Moving forward, the main challenge will be the inability of both Russia and the United States to grasp the gravity of Turkey’s concerns over the YPG presence in northern Syria. Under the pretext of cooperation and negotiations, the two countries are involved in a tug-of-war. Under the circumstances, Turkey should be expected to use new hard power instruments in Syria.
The Erdoğan-Putin meeting was closely related to three distinct dimensions of Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia. First, there is an ongoing search for a new world order and a new balance of power – which is symbolized by Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S. Although the future remains unclear, what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently told his German counterpart deserves recognition: “The world is gradually entering a post-West period and transitioning into a multi-polar system.” At a time when President Trump’s efforts to reconcile with the Russians have largely been blocked by the Washington establishment, Lavrov’s words indicate that the traditional definition of alliance will change. As the new balance of power emerges, Turkish-Russian ties could be reshaped within the context of Middle Eastern, NATO and European politics.
Another important aspect of the meeting was linked to trade relations and economic cooperation between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey’s commercial ties to Russia range from a new nuclear plant in Akkuyu and the Turkish Stream pipeline to the lifting of restrictions on Turkish agricultural exports to Russia, the formation of a joint investment fund and tourism. At the High Level Cooperation Council meeting, Turkish and Russian officials signed a number of agreements indicating that bilateral ties were going back to normal.
The third and final issue on the Erdoğan-Putin meeting’s agenda was the war on terror and, by extension, the situation in Syria. Seeing as the two leaders met right after a meeting of Turkish, Russian and American military chiefs of staff in Antalya, there is no doubt that an impending operation to liberate Raqqa, along with the situation in Manbij and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) presence in the area, was discussed at length.
It is important to recall that Turkey and Russia brokered a deal to evacuate civilians from eastern Aleppo and jointly launched the Astana process to facilitate talks between the Assad regime and moderate rebels. U.S. policymakers, who had been preoccupied with the presidential race at the time, are currently trying to reassert their military strength in Syria by launching the Raqqa operation. Although the Trump administration’s new Syria plan remains unknown, there are signs that the U.S. will continue working with the YPG on the ground. As such, the Erdoğan-Putin meeting was an important step for Turkish policymakers to develop their roadmap on Manbij, Raqqa and the YPG militants. To be clear, this isn’t just about what the three military commanders discussed in Antalya. For Turkey, the long-term priority will be to stop the YPG. The transfer of five YPG-controlled villages to the regime under a deal brokered by Moscow triggered a bidding war over Manbij. Moving forward, the main challenge will be the inability of both Russia and the United States to grasp the gravity of Turkey’s concerns over the YPG presence in northern Syria. Under the pretext of cooperation and negotiations, the two countries are involved in a tug-of-war. Under the circumstances, Turkey should be expected to use new hard power instruments in Syria.
U.S. Senator John McCain, who was received by the Turkish president last month, recently warned CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel that the military leadership did not understand how serious Erdoğan was about the PYD. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. military will heed McCain’s warning, but it is clear that failure by the White House to appreciate Turkey’s commitment to addressing the PYD-YPG threat would mean handing over Syria to Russia, Iran and the Assad regime on a silver platter. Lacking a plan to contain Iran, Washington would risk losing Turkey’s friendship by throwing its weight behind the YPG militants. As McCain correctly asserted, the clash between Turkey and the PYD-YPG is fast approaching. During his most recent visit to Moscow, Erdoğan asked Putin to block the PYD’s activities in Russia. But there is no doubt that his mind was on the future of the PYD within the broader competition between Russia and the United States.