Turkey warms to Russia, but Putin has upper hand

Turkey has turned to Russia as relations with the West deteriorate and Western governments withhold arms deals due to the country’s human rights record.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin may have the advantage as he seeks to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East and bring Syria back under the total control of the Assad regime.

Switching partners is becoming a familiar dance for Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He asserts that the relationship with Russia is a real alternative despite the country’s economic problems and reliance on the West financially, the Associated Press said in an analysis.

Still, Turkey may end up losing a major foothold in Syria – it is backing rebel groups in the Idlib region that Syrian forces, backed by Moscow, are now seeking to take back.

U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, and Turkey’s consequent invasion of the area, have led to a deterioration in relations with Washington. Turkey is now using the lever of its planned purchase of S-400 Russian missiles to help get its way in ties, AP said.

For Turkey, "the U.S. has become even more threatening than Russia" due to strains over critical issues, said Sener Akturk, an associate professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul, according to the news wire. The perceived threat makes the U.S. "an ally that has to be paradoxically kept at arm's length and even balanced against with Russian cooperation,” he said.

But Syria and Russia are now pressuring Turkey to exit Idlib, a key strategic foothold in the country as Turkey seeks to assert its influence and standing in the region.

While Erdoğan and Putin have met 11 times since 2016, leading to more investment by Russia in Turkey, including progress on a nuclear plant, Putin is the real winner as he welcomes the warm overtures of a key NATO member, strategically positioned in the Middle East.

Turkey has now dropped a precondition for the immediate departure of Assad as it works with Russia and Iran to achieve peace in the country. As Russia allowed Turkey to conduct cross-border operations against Kurds allies with the United States, it is pressuring Turkey to withdraw its support for rebel groups in Idlib.

Turkey has asked Russia to restrain Assad from launching an all-out offensive against the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province, on the border with Turkey.

Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, says that while Russia and Turkey need each other in Syria and the relationship is far more robust than it once was, Russia holds the upper hand in its reconciliation with Turkey to pressure it to bring rebels under regime control.

Turkey is also losing influence in the Black Sea to Russia after the annexation of Crimea and an earlier Russian war with Georgia, making Ankara’s alliance with NATO look more and more significant, AP said. The Black Sea was once known as the “Ottoman Lake” due to the control the empire based in Istanbul had.

Therefore while the turnaround in bilateral relations is remarkable, it’s now hard to know if Turkey's pivot toward Moscow will last in a region of shifting allegiances and periodic crises, the news agency said.