Common ground on Syria unites Russia and Turkey

One year ago, the killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara by a former Turkish policeman would have provoked a rupture in Turkish-Russian relations on the scale that followed the shooting down of a Russian plane by the Turkish jets in November 2015. But ahead of Andrei’s Karlov’s funeral on Thursday, there has been no Russian démarche. Instead the two countries appear drawn closer towards a new embrace, taking Turkey ever further away from the west. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared for the first time it was obvious that the assassin was a follower of Fetullah Gülen, the cleric living in American exile and allegedly the ringleader of a shadowy movement behind July’s abortive military coup. His followers even implied the CIA may have been involved in Karlov’s murder.

Russia has sent 18 investigators to Ankara, but Moscow accepted Ankara’s condolences delivered in person by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, when he arrived in Russia on Tuesday for a prearranged meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The reason for the Russian restraint is simple. The president, Vladimir Putin, after the fall of Aleppo, is in the middle of a power play, and the death of a diplomat, however talented and tragic, will not avert him from his chosen course. Exasperated by what he sees as the American failure to deliver on its promises to isolate the jihadis in the Syrian opposition, Putin plans with Turkey and Iran to prepare his own Syrian peace roadmap. 

He wants to capitalise on his military victory with a diplomatic triumph. Tuesday’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey Russia and Iran, with its portentous Moscow Declaration, is supposed to be the first stage in the closure of the civil war on Russian terms. At this point at least, the Gulf States, Europe and the US are excluded from the process. Moscow even said “almost every level of dialogue with the US is now frozen. We don’t communicate with one another, or if we do at minimal level”.

But Putin may find diplomatic success more elusive than victory on the battlefield. Above all, he depends on the help of Turkey, the most loyal supporters of the Syrian opposition through the past five years. Apart from energy cooperation, the best deal he can offer Erdoğan is a guarantee that the Syrian Kurds on Turkey’s southern border will not be strengthened by any agreement. Hatred of Kurdish independence, even more than hatred of the Gülenists, binds Erdoğan’s supporters together.

But Turkey itself is internally divided. There is a strong Eurasianist group around Erdoğan that want to cut their losses with the EU after years of being rebuffed and lack of gratitude for housing millions of Syrian refugees. Others say Europe remains the only viable route to economic modernisation.

In Moscow, Çavuşoğlu pointedly said a ceasefire in Syria should not only exclude terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but also Lebanon’s Hezbollah – which fights on the government side. Lavrov implied Hezbollah, like Russia, was in Syria at the government’s invitation.

Anti-Iranian feeling is at a fever pitch in Erdoğan’s party since it is Tehran’s artillery, as much as Moscow’s air power, that led to the humiliation of Aleppo. Possibly unclear himself of his strategy, Putin has said his initiative is designed to complement, and not conflict with, the UN’s existing peace process. But his move has caused unease in the UN; Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syrian special envoy, has announced he will convene rival UN talks on 8 February in Geneva.

So far, the UN talks have been plagued by Syrian government objections to the composition of the opposition delegations, the role of the Syrian Kurds and whether it is a requirement that the Syrian government accepts that the president, Bashar al-Assad, will stand down in some way at the end of a transition process.

Putin’s rival peace show may take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakstan. Surrounded by the world’s largest steppe, the futuristic, even bizarre, city is not an entirely random venue to choose since it has played a role in trying to normalise relations between Turkey and Russia, two of its closest allies.It hosted members of the Syrian opposition for talks in May 2015 and has overseen various other international mediation efforts, including 2013 talks between Iran and the P5+1.

The May 2015 Syrian talks were initiated by Randa Kassis, the head of the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians. Many rebel groups regard Kassis as part of a tame tolerated opposition with little popular support, but she met Donald Trump’s son in Paris recently, suggesting her political star is in the ascendant. However, any attempt to re-stage these talks without key members of the opposition, including those in the Riyadh-convened high negotiations committee are likely to leave them discredited.

Putin may just be starting to find his role as the great disrupter is a lot easier than that of the great conciliator.

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