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The Turkey-Russia Tango Over Syria and Libya

Is Turkey turning into a Russian puppet? Vladimir Putin is showing a remarkable ability to reverse Erdogan’s Syria ambitions.

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Takeaways


  • As international leaders convene in Berlin to try and resolve the civil war in Libya, there is a lot of jockeying going on. Turkey is playing a key role in this.
  • Ankara has begun giving in to Moscow’s pressure to recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime.
  • Erdogan is coming close to recognizing the Assad regime in return for Moscow’s further cooperation in Libya and Syria.
  • Erdogan and Putin back opposing sides in Libya’s civil war. But they hope to use their personal rapport to find a negotiated settlement.
  • Putin’s ability to reverse Erdogan’s Syria ambitions is a reminder that Russia wants to fill the vacuum left by the partial US withdrawal from the Middle East.

As the international leaders will convene in Berlin on January 19 for a conference to try and resolve the civil war in Libya, there is a great deal of jockeying going on. Turkey is playing a key role in this.

Erdogan vs. Assad

Since 2011, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fought hard to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Until recently, Erdogan’s goal was to replace the Assad regime with a Muslim Brotherhood administration loyal to Ankara.

In 2017, Erdogan publicly called the Syrian leader a “terrorist” and stated that there can be no peace process “with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens.”

Accordingly, the Turkish government has helped support, fund and train a range of proxy fighters, including jihadist elements among their ranks.

The Assad regime, however, remains firmly entrenched. It is primarily propped up by its Russian and Iranian allies.

The U.S. assists Erdogan’s goals

The one factor that changed Turkey’s prospects was the 2019 withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Turkish border zone in northeastern Syria. This U.S. move led to Erdogan’s subsequent military operations there, which aimed at expelling America’s Syrian Kurdish partners.

This development on the battlefield led to a “historic” deal in Sochi between Turkey and Russia. It brought about the creation of a “safe zone” inside Syria that Ankara had long demanded.

The deal also allowed Syrian government forces to move back into the border regions from which they had been absent for years.

Turkish-Syrian intelligence cooperation

A lot of issues remain to be ironed out, though. To make progress, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, met with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in Moscow recently. This marked the first official contact in years between the two officials.

The Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies have reportedly held backchannel meetings in Syria and Iran over the past few years, but this Russian-brokered public meeting adds a new dimension.

Above all, it is a sign that Ankara has begun giving in to Moscow’s pressure to recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime.

The Syria-Libya nexus

Notably, those meetings in Moscow also involved a delegation of senior Turkish officials including the Turkish foreign and defense ministers. They joined Russian officials and the leaders of Libya’s warring factions, as they negotiated a ceasefire deal in Libya.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin back opposing sides in Libya’s ongoing civil war. But they hope to use their personal rapport to find a negotiated settlement for the long-running conflict.

The parallel meetings between intelligence chiefs from Ankara and Damascus further indicate that Messrs. Erdogan and Putin were also trying to resolve their differences in Syria, where they again back opposing sides.

Assad’s intelligence chief reportedly presented three demands to his Turkish counterpart.

First, Turkey’s recognition of Syria’s territorial integrity, second the withdrawal of Turkish troops and proxies from Syria and third Ankara’s elimination of terrorist elements from Idlib to open up the M-4 and M-5 motorways.

Russia has the upper hand over Turkey

While it is not yet clear how the Turkish intelligence chief reacted to these demands, agreeing to them would amount to a near-complete capitulation.

The official meeting between the Turkish and Syrian spy chiefs indicates that Mr. Erdogan is coming close to recognizing the Assad regime in return for Moscow’s further cooperation in Libya and Syria.

Conclusion

Putin’s remarkable ability to reverse Erdogan’s Syria ambitions and force an official meeting between Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials is yet another reminder that Russia is keen and able to fill the vacuum left by the partial U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the Middle East.

Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Brenna Knippen.

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About Aykan Erdemir

Aykan Erdemir is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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