you have competing visions, interests and alliance structure, it makes your engagement on various issues much more meaningful than it would have been otherwise,” he concluded.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.