With the Kremlin stuck in war, Turkey is skillfully expanding its influence, to Moscow’s detriment.
Whether it’s Syria or the South Caucasus, Ankara is preparing to fill the influence on the space created by Moscow’s weakening (AP)
“The return of Crimea to Ukraine, of which it is an inseparable part, is essentially a condition under international law.” By itself, that direct comment of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which he made via video link at the Summit of the Crimean Platform last month, does not surprise anyone who closely follows Turkish-Russian relations.
Yet it is evidence of Erdogan’s more complex balancing act between his support of Ukrainian sovereignty and his refusal to join sanctions against Russia. The indicator is the opportunity Turkey is pursuing to use its ties with Russia at a time when the Kremlin is stuck in Ukraine.
Whether it is Syria or the South Caucasus, Ankara is preparing to fill the space of influence created by the weakening of Moscow.
Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Turkey has been playing the role of a mediator, as shown in the agreement of July, which it mediated with the UN, which allows the passage of Ukrainian grain ships from Odessa. Its trade ties with Russia are flourishing. But, Erdogan remains consistent in his support of Kiev, including on the issue of Crimea, the historic home of the Crimean Tatars (a community Turkey considers related). Turkey’s deliveries of Bayraktar drones to the Ukrainian armed forces are the best indicator of military support for Kiev.
Turkey has felt threatened by Russian expansion in the Black Sea since the 2008 war in Georgia. Step by step, Moscow has gained control over the buffer states whose emergence in the early 1990s led to an unprecedented reunification of Russia and Turkey.
Ankara’s own sense of vulnerability, combined with a deep-seated mistrust of its Western allies, has pushed it to seek reconciliation with its giant, imperialist neighbor rather than confront it. At the same time, Turkey nevertheless cultivated alliances with other Black Sea states that feared Russian revanchism, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Romania, and Moldova.
It is important to recognize that this country has now decided to go one step further.
Take northern Syria for example. Since May, Erdogan has been announcing an operation to pursue the People’s Defense Units (YPG) from the areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij. Turkish forces and their Syrian National Army allies have increased pressure on Kurdish fighters along the line of contact west of the Euphrates River, as well as around Kobani, Ain Issa and Tal Tamer to the east. In tandem, Erdogan is leading a fierce diplomatic effort to win the consent of Russia and Iran.
Syria was the focus of his tripartite summit in Tehran on July 21, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi were also present, as well as at the meeting between Erdogan and Putin in Sochi on August 5.
In order to get Russian and Iranian approval for an open offensive, he is presenting a possible restoration of ties with the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as a counter move. But if Putin refuses to support the new operation, it is not inconceivable that Turkish forces will make a unilateral move.
Fear of Yerevan
Another scenario where Turkey is advancing at the expense of Russia is the South Caucasus. In July, Ankara and Yerevan agreed to open the border, closed to third-country nationals since the early 1990s, and allow airstrips for cargo flights. Turkish and Armenian diplomats are negotiating the establishment of diplomatic ties.
Fear of Turkey is the key reason for Armenian engagement with Russia in terms of foreign and security policy. But after Azerbaijan defeated the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020 with the help of Turkey, the value of that alliance with Russia declined.
Ultimately, Moscow remained neutral and let the Armenian forces defend themselves. Now the Armenian leadership is pragmatically exploring a connection with Turkey that would bring economic and strategic benefits.
Common features from Syria to Armenia show that Turkey is methodically pushing Russia out of its neighborhood and regions where Moscow has had a strategic advantage over its geopolitical rivals in recent years.
Of course, Moscow is capable of disrupting such efforts. As divided as they are, the Russians still have friends in the Iranians and in Assad in Syria, as well as a convenient partnership with the YPG.
Russia also still has a contingent of 2,000 peacekeepers in Karabakh who could play a key role in shaping the conflict there. Moscow also has economic influence over Yerevan: Bilateral trade has been on the rise since Armenia became a backdoor for Russia to circumvent Western sanctions. On Monday, new fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, although a ceasefire was later announced./Al Jazzera/