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Could there be a Russian-Turkish quid pro quo in Ukraine and Syria?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Turkish President Erdogan recently revealed that his country intends to soon make good on its prior plans to establish a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” in Northern Syria following its partial success to this end a few years back.

Both Russia and the US cautioned against the move, with the first-mentioned saying that it would be illegal without Damascus’ approval and that only the Arab Republic’s legitimate government can sustainably ensure security along Syria’s part of the international frontier while the latter warned that “malign actors” might exploit the situation to wreak more regional instability.

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Be that as it is, Ankara remains committed to restoring the integrity of what it regards as its national security red lines in that neighboring state in a manner that some have compared to Moscow’s motivation for its ongoing special military operation in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan. (Photo internet reproduction)
Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan. (Photo internet reproduction)

Russia and Turkey have been coordinating their moves in Syria for the past half-decade since the first Astana peace talks in January 2017 in order to prevent any inadvertent clash between these Great Powers.

Their leaders have thus far succeeded in responsibly regulating their rivalry though it’s clear that they still continue to compete with one another there and elsewhere in Afro-Eurasia such as in North Africa and the South Caucasus.

The Ukrainian Conflict is another instance where their interests don’t perfectly align as proven by Ankara’s public condemnation of Moscow’s campaign and its dispatch of drones to Kiev for use against the Russian Armed Forces (RAF).

To be fair, the armaments that Russia provides to the Syrian Armed Forces (SAA) could in theory be used against Turkey so it balances itself out in a way, though it’s admittedly an imperfect comparison because those two aren’t in hostilities.

Despite their differences in Ukraine and Syria, Russian-Turkish relations remain quite stable, which contradicts the expectations of many who thought that they’d have de facto broken their ties with one another by now.

In fact, on the Ukrainian front, Ankara has actually been pretty accommodating of Moscow. It refuses to sanction that Eurasian Great Power (thus importantly retaining energy ties with it), President Erdogan agreed with his Russian counterpart to explore ways in which his country could clear Ukraine’s naval mines in order to reopen international shipping, Ankara postponed or canceled provocative NATO drills in the Black Sea, and Turkey continues to mediate between Moscow and Kiev.

These aren’t the actions of a country that’s pining to go to war with its neighbor but of a very pragmatic leadership that wisely understands that it’s best to de-escalate tensions in pursuit of shared interests.

Those said interests might speculatively concern a quid pro quo in Ukraine and Syria whereby Ankara relieves some of the US-led Western pressure upon Moscow in the first-mentioned in exchange for the Kremlin reciprocating in the second despite both continuing to publicly criticize the other for their respective campaigns in each neighboring country.

In practice, the second part of this potential deal could involve Moscow stepping aside while Ankara mops up armed groups in Northern Syria that it considers being terrorists in parallel with discretely “advising” Damascus to “stand down” and not respond to what they’d both officially regard as an illegal operation.

The Kremlin might send more arms to its ally just like Turkey has sent to Ukraine, but unlike the second-mentioned’s, Syria’s are unlikely to be used against those foreign armed forces since Russia doesn’t want a proxy war with Turkey there.

Regardless of one’s views towards Russia’s special operation in Ukraine and Turkey’s similar planned one in Syria, there’s no denying that these two Great Powers are behaving very pragmatically towards one another, especially Ankara with respect to Moscow in spite of its drone shipments to Kiev.

If President Erdogan was just another puppet like most of his US-led Western allies apart from Hungarian President Orban, then he’d have sanctioned Russia, cut off their energy ties, opened the Straits for NATO warships, threatened to participate in a naval operation to “unblock” Ukrainian seaports, and wouldn’t care about mediating between Moscow and Kiev.

In reality, he’s done the exact opposite as was earlier explained, which is impressive and speaks to his truly independent foreign policy that’s practiced with a view toward maximizing Turkey’s strategic autonomy in the New Cold War.

Quite understandably, then, Russia might seek to “reward” Turkey for its pragmatism towards the Ukrainian Conflict by reciprocating this policy in Syria with respect to Ankara’s planned military operation there.

It would make perfect sense too since such a stance would reinforce mutual trust and thus help manage occasional suspicions about their intentions as they arise, which third parties like the US always attempt to exploit, albeit with no success thus far.

Ukraine and Syria are of premier national security importance for Russia and Turkey respectively, which is why it’s important for both Great Powers to not directly interfere with the other’s operations there even if they sincerely regard them as illegitimate and don’t shy away from publicly saying so.

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