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Turkey replaces the US as Russia’s key Middle Eastern partner from the “other side”

During his meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, President Putin made it clear that in spite of some lingering differences, Russia and Turkey have a relationship based on respect, pragmatism and the kind of flexibility that the US President is not allowed to exercise.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just given a statement along with President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation, on the progress of a bilateral meeting which lasted over four hours.

The primary goal of the meeting from Erdogan’s perspective was to finalise the deal for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems. The deal has been delayed because Turkey seeks the schematics of the S-400 in order to one day produce the system domestically while Russia has thus far been unwilling to provide this.

During their statements to the press, neither Erdogan or Putin mentioned the S-400 sale, however, it later emerged that the Turkish Minister stated that the deal had been completed to the satisfaction of both sides.

Putin opened his post-meeting statement by remarking on the progress towards a full normalisation of relations after an extremely strained period beginning in December of 2015, when Turkey downed a Russia jet on the Syria-Turkey border.

Because of Turkey’s increased economic reliance on Russia and Russia’s willingness to cooperate deeply on regional security issues, it is easy to forget that while relations between the two countries is very good, they have still not technically fully normalised. Both leaders expressed their desire to rectify this as soon as possible, with Putin indicating that for all intents and purposes, relations are in fact, fully restored with only a handful of issues remaining to be ironed out.

President Putin further remarked that Russia is keen to begin working on the building of a nuclear power plant in Turkey which should be partly operational by 2023. He also stated that he is happy with the progress of the so-called Turkstream gas pipeline.

Turning to the situation in Syria, Putin stated that Russia and Turkey must continue to enhance efforts in order to ensure the long term normalisation of Syria. He further stated that the two countries should assist Syrians in a political settlement to the current crisis as well as in areas of reconstruction. Putin then defined the main immediate goals in respect of Syria in the following way,

“We must insure we finish off ISIS, insure sovereignty, independence and the territorial integrity of Syrian state”.

Putin then stated that his recent visit to Iran where he discussed the Syrian situation with Iran’s President and Supreme Leader was productive and that collectively, the Astana Peace Talks have been successful in decreasing violence and creating the conditions of dialogue thanks to cooperation with both Turkey and Iran.

During the most recent Astana meeting, Turkey openly objective to the participation of Kurdish groups in the so-called “pan-Syrian dialogue” which Russia has called for.

These objections are one of the unique areas where Iran, Turkey and Syria have a clear point of view while Russia’s view is far more nuanced. Iran, Turkey and Syria are now on the same page in so far as they consider armed Kurdish led, US proxy militias in Syria to be a terrorist threat and a long-term security issue.

Russia by contrast, has previously welcomed the participation of “moderate” Kurdish factions in a political process to end the Syrian conflict and had previously been somewhat sympathetic to Kurdish demands for federal autonomy in post-conflict Syria.

The rationale for this much over-hyped and gradually closing schism is obvious enough. Syria, Iran and Turkey all have militant Kurdish terrorist groups operating on their own soil and the clear fear is that if one group gets an upper-hand over their respective central government, this could set a dangerous precedent in the region. This is why Turkey and Iran cooperated with Iraq on subduing ethno-nationalist Kurds in northern Iraq in the autumn of 2017.

Russia has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, but at the same time, due to historic links with Kurdish groups, Russia was willing to facilitate the meeting of some Kurdish demands, if possible. This is because, Russia would prefer Kurdish groups to see Russia as a guarantor of peace, rather than the United Stats which Iraqi Kurds have openly said let them down. It is also because in the past, Russia had explored the possibility of a Kurdish buffer-zone between traditional Arab allies and Turkey in order to add one more layer of protection against a once hostile NATO member in the region.

Today, both of these Russian rationales have largely been changed due to new realities on the ground. Russia’s long-time ally Syria has recently stated that it views armed Kurdish groups occupying Syrian territory as no different than Takfiri groups doing the same, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. In naming Kurdish militants as terrorists, Syria has affirmed that it is not planning on taking a soft-line against Kurdish ethno-nationalists after the conflict against Takfiri groups is inevitably won. With Iraq, Iran and Turkey all taking the same line, Russia is not about to fight for a non-state group against four states whose friendship with Russia is key to Moscow’s ability to have good relations in the region and balance out would-be power struggles in the Middle East.

Secondly, with Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its relationship with Iran improving at a fast pace and with Ankara’s relations with Washington downgrading at an equally frantic pace, the idea of a ‘buffer zone’ is becoming largely outdated. Any would-be Kurdish statelete would be US/Israeli puppet state that would only strain the regional balance of power that Russia is so keen to stabilise.

Turkey and Iran will both be happy by Russia abandoning its moderate version of Project Kurd. In return, Russia will no be well placed to insure that after remaining issues are settled, Turkey does not end up permanently occupying Syria’s Idlib, thus alleviating a grave concern of Damascus.

A longer term issue will be balancing out Iran’s legal partnership with Syria against Israel’s illegal but seemingly unstoppable threat to continue to occupy and strike Syrian targets under the pretext of Iran’s presence (however limited) in Syria.

In this sense, Russia’s deal-making with Turkey, could prove to be a useful precedent in working out a solution that keeps Syria safe once the conflict formally ends, while also insuring that Russia maintains good will with Iran, while acting to quietly restrain Israeli aggression. The progress Russia has made in terms of turning Turkey from an outspoken enemy of Syria into a country that cooperates with both Russia and Iran (as Syrian allies) is a significant achievement. Convincing Israel to cease its hostility against Syria while allowing Syria and Iran to pursue their alliance will be the next great task of Russia, as Russia is the only power capable of speaking on friendly terms with all parties in the Middle East, including the occupier entity.

It is clear that while Turkey and Russia still have a fair share of disagreements on regional security, that Turkey and Russia are now the key leaders on ‘both sides’ of the international community who will help to bring the conflict to the close in Syria.

Previously, it was thought that Russia and the United States would fulfil that role, but increasingly the US is becoming diplomatically irreverent in Syria. The illegal presence of US troops remains a concern to Syria and clearly this issue will need to be dealt with, quite possibly though Russian diplomatic channels, but when it comes to actually facilitating a settlement to the conflict which preserves Syria’s independence and territorial unity, Russia will be working primarily with Turkey, rather than the United States.

Russia of course will also be working with Iran, but as Russia and Iran are both allies of Syria, it is important that any final agreement that is signed between both Russia and Iran, also includes a geo-strategic ‘counter-weight’. As a Sunni Muslim state which for years worked against Syria’s interests, Turkey coming to the peace table is now symbolic of the defeat of Takfiri terrorism in Syria, as Ankara is now working with Russia and Iran to end a conflict that Turkey once contributed to. The US could have been in a similar position, but the failure of US diplomats to engage in meaningful discussions with Russia has left the door open for Turkey which seems all too willing to fill the void left by the United States. In order to show the Takfiris that there game is up, one of their former allies sitting at the peace table is key. That country, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Turkey.

President Putin’s feelings on his frequent and friendly meetings with Erdogan were described in the following way,

“These meetings are free from bureaucracy, from all sorts of quasi-diplomatic procedures and protocol

I believe the meetings are very productive and are grateful for that and we intend to continue in this way”.

President Erdogan responded by thanking President Putin and remarked that this is his third visit to Russia this year and his sixth meeting with Putin over all this year.

Calling Putin a “dear friend”, he agreed that it is crucial to strengthen bilateral relations and intense contacts through frequent meetings and telephone calls.

He said that he believes next year will be a “turning point in relations” as Russia hosts a year of Turkish culture and Turkey hosts a year of Russian culture.

It is clear that in spite of differences, Russia and Turkey are having a deeply productive relationship which minus the close economic ties of Russia and Turkey, could have been the kind of attitude in a would-be pragmatic and more cooperative relationship between the US and Russia.

Ultimately, the US has refused to allow Donald Trump to get close to President Putin, even in a physical sense and thus, President Erdogan who unlike Trump, is fully in charge of his country,  has filled that void. While Russia’s most important Middle Eastern allies country to be Syria and Iran, in terms of a close partner that has come in from the cold, this country is Turkey. The US, which once more or less ruled half of the middle east from another hemisphere, is nowhere to be found. The US still has the ability to invade, occupy and ultimately fail in its Middle East missions, but diplomatically, outside of a few Arab states on the Persian Gulf and Israel, its diplomatic capital is largely expired.

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