Erdoğan-Putin summit: A difficult decision for NE Syria

If Russia rejects Turkey's road map for NE Syria today, a conflict between the Syrian regime and Turkey may be possible. It might also lead to Russia losing its grip on Turkey, which may well hurt Moscow's efforts to curb the Western alliance. Both leaders have enough reasons to protect their partnership, but politics is not always determined reasonably.

Turkey has faced difficulties due to the northern Syria operation launched on Oct. 9. After reaching a deal with the U.S., Turkey now needs the approval of Russia for its road map. Turkish President Erdoğan is meeting his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi today to discuss the situation and agreement with the US. Both parties need to pay attention to the context of Russia-Turkey relations when deciding on the future of northern Syria.

Russia and Syria have had historical relations since the 1950s. However, Moscow had initially chosen to stay away from getting directly involved; this had little popular support within Russia. After the Ukrainian crises and sanctions imposed by the West, Russia intervened in Syria following a formal request by the the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus. Russian strategists initially chose to confine their involvement in Syria to airstrikes, mostly concentrated in areas critical to the survival of the Assad regime in western and northwestern Syria. The aim of Russian involvement had military goals just as it was psychological and political as well. Russia intends to take away the hopes of the opposition and enforce direct talks with the Assad regime. Furthermore, Russia aims to persuade Washington and its regional allies to agree with a Russian negotiation process without any preconditions.

After four years of Russian intervention, it seems that Moscow has reached most of its short- and medium-term targets. In February 2017, Russia and the U.S. coordinated a ceasefire agreement between the Assad regime and its opponents. After the agreement quickly collapsed, the US began to combat ISIS with the participation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, while Russia boosted its position in Syria and undermined the position of the U.S.

Russia’s strategy for Syria also covers including other important actors in the Russian-led Syria Process. One of the most well-known instances is the Astana Process, which gathers Turkey and Iran under the leadership of Russia. During the Astana peace talks and ceasefire agreements between Damascus and the opposition, Russia took care of Turkey's concerns about the YPG and Kurdish fighters. Both sides excluded the YPG in almost every agreement concerning the Syrian Peace negotiations. 

Russia has postponed the issue of the Kurdish population for three reasons. First, the YPG has close relations with the US in fighting against ISIS, which has empowered its position. Therefore, to include the YPG into the Astana Process also means to invite the US, which would risk Russia's formula. Secondly, the YPG’s empowered position and capabilities on the ground generates the possibility to negotiate with Assad. Lastly, Russia's strategy relies on keeping Turkey in the Astana Process; incorporating YPG would put Turkey's involvement at risk. For these reasons, Russia has waited for weakness from the YPG and Turkey to improve bargaining conditions.

From energy to the economy, Turkey and Russia have strong relations. Russia is a leading energy supplier of Turkey for natural gas, oil, and coal, and, according to an agreement made in 2010, is responsible for the construction of Turkey's first nuclear power plant project, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Turkey is in a suitable position for Russian natural gas pipelines carrying gas to Europe in addition to the profitability of the Turkish energy market.

In addition to the energy market, Russia is also one of the primary addresses for Turkish exports, such as vegetables, which are significant for Turkey's trade deficit. The trade turnover of both countries was 25.6 billion dollars in 2018, while Russia's overall trade volume with the Middle East region was almost 43 billion dollars in 2018. 

Alongside economy and energy relations, Turkey's NATO membership and affairs with the EU foster its relations with Moscow. Russia believes that getting closer to Turkey will weaken the Western alliance and create problems inside NATO.  While NATO and the West are losing power, Russia is receiving an opportunity to strengthen its hand not only in the Middle East, but also in the multilateral world order. 

Turkey had sought to overthrow the Assad regime and support the anti-Assad opposition until the Astana Process was initiated. After Russia took up an active role in shaping Syria's future, Turkey revised its policy on Assad. Ankara has become one of the guarantors of Syria's territorial integrity through the Astana Declaration. Instead of an anti-Assad strategy, Ankara is concentrating on the YPG and its threatening role regarding Turkey's southern border. The YPG has strong ties with Ankara's ally Washington, since Erdoğan needs to get approval from Trump to attack the YPG. For two years, Ankara struggled to receive this approval; for the most recent operation, Trump finally approved Turkey's decision to launch a military operation.

After this approval came, Turkey launched a cross-border operation to eliminate the Kurdish forces in northern Syria and execute a buffer zone for Syrian refugees.

Russian forces have been supporting the Syrian troops by moving into northeast Syria after the US started its military withdrawal. Turkey and the US have reached an agreement concerning Turkey's on-going operation in northern Syria after the visit of the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Oct. 17.

Russia mediated the negotiations between the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria and the Syrian government in Damascus while Turkey was attacking to the YPG. The Syrian government forces took control of the northwestern town of Manbij from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and entered the neighboring city Kobane right after the agreement was reached by both sides.

If Russia rejects Turkey's road map, the possibility of conflict between the Syrian regime and Turkey will arise in addition to the deterioration of Turkey's Russia relations. On the other hand, a Russian rejection of Turkey’s plan will lead to losing Turkey to regional politics and giving up on the ambition to diminish the West's power. Both leaders have enough reasons to protect their partnership, but politics is not always determined reasonably.