While the mainstream Western media has spent last two years or so predicting a ‘downfall’ of Turkish-Russian relations because of some (perceived) fundamental strategic differences between the two countries in Syria, the actual trajectory of their bi-lateral relations has been just the opposite of what seemed imminent in the Western media reports. Again, while Turkish incursions into Syria seemed to have sowed the seeds of disruption, Turkish-Russian relations remain undisturbed even though a US decision to address Turkey’s long-standing concerns was expected to give a positive spin to the bi-lateral relations of NATO’s two biggest military members. This, however, isn’t happening. Turkey, on the contrary, remains in the Russian camp and, in fact, is taking steps that potentially aim to disrupt the US-dollar financial empire and dent its ability to impose sanctions on countries that continue to oppose Washington’s hegemonic moves.
Amid row over the US decision to pull its forces out of Syria and give Turkish forces a leeway to attack the Kurdish controlled areas, Turkey and Russia signed a currency agreement, allowing both countries to conduct trade and settle payments in their local currencies. Ridding themselves of the US dollar means that both countries have successfully created a firewall against any possible US financial sanctions. This is because even though the US president was quick in taking a decision on pulling US forces out of Syria, he was equally quick in pointing out the possibility of sanctioning Turkish economy in case Turkey did something in Syria that the US president didn’t like. Given the US president’s unpredictable behaviour and his habit of changing his mind, there is no certainty that he will not change his mind again regarding Turkey at any time in future and impose sanctions to retaliate.
Needless to say, trade turnover between Turkey and Russia is substantial. It grew by 16 percent last year, reaching 25.5 billion dollars, and is expected to increase further in coming years due to the ease of trade that the new financial infrastructure will bring. The agreement comes against an increasing realization in Russia and elsewhere about the increasing US tendency to use dollar in the capacity that Russia’s Putin described as “political weapon.” In this context, the currency agreement is not just a bi-lateral agreement between the two countries; it also very critically reflects a concerted attempt on their part to challenge the US hegemony. Coming from the NATO’s second biggest military, this move also signifies that an ‘East-West’ divide in the NATO very much remains intact and the NATO countries are fully opposed Turkey’s operation in Syria against the Kurds. This is also one principal reason why Turkey’s relations with Russia continue to grow.
This was evident during the last session of the UN Security Council where the body’s European members – Germany, France, the UK, Belgium, and Poland – opposed Turkey’s moves into Syria. Russia, however, stopped short of opposing it and stressed that any Security Council statement on Syria would also have to take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis, especially the “illegal” military presence of other countries (read: the US).
Russian position on Turkey’s operation reflects the current state of their ties. While technically Turkish military presence is not illegal (the Turk-Syria Andana agreement allows Turkey to conduct minor operations inside Syria) Syria is not actually opposing it either. Instead, Syrian officials have refused to aid the Kurds against Turkey and blamed them for “betraying” their country and committing “crimes against it.”
Russian foreign minister, instead of opposing Turkey’s uninvited military operation, chose to blame the US policies in Syria for creating the present crisis. Had the US listened earlier to Turkey’s concerns vis-à-vis arming Kurdish militias, providing them with heavy weaponry back, and forced them to retreat from inherently Arab areas into their traditional territories, Turkey would not have decided to move in and force the Kurds out of their controlled zones.
In the wake of a US exit from Syria, Russia will come to play a major role in shaping the post-war Syria both from within and without i.e., its relations with its neighbours including Turkey; hence, Russia’s emphasis on talks between Syria and the Kurds in order to address Turkey’s security concerns. At the same time, Russian officials have pointed out that they will try to establish fresh dialogue – and may be a new treaty – between Turkey and Syria to address their mutual security concerns.
Russia, by integrating Turkey and Syria into a new form of security pact, is aiming at securing Erdogan’s full support for Syria’s political future under Assad whereby he will also be able to reassert full control of all of Syrian territories.
This is the key to Russia’s plans for politically rebuilding the post-war Syria, and keeping that in mind as well as the possibility of an increasing distance between Turkey and other NATO members, Russia will take particular care to maintain its relations with Turkey.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.