ISTANBUL - Russia’s armed forces chief staff, General Valery Gerasimov, is due to visit Turkey this week in the latest step in bilateral regional coordination efforts on Syria. Ahead of Gerasimov’s visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu took a swipe at NATO ally the United States, saying Russia better understood Turkey's concerns about the Syrian Kurdish rebel militia, the YPG.
Washington’s strong backing of the YPG in its fight against Islamic State in Syria continues to strain relations between the NATO partners. Ankara accuses the YPG of being linked to the PKK, which is fighting an insurgency in Turkey.
The Syrian civil war had brought Turkish-Russian relations to the breaking point with the two strongly backing opposing forces in the conflict. In November 2015, a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber operating from a Syrian airbase, but, rapprochement efforts initiated by Ankara have seen relations improve markedly.
The looming defeat of the Syrian rebels and gains by the Syrian Kurdish forces are giving added impetus to a rethink in Ankara’s regional foreign policy.
“When it comes to Iraq and Syria and when it comes to the Kurdish issue, Ankara is more and more under pressure, as it feels it's on the losing side,” observes former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region. “Now Ankara is trying a second approach with Moscow and Tehran and to try to achieve at least some of its priorities, especially getting rid of the perceived Kurdish threat in Syria and Iraq.”
General Gerasimov's planned Turkey visit will come just one week after his Iranian counterpart, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, visited Ankara for three days of talks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted Bagheri, on Monday said common ground had been found with Iran in battling the PKK. “Joint action against terrorist groups that have become a threat is always on the agenda. This issue has been discussed between the two military chiefs, and I discussed more broadly how this should be carried out," Erdogan said before visiting Jordan.
Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are already cooperating over Syria in what has been dubbed the Astana process. The Astana process has presided over the creation of de-escalation zones across Syria. Idlib, one of the last remaining areas under Syrian rebel control, is expected to be discussed during Gerasimov's visit. Local Turkish media report that while the Iranian chief of staff was in Turkey, both sides “shook hands” on resolving Idlib.
Ankara is expected to press the Russian general for cooperation in a military operation, against the YPG, based in the Syrian enclave of Afrin, which borders Turkey. Russian forces are currently deployed in Afrin, a presence that is widely seen as preventing any Turkish operation.
Some analysts warn that Ankara could face disappointment. “As we know, Iran, Russia and Turkey cooperate in Syria, but their strategies as well as their ambitions are different,” cautions Zaur Gasimov, an Istanbul-based Russian-Turkish analyst for the Max Weber Foundation.
"The PYD [political wing of the YPG] and PKK have offices in Moscow; second, the PKK is not on the terror organizations' list of Russia and when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was asked about this, he said each country has it own parameters when defining terrorist organizations,” points out former Turkish diplomat Selcen, who is now a regional analyst.
Selcen also warns Moscow’s goal of wiping out all foreign fighters in Idlib runs counter to Ankara’s policy, but, Ankara's main agenda, in its courting of Moscow, could be an attempt to extract concessions from Washington. “Ankara is trying to play the Russian card against Washington,” observes political scientist Cengiz Aktar, “and Moscow is very happy to alienate Turkey from its Western allies, indirectly hitting not only the United States, but the NATO alliance in general.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is due later this week in Turkey.
Adding to the discomfort of the United States and Turkey’s other Western partners is Ankara's plan to purchase Russia’s S400 surface-to-air missile. The multi-billion-dollar sale is also expected to be on General Gerasimov’s agenda.