Erdogan moves closer to Russia, at least for now

For Ankara, cooperation with Russia is essential to make sure the situation in Idlib does not trigger another mass movement of people into Turkey.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Tactical cooperation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Alexander Lavrentiev, special envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria,  during a meeting in Ankara, last May. (Turkish Presidential Press Service)
Tactical cooperation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Alexander Lavrentiev, special envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, during a meeting in Ankara, last May. (Turkish Presidential Press Service)

ISTANBUL - As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sets out to translate newly gained executive powers into policy decisions, his view of his country’s national interests and his instinct for power are likely to strengthen cooperation with Russia in the Syrian conflict.

In Turkey’s new presidential system, Erdogan is the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the leader of the government who can hire and fire ministers without parliamentary approval.

Erdogan’s new cabinet, which took office July 10, includes diehard loyalists such as his son-in-law Berat Albayrak as finance minister; Erdogan’s family doctor, Fahrettin Koca, as minister of health; and former military chief Hulusi Akar, a confidant of the president, as defence minister. Mevlut Cavusoglu remains foreign minister, a post he has had since 2015.

“This is quintessential Erdogan,” said Selim Sazak, a US-based Turkey analyst, referring to the Turkish leader’s decision to staff his council of ministers with people he feels close to. “He is like [US President] Donald Trump: The only thing he values is loyalty.”

In his inauguration address after being sworn in for a 5-year term on July 9, Erdogan said the presidential system marked a “new start” for the country. “We will strengthen Turkey on every field, from the defence industry to border security,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan has aligned Turkey closely with Russia in Syria, where Ankara has a deep conflict of interest with the United States over Washington’s support for a Kurdish militia seen as a terrorist group by Turkey.

Tensions with the United States are also growing over Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, angering other NATO countries. Cavusoglu said the first batteries would be delivered to Turkey by the end of next year.

The level of mistrust between Turkey and the United States became apparent during the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11, when pro-government television presenters in Turkey criticised US weapons deliveries to the Syrian Kurds as Erdogan was sitting down for talks with Trump and other leaders of the Western alliance.

While problems in its relationship with the United States are likely to remain acute, Turkey’s ties with Russia are set to become even closer. At a time when Ankara is looking for ways to send more than 3 million refugees in Turkey home to Syria, its immediate concern is a possible new refugee wave from the northern Syria province of Idlib.

Erdogan’s government says 450,000 people have crossed the southern border to return to Syria but the possibility of a new influx has policymakers in Ankara worried.

“Three million people could come over,” a Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about Idlib, where refugees and rebel fighters defeated by Syrian government troops in other parts of the country have been sheltering in a so-called de-escalation zone.

The Syrian opposition Smart news agency reported a new offensive on rebel positions in Idlib could start in September.

For Ankara, cooperation with Russia, the most important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is essential to make sure the situation in Idlib does not trigger another mass movement of people into Turkey. “We are talking to the Russians,” the Turkish official said. “Idlib is the most important thing for Turkey at the moment,” said Magdalena Kirchner, a senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, a German think-tank.

Differences between Turkey and Russia over Syria have remained in the background. Turkey is calling for Assad’s resignation while Russia’s military intervention in 2015 saved the Assad regime from defeat. Kirchner said Erdogan has no reason to push for Assad’s ouster at the moment. “A collapse of the regime is not in Turkey’s interest,” she said.

The Syrian war has also pushed Turkey closer to its eastern neighbour Iran, the regional nemesis of the United States and its allies in the Gulf. “The Saudis and the Emiratis are gravitating more to the United States because of what they see as the threat posed by Iran, while Turkey is gravitating away from the West,” Sazak said.

Turkey’s course is not set in stone, however. Erdogan has shown he is capable of abrupt policy changes if he believed a new direction suits him better. In Syria, he took an anti-Russian stance after a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian jet in 2015, only to repair ties with Russia a year later. In Turkey itself, Erdogan began peace talks with Turkey’s Kurds to end a long-running conflict but switched to a Turkish-nationalist line when he saw his support on the right dwindle.

“Erdogan is all about power,” Sazak said. The Turkish leader could change his country’s policy if he concluded that Ankara’s interests were served better with other partners than with Russia, he added. For now, however, Turkey could be expected to stick with its close ties with Moscow. “It is unlikely that he will derive more power by being close to the United States and Europe than by being close to Russia,” Sazak said.

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