Over the past months and especially with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, commentators have been surprised at the resilience of the alliance between Turkey and Russia, which have historically been more foes than friends.
Understanding the rationale for this is one the main keys for grasping the current Middle Eastern situation.
On the face of it, the alliance between Moscow and Ankara is unnatural for two countries which have been at war for much of the past centuries. Indeed, the Russian and Ottoman empires in their days were rivals.
During the twentieth century, with Turkey being the only member of NATO to have a common border with Russia, it allowed the US to base its nuclear missiles literally at Russia’s doorstep. This made Ankara to Moscow, what Havana was to Washington during the infamous 1962 Missile Crisis.. Needless to say this did not bring them closer.
But looking objectively, these factors all belong to the past: the two countries no longer have common borders or territorial disputes and even though this rivalry and mutual mistrust has existed for so long, today there are reasons for Russia and Turkey to get along.
In fact, what is left from those days is a shared nostalgia of their respective empires and in that sense Putin and Erdogan speak the same language: that of the former great powers. This brings them together culturally and distances them from current hegemons in the West.
More practically, Russia and Turkey are part of a larger coalition of revisionist countries (i.e. countries that wish to challenge the current hegemony) which also includes Syria and Iran, as we have seen when these nations came together to discuss the future of Syria in a Yalta-like alliance of common interest through common foes.
It is no coincidence that Russia and Turkey are getting closer as both are increasingly the object of the West’s hostility. In that context, the EU has been at the centre of this phenomenon. In the past year, EU institutions have been subjected to pressure by the Turkish government through their control of the migratory flux; this can only be a cause for amity from Russia which has itself been – largely unfairly – hit by European sanctions and retributions for its attempts to come out of the weak position which the years of Boris Yelstin left it in.
Turkey’s relation with the US is also not idyllic. Everyone saw the tension between their respective governments over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of being the mastermind behind last summer’s coup and who still resides in America. Even their common membership of NATO will not matter in the end, since neither head of state seems keen to sustain the organisation.
This rapprochement also has to do with Turkey’s strategy in Syria. One has to keep in mind that the most important issue in the eyes of the Turkish government has been for many years now the situation in Kurdistan, a contiguous region spread across Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. The government in Ankara has been repressing Kurdish aspirations for independence with tenacity and the prospect of an independent Kurdistan (in effect or in law) right across the border with Syria is understandably a source of distress for them.
Until recently, when the Islamic State was solidly in control of the region, supporting it seemed for Turkey to be the best bet for preventing the autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan. Indeed, since Assad relies in part on the Peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers), they might be inclined to make demands towards secession which Assad might be inclined to accept.
On the other hand, IS’s fanaticism and dictatorial rule would not allow for even a little autonomy in a non-Arab region with a tradition of liberality in their practice of Islam. On top of that, Erdogan might have hoped to control part of Syria’s territory through the Caliphate, considering how IS depends on Turkish support.
Today, however, it looks more and more like IS is doomed militarily, with all major powers supporting – actively or passively – Assad’s government. The priority now for the leaders in Ankara is to avoid chaos in Syria, in which Kurds could also achieve their aims at self-determination. What is more, Assad’s gains on the ground mean he needs the Peshmerga less and less, and thus it is increasingly unlikely he will allow for Kurdish independence or autonomy.
Mind you, even if he did agree to some degree of autonomy for Kurdistan, in practice, autonomy means nothing in a dictatorship. This explains why the Turks have now arrived at the same conclusion as Moscow: that Assad is their safest ally, creating one more reason for the two countries to get closer.
Although the seemingly strong alliance between the two countries is due entirely to the circumstances of the day, those circumstances are likely to endure in the long term as they are the result of no less than the entire global world order.
Yet, like the alliance at Yalta, it will not last forever and it could take only a single, albeit important, change in the geopolitical make-up of the world to bring two aspiring powers head to head again.
Bow Group International Affairs Reseacrh Fellow