• Login

Blackmailing Washington

Implications of the initial agreements between Putin and Erdogan on Syria

10 October 2021

On September 29, 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi, for the first time since March 2020, in a meeting that lasted nearly three hours. At the end of the meeting, Erdogan and Putin did not hold a joint press conference, contrary to the protocols followed by the Kremlin on similar visits, nor there was a final statement issued indicating that new agreements had been reached, which reflects the Kremlin's awareness of the limitations of the understandings that were made between the two sides. 

Implications of the timing

The significance of this meeting comes in view of the regional and international settings that preceded it, which are as follows:

1-    Controlling disputes in conflict areas: 

Intense confrontations have escalated between Moscow and Ankara in Syria, particularly amidst the attacks launched by Russia and the Syrian regime forces on fighters affiliated with Turkey in Idlib. The Kremlin is pressing to expel extremist elements from this area, as well as expelling all foreign forces from Syria, which implicitly refers to the Turkish forces. This is what President Putin expressed by stressing the need to expel Turkish and US forces from Syria. 

Libya has also witnessed recent growing initiatives in preparation for the upcoming elections due to take place end of December. Despite the prevailing doubts regarding the possibility of this event taking place, Turkey and Russia are seeking to coordinate their movements to preserve their gains there. Things are also not much different with regard to the issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, where signs of a resurgence of tension are hovering.

2-    Tensions in Turkish-US relations: 

The tension in Turkish-US relations has escalated recently, which was evident in the recent US threat to impose new sanctions on Turkey, if the latter purchases a new batch of the Russian S-400 system, which exacerbated the tension and division between Washington and Ankara. Thus, it seems that Erdogan was seeking to exploit the meeting with Putin to pose pressure on the US administration before the upcoming meeting between Erdogan and Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome this October.

Tangled issues

It is noted that the two sides tackled several controversial issues, most notably the Syrian file, which can be illustrated as follows:

1-    Trading terrorism for terrorism in Syria: 

The Russian and Syrian armies intensified their air strikes around Idlib over the past week in an attempt to pre-empt the talks between Putin and Erdogan, in addition to the Kremlin sending a message to Ankara, as was clear in the announcement by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that it should return to its commitment to keeping terrorists away. On the other side, Turkey declared its commitment to de-escalate the situation in Idlib, the separation of terrorist groups from the opposition and ensuring the security of both sides of the M4 road.

Russia succeeded in obtaining initial assurances from Turkey regarding this. Following the meeting between the Turkish and Russian presidents, Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the Russian President explained how the two presidents stressed the need to implement their agreements regarding the evacuation of Idlib from the remaining terrorist elements.

On the other hand, Erdogan revealed that he called on Russia to implement the agreements reached regarding ending the presence of the PKK terrorist organization in Syria. The Kurdish People's Protection (YPG) Units, backed by the US, controls the far Northeast of Syria. Turkey classifies it as a terrorist organization, given its association with the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization as well. 

This reflects the materialization of a preliminary Russian-Turkish understanding that Turkey is ready to expel the terrorists from Idlib, in exchange for Russia and the Syrian government controlling the YPG Units. However, given that the areas under Kurdish control in Syria are also occupied by US forces, Moscow will not be able to implement its portion of the deal, pending reaching understandings between Washington and Moscow regarding Washington’s military deployment there. This will also be followed by another agreement between the Kurds and the Syrian government on the deployment of the Syrian army in areas under the control of the Kurds, as well as Damascus offering Ankara guarantees that PKK elements would not spread in these areas. 

Notably, such an understanding between the Kurds and the Syrian government is likely to be reached, and would be supported by Washington itself. Brett McGurk, Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, urges the Kurds to turn more politically closer, using oil as a bargaining chip, to al-Assad regime and Russia. Such a statement caused the Republicans to accuse him of seeking to hand over Syria completely to Russia. 

2-    Settling accounts with Washington: 

Erdogan sought to settle account with the US because of the latter’s recent reassurance for the Syrian Kurds that Washington had no intention of ending cooperation with them. Therefore, Erdogan asserted that “the US must sooner or later leave this place to the Syrian people”. Erdoğan also described Brett McGurk as a “terrorist director,” given that Ankara clearly views him as supporting the YPG fighters.

3-    No new military deal announced: 

On September 24, 2021, the Turkish President indicated that Turkey still intends to buy a second batch of S-400 missiles, in open defiance of Washington, stressing that no country may control Ankara's actions.

However, the meeting did not result in Ankara declaring any new deal with Russia, which reflects Erdogan’s desire not to anger Washington, as the latter threatened to impose sanctions, should he take this step. He particularly looks forward to meeting Biden, on the sidelines of the G20 summit this month, which indicates that he is still counting on reaching an understanding with him over the controversial issues. 

4-    Enhancing economic cooperation: 

Over the first nine months of 2021, Russia exported about half of Turkey's gas imports. Furthermore, it was announced that work on the nuclear plant being built by the Russian nuclear group Rosatom in Akkuyu, Southern Turkey, would be launched during 2023.

Trade between the two countries increased in the first nine months of 2021 by over 50%, compared to the same period last year. This means not only a compensation for the losses in the volume of trade exchange between them during the epidemic year, but also an increase in the volume of trade exchange by over 30%.

Furthermore, during the coming period, Turkey desires to increase the number of Russian travelers to it. Russia ranked the highest in the number of tourists visiting Turkey in 2019, as about 7 million Russian tourists visited Turkey, before the epidemic caused a significant halt to foreign travel and a major damage to the Turkish tourism sector.

5-    Continued coordination around the Nagorno-Karabakh region: 

Putin described the talks with his Turkish counterpart as "very positive and useful". He also praised the work of the Russian-Turkish center for monitoring the ceasefire on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Putin sees this cooperation with Turkey as a guarantee of stability and coordination by the two sides over new steps aimed at achieving reconciliation. 

6-    Controlling Turkish-Ukrainian Relations: 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Moscow is highly interested in the cooperation between Kiev and Ankara in the military field, because it does not want "Turkish weapons to be used to target the region of Donbas in Southeastern Ukraine", which is inhabited by a majority of Russian speakers. This reflects the Kremlin's desire to curb Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation which is perceived as a threat to its interests there.

In conclusion, the understandings between Turkey and Russia were largely confined to the Syrian file and were of a temporary nature. Erdogan did not cross red lines with the US by concluding a new deal of the S-400 air defense systems, which reflects that he is still betting on improving relations with Washington without making major concessions. He also sought to reach preliminary understandings with Moscow on Syria, pending his expected meeting with Biden at the G-20 summit, during which he will seek to reach a better deal with Biden, which guarantees Turkish interests, and spares Ankara the need to withdraw terrorists from Idlib, causing it to lose its influence there.