Turkey and Russia: Strategic allies or tactical partners?

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U.S. policymakers are trying to grasp the nature of Turkey's relationship with Russia, as Moscow remains eager to cooperate with Turkey on a range of issues

A source familiar with the ongoing talks between Turkey and the U.S. said there are "positive developments" taking place. Although the Pentagon wants to stick to their guns, he added, the White House's perspective on Turkey has taken a positive turn in recent months. In other words, the Trump administration wants a better relationship with Turkey. It doesn't refrain from sending strong and clear signals either – which have an impact on Washington's contacts with Turkey and U.S. President Donald Trump's foreign policy moves. In this sense, it is important to recall that Trump reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron that he needed to improve his country's relations with Ankara to make progress in Syria.

Another important point is that the U.S. president called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to share information about Washington's imminent airstrikes against regime positions in Syria. The Trump administration's positive view on Turkey is reflected by Washington's language. According to sources, U.S. officials have stopped threatening their Turkish counterparts behind closed doors. With regard to Ankara's decision to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow, for instance, the U.S. – who used to end their sentences with "or else" – are trying to convince Turkey to consider discussing the issue. There are strong indications that U.S. attempts to talk about the S-400 purchase are followed by an offer to jointly manufacture Patriot missiles.

There are several reasons why Turkey-U.S. relations have taken a positive turn. First and foremost, Turkey stomped their feet and refused to backtrack on their vital interests and security concerns in Syria. It would appear that Washington finally came to view Turkey's position as a given and accepted Ankara as its equal. Obviously, it is possible to argue that the Turkish incursion into Afrin, which was controlled by the PKK terrorist organization until recently, contributed to Washington's change of heart. Another reason was Turkey's strengthening cooperation with Russia and Iran on regional issues. In the wake of a tripartite summit in the Turkish capital earlier this month, it was noteworthy that U.S. media outlets and commentators asked their government why Washington had no seat at the negotiating table.

My source, who has extensive knowledge of the Turkey-U.S. talks, noted that the U.S. was particularly interested in the group photo, which featured Turkish President Erdoğan and his Russian and Iranian counterparts, and repeatedly asked the following question: Are Turkey and Russia strategic allies or tactical partners? To be clear, I do not know how Turkey answered that question. But I will try to shed some light on the matter.

In recent years, Turkey nurtured a very strong cooperation with Russia. The cordial nature of their relations facilitates cooperation in the diplomatic arena and on the ground. In particular, Turkey and Russia have been respectful of each other's expectations in Syria. The creation of de-escalation zones in Syria and the establishment of Turkish observation posts in Idlib largely addressed Moscow's security concerns. In return, Russia supported Turkey's military operation in Afrin to reassure Turkish officials. Let me add that Turkey and Russia think along the same lines in Idlib and Afrin, whereas Iran is moving away from both countries.

Moreover, Russia is fully cooperating with Turkey in the fight against the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), the terrorist organization led by the U.S.-based former imam Fetullah Gülen, which was responsible for the 2016 assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov. At the same time, Moscow is eager to work with Turkey against the PKK, which has been receiving weapons and ammunition from the U.S. For example, Russia respected Turkey's reservations against the participation of certain groups in the Astana process. Finally, Moscow, unlike Turkey's Western allies, is prepared to meet Ankara's demand for nuclear technology and missile defense systems.

Under the circumstances, it would be unreasonable for U.S. officials to expect Turkey-Russia relations to deteriorate. Therefore, it does not make sense to question whether the relationship is strategic or tactical. Instead, Turkey works with Russia because cooperation serves the interests of both sides. Moving forward, Ankara and Moscow will continue to empower each other and strengthen their cooperation on a range of areas. Obviously, Turkey could have a similar relationship with the U.S. as equals. The most recent contacts between Ankara and Washington suggest that the U.S. is starting to understand this point.

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