Looking at the pictures from the 27 October summit in Istanbul, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan hosted President Emmanuel Macron, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin, one could draw false conclusions. The impression was that these leaders were eager to cooperate with each other to solve the Syrian conflict. In reality, the political objectives which caused their participation in the summit were different and contradictory.
Indeed, Turkey and Russia have been bolstering their cooperation over the Syrian conflict since 2016. They started the Astana peace process together with Iran in order to resolve the Syrian conflict. This cooperation was parallel to an overall Turkish-Russian rapprochement. In its wake, Ankara decided to purchase the Russian S-400 missile systems and deepened energy cooperation with Russia, giving consent to the construction of the TurkStream gas pipeline and a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu by Russian Rosatom.
However, the main goal of the Istanbul summit was actually to avoid a serious political (or even military) clash between Ankara and Moscow over Bashar Al-Assad’s planned military offensive into Turkey’s controlled Syrian Idlib province. Ankara strongly opposed Damascus’ plans of a major offensive to capture this region, one of the last bastions of anti-Assad Sunni opposition. Ankara didn’t want to lose influence in Idlib and see a new wave of Syrian refugees fleeing from the region to Turkey. Finally Erdoǧan and Putin agreed on a compromise solution: Turkey had to fight against jihadi groupings in the region, and Russia temporarily stopped Assad’s full-scale offensive.
Why did Merkel and Macron also participate in the Istanbul summit? The situation in Idlib in September was like a déjà vu for European leaders. After the Russians helped Assad in Autumn 2015, his forces regained control over Aleppo. Thousands of Syrians fled from the destroyed city to Turkey and Europe, further aggravating the massive refugee crisis. The memory of 2015’s drama was the main reason behind Merkel’s willingness to meet with Erdoǧan and Putin.
Still, nothing serious was agreed upon in Istanbul. The summit was probably the biggest diplomatic success for the Russian president, who had another occasion to show himself at a meeting together with European leaders. The government in Damascus, backed by Russia and Iran, is still planning the offensive in Idlib, which poses a threat to Turkey’s and EU’s security. The new refugee wave, including a likely influx of jihadists to Europe, cannot be excluded.
The main reason of Turkish–Russian cooperation is the EU’s criticism of the human rights abuses in Turkey, and a lack of such criticism from Russia, which makes it an attractive partner for Erdoǧan. Another reason is Ankara’s conflict with Washington over the U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish forces on the East bank of Euphrates, perceived by Turkey as extension of the terrorist PKK. Russia’s stance towards the Kurdish issue in Syria is ambiguous, but this year it has been getting increasingly closer to meeting Turkey’s expectations. Recently, Moscow started to push Syrian Kurdish authorities to cooperate closer with the regime in Damascus, which constitutes a threat to the Kurdish autonomy. Kremlin has also given consent to Turkish occupation of the Syrian Kurdish region of Afrin.
Thus, Turkey will be looking for a stronger alliance with Russia and Iran and, if possible, with some of the EU Member States. France and Germany’s growing rift with the U.S is at the moment beneficial for Turkey. No one, however, should expect a Turkey – EU rapprochement. The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, recently recommended the EU to formally suspend membership negotiations with Turkey arguing that Ankara had already crossed the “red line” by jailing 50 thousand people, including politicians and human rights activists, since the failed military coup in July 2016.
Ankara will use its bilateral relations with Berlin or Paris instrumentally, first of all to counterbalance Washington’s influence. Again, no one should expect, however, an emergence of a new Turkish-German-French anti-American axis. The economic bond between Turkey and the EU is very strong and important. Nevertheless, the human rights problems in Turkey are by no means an abstract issue for Berlin as a number of German citizens are still held in Turkish prisons accused on very dubious grounds of cooperation with terrorist organisations.
The Ankara–Tehran–Moscow axis, although fragile, is deeply founded on anti-Americanism and on a common anger caused by Western criticism of their authoritarian practices. What does it mean for the EU and its Member States? Some countries, like Italy or Hungary, traditionally favour “business as usual” with Turkey and Russia and turn a blind eye to violations of human rights in these countries or military adventurism such as Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the invasion of Donbass. Others like Poland, the Baltic states or Romania, located on NATO’s Eastern flank, willingly or not, will have to re-evaluate their view on Ankara’s foreign policy.
Warsaw has built a good relationship with Ankara. In 2014 Poland and Turkey celebrated with great pomp the 600th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, but now those may face challenges. From Warsaw’s point of view, the litmus test for Ankara’s policy regarding East Central Europe will still be Turkey’s stance on Ukraine. From the Polish perspective, Turkey’s interest in cooperation with Russia on Syria raises doubts, whether the price for this will not be the official recognition of the annexation of Crimea and a normalisation with Russia on Kremlin’s own terms. So far Turkey has not recognised Crimea’s annexation and maintains good relations with Ukraine. Frequent visits of Ukrainian politicians to Turkey, including a recent visit of President Petro Poroshenko on 29 October, prove how significant good relations with Ankara are for Kyiv. That of course doesn’t change the overall picture: Kremlin is Ankara’s main interlocutor in the region, the others, like Kyiv or Warsaw, are secondary.
For Germany, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement is a much less serious problem than for Poland. Berlin focuses on issues like the possibility of another refugee crisis, the future of the Turkey-EU migrant deal, the arrests of German citizens, jihadism or the necessity to react to a Turkish economic breakdown. To sum up, the case of Poland and Germany confirms that there is no common vision in the EU on how to deal with Ankara.
*Konrad Zasztowt is Lecturer at the the Department for European Islam Studies, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw.