Russia | Russian-Turkish rapprochement faces the moment of truth

Russian-Turkish rapprochement faces the moment of truth

M.K. Bhadrakumar December 20, 2016 11:47 PM (UTC+8)
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Both Turkey and Russia have viewed the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov on Monday in Ankara as an attempt to undermine their ongoing efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict by undermining the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Both have said that Turkish-Russian rapprochement is in no danger and have reiterated their resolve to press ahead on the peace track in Syria.

Interestingly, US President-elect Donald Trump has been ahead of the Barack Obama administration in condemning the murder in Istanbul, attributing it to a “radical Islamic terrorist,” which violated “all rules of civilized order.” Trump pointedly conveyed his condolences to the bereaved family of Ambassador Karlov.

A “trilateral” meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran is due to be held in Moscow on December 27 to discuss a Syrian peace process. The Moscow elites estimate that radical Islamist groups perpetrated the murder, in particular to derail the upcoming trilateral meeting.

All the same, the Turkish government has been put on the back foot, since the attacker has been identified as a former police officer in the special task force.

Turkey faces multiple threats to its internal security. The main threat comes from various extremist groups fighting in Syria and Kurdish separatists. But the incident in Ankara underscores that the Turkish security agencies, police and military too have been infiltrated by Islamist elements through the recent decade of the AKP (Justice& Development Party) rule under Recep Erdogan.

Interestingly, the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen whom Erdogan had accused of having masterminded the failed coup attempt in July, has condemned the attack in Istanbul. Without doubt, the buck stops on Erdogan’s desk. It is his misguided policies in fueling the Syria conflict by extending covert support of all kinds to various extremist groups (including al-Qaeda affiliates) that has brought the internal security situation in Turkey to such a level of criticality.

However, there is still lingering doubts about Erdogan government’s real intentions in Syria. There are wheels within wheels even as the FM-level meeting is being scheduled in Moscow next week.

For one thing, Turkey took a stinging defeat in Aleppo. The al-Qaeda affiliate Ahrar al-Sham, which led the fighting in Aleppo against Syrian government forces (backed by Russia and Iran), has close relationship with Turkey. As of now, this support looks set to continue. Turkey, in fact, is arranging the evacuation of the group’s fighters from Aleppo as part of a deal with Russia.

Even today, in the north Aleppo countryside, the rebels are operating with the direct support of the Turkish army. The covert Turkish support for the rebels in these areas complicates the Syrian government’s agenda to regain control of the areas in northern Syria. Equally, in the western province of Idlib, the two Salafi jihadist militias — Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — who are in control, draw support from Turkey.

After the capture of Aleppo, it is widely expected that the Syrian regime will mount a major offensive to gain control of Idlib. Indeed, a piquant situation will arise if Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies were to take on Turkey’s proxies in Idlib. Conceivably, one of the key objectives of the upcoming meeting in Moscow from the Russian and Iranian perspective will be to discuss Turkey’s continuing nexus with the Salafi jihadist militias.

Unsurprisingly, the extremist groups have been viewing the Turkish-Russian rapprochement in the recent months, especially the forthcoming Moscow meet, with great disquiet. They fear that they might soon become expendable if a Russian-Turkish-Iranian understanding emerges over the future of Syria.

The attack in Ankara can be seen as a desperate attempt to stall such a denouement. The rebels (and the regional states mentoring them) could be buying time hoping against hope that the Trump presidency may take a proactive role in the Syrian conflict provided they live to fight another day.

This is where Trump’s strongly-worded statement becomes important. The statement will not go unnoticed in Ankara. It is yet another forceful affirmation that the new US administration will regard the fight against terror radical Islamic terror groups as the number one priority in Syria in the period ahead.

Clearly, Turkey has a big decision to make under the circumstances. Ambassador Karlov’s assassination will not go in vain if the tragedy makes Erdogan sit up and decide that it is time to turn his back on the proxy war Turkey has been waging in Syria.

But then, it is not going to be an easy decision since Turkey regards the extremist groups as its strategic assets. Besides, the fact of the matter is that feelings are running high in the Turkish public opinion over the horrific tragedy unfolding in Aleppo. Anti-Russian, anti-Iranian feelings have peaked in Turkey even as the mammoth scale of the humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo came to light.

Erdogan cannot but be mindful of the popular feelings, because it is his own core constituency that feels agitated. And, at the present juncture when he is robustly pushing forward his constitutional agenda through a referendum in the coming months, aimed at concentrating more powers in the presidential office, he simply cannot afford to alienate his hardcore Islamist supporters.

On the other hand, the normalization of relations with Russia is extremely vital for Turkey, especially trade and economic cooperation. Turkey also needs Russia as a balancer when its ties with Europe are under strain. Erdogan has been flaunting his Russia connection and speaking about Turkey’s option to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization if the door gets shut on EU accession.

The bottom line is that Erdogan will have understood by now that it is highly improbable that the Trump administration will take interest in the ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria. That means Turkey has been left holding a can of worms. Erdogan’s may be increasingly inclined to strike a grand bargain with Russia and Iran to work toward a settlement in Syria that takes care of Turkey’s legitimate interests. Turkey and Iran also have a congruence of interests in forestalling the emergence of a Kurdish entity in Syria.

Taking these complex factors into consideration and factoring in the various pressure points working on the Turkish calculus, Moscow (and Tehran) has shown exceptional latitude toward Erdogan. Russia has opted not to confront Erdogan on Turkeys’ continuing nexus with the terrorist groups and instead preferred to put rings of engagement around him that would incrementally make him a collaborative partner in Syria. President Vladimir Putin has taken a hands-on approach by leveraging his personal equations with Erdogan.

All in all, the killing of Ambassador Karlov becomes a litmus test of the resilience of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement. The fact Moscow and Ankara have reacted almost on identical lines would suggest that a critical mass may have developed in terms of a mutual understanding between the two leaderships regarding the way forward.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.