TURKEY-RUSSIA THAW: IS ANKARA READY TO CLOSE SYRIAN BORDER?

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The meeting between president Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan held on August 9 moved the relations between two countries to a new positive direction, and served as the beginning of restoration of “axis of friendship” and clean slate between Ankara and Moscow. The meeting was held in St.Petersburg after the failed coup attempt in Turkey and deteriorated relations over the downed Su-24 warplane. Reportedly, both of leaders agreed to put on the table the number of cancelled projects, such as the “Turkish stream” pipeline. The pipeline is aimed to deliver Russian natural gas through Turkey to the Southern part of Europe. Obviously, the project means a lot for Russian Gazprom, as it allows to strengthen Russian gas monopoly in Europe. Even though Russia plans to start the construction next year, it still needs strong guarantees from Brussels.

A part of the proposed pipeline project, official Moscow seeks for an opportunity to renew the contract regarding the nuclear power plant “Akkuyu” in Turkey. The intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Turkey on cooperation in the fields of construction and operation of the country’s first nuclear power plant Akkuyu near the city of Mersin in southern Turkey was signed in 2010. The plant’s construction is expected to be completed in 2020. But despite the recent Russian – Turkish rapprochement, it is nearly impossible to shift the bilateral relations so fast after such a deep crisis.

Another important issue of the meeting agenda was Syrian crisis. The fact that Turkish president was accompanied by the Intelligence service chief Hakan Fidan showed that Erdogan travelled to St.Petersburg with “an action plan”. Although, the detailed content of the negotiations remained uncovered, most probably the both of sides agreed on the necessity of closure of the Syrian border. It is safe to say that Ankara is most likely to give the green light to the closure of Syrian-Turkish border given the ongoing normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey, according to Izvestia, which cited relevant agreements clinched during the meeting between Putin and Erdogan. Such measure will help to prevent the flow of radical terrorists, as well as weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that the “Turkey-Syria border remains ‘full of holes’ and is actively used for infiltration of terrorist militants into Syria via Turkey.”

Seemingly, by closing the border, Turkey hopes to decrease the Russian influence among Kurdish militant groups in Syria that threatens Turkey’s national security. It is not a secret that the growing Kurdish influence in Syria is one of the main headaches of the AKP government. Yet, the agreement on the closure of Syrian border does not really mean that official Moscow withdraws its support from Kurdish PYD, which is one of the guarantors of the strong Russian presence in Syria. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to imagine that Russia will voluntarily give up its “Kurdish tool”. By supporting the Kurdish militant groups in Syria, Russia intends to compensate the growing influence of the U.S in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey is also furious that Washington, its NATO ally, is working closely with Syrian Kurdish forces linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) in its battle with ISIS. Nevertheless, official Moscow insists on Ankara to close the border with Syria, claiming that without preventing terrorist groups from entering Syria through Turkey, it is impossible to launch  peace process.

Thus following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Mr. Erdogan faced new challenges in foreign policy. Taking into account Turkey’s worsening relations with neighbours, a new road map could be launched, which includes the normalization of bilateral relations with Assad’s regime. Putin wants to re-establish dialogue between Erdogan and Assad administration. According to Prof. Mesut Casin, Turkey is among the nations guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Syria and that Erdogan is against the political establishment on the border controlled by the PKK-PYD (Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Kurdish Democratic Union Party).

Another interesting issue of the meeting was Mr. Erdogan’s statement regarding the necessity of the establishment of a secular administration in Syria. This is the first time Turkey, the country that has most helped the rebellion against the Baath regime since the beginning of the conflict, admits that Bashar Assad has a legitimate role to play. The statement made by the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, on Wednesday, stunned the Syrian opposition leadership, which Ankara hosts, as well as regional leaders, who had allied with Turkey in their push to oust Assad over a long, unforgiving war.

Although the Russian – Turkish summit in St. Petersburg is over, it is quite difficult to predict the possible repercussions both for Ankara, and Moscow. The one thing is clear that Erdogan will seek for a compromise with Damascus, as it is the only way to cut off ambitious of PKK – affiliated PYD militants, and homegrown Islamist radicals that trigger domestic security. Notwithstanding the fact, moving the Kurdish militants out of the way is a little price for Erdogan’s government to pay for the victory in Syria, as the returning to pre-war status-quo would cost much bigger price.

This article firstly appeared on Modern Diplomacy

Fuad is policy analyst of the Wikistrat Inc, and regular political commentator of The Times of Israel and BBC Middle East Monitor. His area of expertise includes military/security and foreign policy issues. He is author of books titled “Syria 1946-2012″ (2012) and “Tunisian model of Democracy in Arab world” (2015).