Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, Turkey has been pursuing diplomatic arrangements in the country with both Russia and the United States. While this has involved a difficult balancing act between two powers with conflicting agendas, Ankara has managed to sustain it, even if threat perceptions within the government suggest that Turkey might favor Moscow if it has to choose between the two.
The reason for this is that American actions in Syria are viewed by Turkish officials as endangering Turkey’s internal security. Washington supports the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. For Turkey the YPG is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that Ankara, the United States, and the European Union all consider a terrorist organization. Russian actions, in contrast, have not until now represented a domestic security threat, even if Turkey and Russia may differ over Syria’s future and support rival parties there. Both sides also happen to have a track record of achievement in working together in Syria.
For Turkey, engagement with Russia is helping it reach its political goals, while Turkish dealings with the United States have been characterized by frustration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently implied that Turkey believed that agreements with the United States over establishing a safe zone in Syria’s northeastern border region to prevent Kurdish infiltration have suffered from a lack of implementation. On September 15, Erdoğan stated at a summit in Ankara with Russia and Iran that Turkey would act unilaterally if such a zone wasn’t established. The U.S. and Turkey had earlier agreed to set up a joint operations center for the zone, but the perception was that Turkish pressure had made this possible.
Turkey’s dealings with Russia have defined both the northern battlefield in Syria and deconfliction negotiations through the Astana process, in which Turkey has been an indispensable partner. Ankara has been essential in securing the participation of the Syrian opposition groups it backs. The Astana channel has also facilitated a number of Russian-Turkish agreements to address the fighting in Idlib Governorate. This is seen as vital for Turkish interests, given that some 2 million Syrians, most of them internally displaced, reside in the governorate, and that as the Syrian military moves northward they could be driven toward Turkey’s border.
The Astana process also entails the formation of a committee to draw up a new constitution for Syria, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Ankara sees its role in Astana as giving it leverage to exclude all YPG-affiliated figures from negotiations over Syria’s future, denying the YPG any autonomous legal status in northeast Syria. That is why Turkey regards Syria’s territorial integrity as a priority. Moscow agrees with this, and has reinterpreted the notion of territorial integrity to fit Turkish policy. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly declared that Moscow views Turkey’s expansion of the safe zone in northeastern Syria as a step that would effectively protect Syrian territorial integrity.
However, Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria is not without its problems. Both sides differ over the future of President Bashar al-Assad and a political transition. While Russia considers the Assad regime as the legitimate government of Syria, Turkey argues that peace won’t prevail there without Assad’s departure. In addition, the situation in Idlib and Tell Rif‘at is a source of potential escalation. The Sochi memorandum of September 2018 foresaw the establishment of a demilitarized zone along the front line in Idlib, from which radical groups such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham were to withdraw. However, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham remains in place and Russia believes that Turkey has not done enough to push it out.
In return, the Turks remonstrate that the Russians failed to crack down on YPG forces in Tell Rif‘at who have attacked Turkish-protected areas in ‘Afrin and northern Aleppo Governorate. Russia also prevented a possible Turkish-backed operation in Manbij in October 2017, after deploying troops in ‘Arimah to block an advance against the YPG. This it did to maintain a balance in the area. Russia gains from playing the YPG off against the Turks.
Turkey has behaved no differently. It has used its relationship with the United States to achieve some of its objectives in Syria. For instance, U.S., German, and French diplomatic support helped Turkey convince Russia to declare a ceasefire in Idlib that would lead to implementation of the Sochi memorandum, when this had been rejected by Russia and Iran during a summit in Tehran on September 7, 2018. Also, Turkey has seen its position boosted by the refusal of the U.S. and the European Union to fund reconstruction in Syria without a genuine political transition, and by their diplomatic support for Turkey at the United Nations.
For these reasons and others, Turkey needs the United States and the EU to balance Russia in Syria, just as it needs Russia to push back against the Americans. But will the balancing act last? If Turkey is compelled to choose sides, Russia may represent a more pragmatic choice, but only for as long as Moscow does not pose a national security threat to Turkey by supporting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib that pushes millions of displaced Syrians toward Turkey.
Moreover, for the Turkish-Russia relationship to last, Ankara might have to give up on a political transition in Syria, in return for a settlement that excludes the YPG, ends the de facto autonomy of areas under its control, and facilitates the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey. For now, however, Ankara will continue to try walking a tightrope for as long as it can.