Putin’s shadow casts above Syria… wait, does it really?

The Conversation/Reuters

As I have explained in past posts, the relations between nation-states are continuously changing. Of course, there are examples of historic allies that have cooperated for a long time and still do so nowadays. Nevertheless, we also find examples of pacts or agreements that break down in the middle of the talks, since the parties’ relationship is very unstable. This is largely due to power shifting from one government to another: from one leader and a specific ideology to the next, who might or might not share the same beliefs and objectives for the country.

Throughout the Motherland Russia blog I have given several examples of the foreign policy that Vladimir Putin is pursuing and the friendships he is building or challenging in order to achieve his goals in the Middle East. However, I have not explored how the situation can suddenly change and become extremely precarious in the blink of an eye, threatening to destroy months of negotiations. Negotiations whose focus may not even be related to the cause of the escalation of tensions. For instance, the clash of interests between two powers in an ongoing conflict on foreign soil can present a threat for their trade relations.

I have recently talked about the friendship that Putin and Erdogan seem to be developing, and which is constantly put at risk due to them supporting opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War. The first week of February saw an important escalation of Russian-Turkish tensions in regards to Syria after 18 Turkish soldiers died under a Syrian-led attack. Erdogan ordered immediate retaliation, but without the intention of antagonizing Putin. What are the options for Putin and Erdogan’s relationship?

Everything could go left if Putin decided to push for his interests in Syria

Erdogan is basing his strategy on the already existing refugee crisis that his country is experiencing with the incredible quantity of people migrating to Europe through Turkey or just running away from war, especially from Syria. No matter the consequences of his retaliation against the Russian-backed Syrian army, it is vital to avoid new influxes of people. If Putin decided to take further action in his support for Al-Assad, he would drag himself into an open conflict against Erdogan. However…

It is in the best interest of both leaders to handle the situation diplomatically

As I have explained in the blog regarding Putin-Erdogan relations, both leaders have a lot to gain from their flourishing relationship. We know that Putin is attempting to expand his influence across the Middle East, and that Turkey has been a major player in the region for years. Their interests might therefore clash. Nonetheless, the Middle East is not the only place where Putin wants to increase his influence.

Putin has a lot to benefit from his cooperation with Erdogan in the fight against the US economic sanctions. Erdogan is also a bridge to achieve Putin’s goals in Africa (for example, we see an increasing Russian-Turkish joint action to “ease” the situation in Libya). That is without taking into account that having friendly relations with a NATO member and portraying a diplomatic image around the world works as really useful pro-Putin propaganda, especially after the foreign policy mistakes that Western countries have made in the past decades.

Option 2 appears to be winning. Even though the situation could indeed change dramatically for the worst, we see that Putin, who usually pursues more aggressive and determined paths, has taken a more diplomatic stand in regards to Turkey by blaming the failure of the ceasefire on the terrorists… and so has Erdogan by stating the following:

“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage.”

“We will of course sit down and discuss everything. Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses”

It is a great step in the friendship of both leaders and the image that they show to the international community… but we will just have to wait and see if they overcome their differences in Syria. Or if, instead, the situation ends up becoming a big obstacle for their cooperation.