Shall we sit upon the ground and
tell there is no longer daylight between Russia and Turkey? We are almost
there. The Turkish incursion into Syria on Wednesday, October 9, is the tipping
point. Turkey and Russia are closely coordinating. Consider the following.
The White House announced on Sunday that it was withdrawing from
northeastern Syria in advance of Turkey's military operations across the
border. President Donald Trump apparently made the decision
after a phone call with
Turkish president Recep Erdogan on Sunday. The whiplash around Trump's decision
rattled US's allies.
There has been widespread
criticism in the Beltway that the US is jeopardising its Kurdish partners on
the ground and unleashing unpredictable consequences for Syria - and, above
all, badly damaged US credibility. Some forewarn that the Syrian conflict is
intensifying just when the embers were cooling.
Some of this criticism may be
true. Because, Turkey is vengeful. It has long wanted to move across the border
into northern Syria, where it sees the Syrian Kurdish forces or YPG as joined
at the hips with the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, separatists that Turkey
considers a terrorist group that has waged an insurgency for decades, and has
long put Turkey on edge.
But there is the "X" factor: Is
Turkey going into this enterprise alone? Much hinges on the answer, which in
turn relates to the alchemy of the overall Turkish-Russian strategic
understanding that goes far beyond Syria.
In a little-noticed development
last Tuesday - precisely, during the 36-hour interregnum between Trump's
announcement of troop withdrawal from Syria and the Turkish incursion into
northern Syria - the Russian Finance Ministry announced that Moscow and Ankara
have inked an agreement on using Russian rubles and Turkish lira in mutual
payments and settlements. The RT reported that the agreement aims for "further
expansion and strengthening of interbank interaction, as well as ensuring
uninterrupted payments between business entities of the two countries."
Plainly put, Moscow and Ankara
have created a firewall against possible US and/or Western sanctions against
Turkey in future.
The RT explained that the new
Turkish-Russian payment system will connect Turkish banks and companies to the
Russian analogue of the SWIFT payment network, "while enhancing the
infrastructure in Turkey that would allow using Russian MIR payment cards, designed
by Moscow as an alternative to MasterCard and VISA."
The report underlined, "The new
agreement is part of the two nations' push to cut their reliance on the US
dollarâ€¦ Erdogan announced last year (sic) plans to end the US dollar monopoly
via a new policy that is aimed at non-dollar trading with the country's
The agreement with Turkey
becomes the newest template in President Putin's ambitious project to get rid
of the US dollar in Russia's foreign trade. (Trade turnover between Turkey and
Russia is substantial; it grew by 16 percent last year, reaching $25.5
billion.) Clearly, the Turkish-Russian payment system is a major foreign policy
move by the two countries.
The following day, on Wednesday,
the Turkish military incursion into Syria began. Significantly, just prior to
the operation, Turkish President Recep Erdogan spoke to Putin on phone.
The Kremlin readout said, "In
the light of Turkey's announced plans to carry out a military operation in the
northeast of Syria, Vladimir Putin urged our Turkish partners to carefully
weigh the situation so as not to damage our joint efforts to resolve the Syrian
crisis." It added that the two presidents stressed "the importance of
guaranteeing the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and respect for its
The Russian reaction to the
Turkish military operation is nuanced. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister
Sergey Lavrov told reporters while on a visit to Turkmenistan, "Since the start
of Syrian crisis, we emphasise that we understand Turkey's concerns over its
Lavrov suggested that these
concerns could be eased within the framework of the Adana agreement signed
between Turkey and Syria in 1998 (which stipulated direct security coordination
between Ankara and Damascus.)
Lavrov put the blame for the
Turkish incursion squarely on the US policies. He recalled that Russia had
warned the US against playing the "Kurdish card" and making Kurdish and Arab
tribes to come face to face.
YPG fighters whom the US
regards as its most reliable partner in Northern Syria, a policy some call
Importantly, Lavrov added, "Russian and Turkish military officials are in contact over the operation. Now,
we will try to establish a dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. We think this
is in the interest of both sides."
On the same day, Thursday, when
the Western nations wanted the UN Security Council to condemn Turkey,
the move, arguing
it wanted the "illegal military presence" of other nations (read US, France,
Germany, etc.) also to be addressed. Russia urged "direct dialogue" between
Ankara and Damascus.
Meanwhile, the Turkish incursion
is showing some interesting features. How far this is due to Russian influence
is unclear, but it turns out that the incursion falls well short of a war.
Principally, the operation is
focused on Arab-majority regions of northern Syria, where there is historical
antipathy toward Kurds and where YPG is in no position to challenge the Turkish
military. The Turkish objective appears to be to create a swathe of territory,
which is solidly Arab where Syrian refugees can be rehabilitated. (There is
growing resentment among Turks over the open-ended presence of 4 million Syrian
Russiaâ€™s mild reaction takes into
account Turkish assurances that the operation is not targeting traditional
Kurdish homelands and there isn't going to be an epic war with the Kurds.
However, things can go wrong in a military operation. There are already
conflicting reports of Turkish casualties.
Indeed, the fate of the ISIS
fighters under detention in Kurdish-controlled areas is a hugely consequential
issue for the international community. Trump puts the onus on Turkey. Russia is
worried too. Putin said on Friday that Turkey may not be able to contain ISIS
militants active in northern Syria.
"Kurdish units used to keep an
eye on those areas but now that Turkish troops are entering the region, they
[militants] may just flee away. I'm not sure the Turkish army will be able to
take control of the situation, and quickly," Putin noted. Russia and the US
need to coordinate on the ground to ensure ISIS do not rear their head again.
Trump favours it.
However, the ultimate aim behind
the Kremlin's acceptance of the Turkish offensive is that Erdogan will
acquiesce to Moscow's plans for Syria's future whereby President Bashar
al-Assad can reassert control across the whole of Syria. Moscow will not
countenance Turkey's cross-border operation morphing as a long-term breach of
Syrian territorial sovereignty. Suffice to say, Russia is holding the Turkish
hand with the expectation that the synergy will help shape postwar Syria.
On a parallel track, Russia is
hoping to find an answer to Turkey's Kurdish concerns by encouraging the Kurds
to start a dialogue with Damascus to ensure security on the Turkish-Syrian
border. The Turkish incursion is, therefore, helpful in some ways for Kremlin
by giving leverage
to pressure Kurds to
fold themselves back into Syria.
In this intricate balancing of
contradictory interests, the bottom line is that Russia keeps nurturing the
warming ties with Turkey. The Kremlin's big trophy is that a major NATO country
is stepping out of the US orbit. The European pressure will mount on Turkey in
the coming days to be 'with us, or you're against us'. France is taking the lead.
The agreement on the new payments system on Tuesday
underscores that both Moscow and Ankara are mindful of a possible rupture in
Turkey's relations with the West. The statement on Thursday by the EU members of the UN Security
Council has ominous overtones.