August 11, 2016

Putin and Erdogan rapprochement - what happens to Syria?

Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin

To say that many changes have happened in Turkey over the last year would be an understatement.

Without going into great detail, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian plane for a minor incursion into Turkish airspace, Russia retaliated with sanctions, the Turks have allowed U.S.-led coalition aircraft to operate from southern Turkish airfields, Turkey actively joined the coalition to fight ISIS (although their focus was Kurdish separatist groups), the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has mounted multiple mass casualty attacks in several Turkish cities (including Ankara and Istanbul), and a coup attempt against the government failed. You get the idea.

The failed coup attempt of July 15 has paradoxically increased the power of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition to the purge of the armed forces, intelligence and security services, the judiciary, and academia, Erdogan has reassessed his relationships with NATO, the United States and, somewhat surprisingly, with Russia.

Although Russia and Turkey had enjoyed good relations and mutually beneficial economic ties, the downing of Russian Air Force fighter-bomber last November 24 completely soured ties between the two countries. When Erdogan refused to apologize for the incident, Russia levied sanctions against Turkey's tourist industry, agricultural exports and other businesses.

The resulting animosity between the two countries severely impacted Erdogan's vision of being a key power broker in largely Muslim Central Asia, a role that requires Russian cooperation, or at the least, acquiescence. Both countries have mutual and complementary interests in the region - Turkey wants to wield influence, and the Russians want to kip a lid on Islamic fundamentalism.

The two presidents met this week in St. Petersburg to mend fences, of course beginning with Erdogan's apology for the shootdown of the Russian aircraft and regrets over the loss of the pilot. One if the outcomes of the was a commitment from both leaders to cooperate in fight against ISIS. Where have we heard this before? The U.S.-led coalition and the Russians are nominally cooperating in their air operations in Syria, mostly limited to deconfliction of operations areas to ensure flight safety.

Another significant, and a bit surprising, outcome of the meetings was a concession by Erdogan that the current Syrian regime will have a place at the table when the political settlement for the country is discussed. Erdogan has been adamant in the past that the Ba'ath regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must be removed as a basic requirement for any cooperation on Syria.

The Russians are the principal supporters of the al-Asad regime. It was the imminent failure of Syrian forces in the northern part of the country that catalyzed Putin's decision to deploy Russian combat aircraft and supporting forces to Syria last September.

It was not only the loss of the major population center of Aleppo, but rebel forces were pushing the Syrian army out of the province of Idlib and forcing them to retreat south toward the city of Hamah. The situation was so dire that President al-Asad announced that the armed forces were going to "redeploy" to defend strategically important areas of the country.

Russian military intervention was critical - the al-Asad regime, on the verge of collapse in 2012, had been saved by the intervention of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and their surrogate fighters from the Lebanese Shi'a group Hizballah. More firepower and competent military leadership was needed to save Bashar al-Asad this time. Enter the Russians, bringing both.

So, the unanswered, and possible unanswerable question, is just what role will Syria play in future relations between Russia and Turkey, or more accurately, future relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan. The positions of the two leaders and their countries remain diametrically opposed.

The Bashar al-Asad regime stays in power, and will stay in power, only through the continued support of the deployed Russian contingent, Iranian IRGC fighters, regular Iranian Army troops, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and Aghan Shi'a volunteers. Without these external supporters, the regime will collapse.

That said, the Russians are in this for the long haul. They have signed an agreement that allows them access to Humaymim air base just south of Latakia for an indefinite period of time free of charge. They have made major improvements to the base, and have announced plans to enlarge the support areas to handle more of their heavy transport aircraft in support their expanding operations in the country.

Just 35 miles south on the coastal highway is the port of Tartus, which includes a Russian Navy support facility, the only such facility outside the territory of the Russian Federation.

Syria has become Putin's base of operations in the Middle East. He hopes to return Russia to what he believes is its rightful position - a major player in the region. Given his alliance with Iran and Syria, his good (and profitable) relationship with Iraq, and now his rapprochement with Turkey, he may be on the way to achieving that goal.

Up until now, Erdogan has been adamant that the future of Syria cannot include Bashar al-Asad. Will the recent meetings cause a change in his position? Do improved ties with Russia threaten Turkey's continued role in NATO? Will Turkey withdraw its permission for the U.S.-led coalition to use its air bases to conduct operations over Syria?

I suspect relations between Turkey and Russia will return to something similar to what they were prior to the shootdown of the Russian fighter-bomber.

Although both presidents have committed to cooperate against ISIS, I suspect they will continue to use this as cover for their own narrow interests.

The Russians will continue to strike anti-regime rebels - including medical facilities - to prop up Bashar al-Asad, and the Turks will continue their operations against Kurdish separatists, especially the PKK.