On July 4, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in comments broadcast live on television that Turkey wanted to cooperate with Moscow in combating Islamic State in Syria.
«This is certainly a serious statement that has yet to be analyzed from a military and political point of view», Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on July 4.
Peskov also said that last week’s attack on Istanbul airport showed that it was «crucial» for Turkey and Russia to uphold an exchange of information on terrorists and react to terrorist threats together.
According to him, Russia was looking to «revive» the sharing of information with Turkey in the fight against Islamic State. «Channels to exchange information with Turkey have not been working lately. We now have to revive and relaunch them», the spokesman said.
Ankara’s offer of cooperation over IS comes as Turkey and Russia have pledged to rebuild relations after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week expressed regret for the death of a Russian pilot after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015 during a disputed incursion into Turkish territory.
On June 29, the presidents of Russia and Turkey had a phone conversation to reiterate their commitment to reinvigorate bilateral relations and fight terrorism together. The two leaders agreed to remain in contact and meet in person. Turkey’s push for cooperation with Russia is gaining momentum after the June 28 suicide bomb attack on Istanbul’s main international airport that killed 43 people.
Turkey’s FM Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in the city of Sochi in Southern Russia on July 1. The talks put an end to more than six months of political discord. Russia and Turkey reached common understanding on the Syrian crisis, including fighting al-Nusra Front militants. During the meeting Cavusoglu said that Ankara considers not only the IS group but also al-Nusra Front as terrorists. Russia and Turkey agreed that opposition groups should withdraw from the territories controlled by the militants. This agreement could be a breakthrough in the fight with terrorism in Syria. Russia has long been insisting on the exclusion of al-Nusra Front from the Syrian talks. Previously, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict since the civil war broke out in 2011. Ankara backed al-Nusra Front. It allowed al-Nusra militants to use its territory for preparing attacks in Syria. Moreover, Ankara long opposed international efforts to put al-Nusra Front on the terrorist list. Now Turkey has accepted the new rules of the game in Syria. If moderate opposition forces do not leave the areas controlled by the terrorists, they will be considered as terrorists’ accomplices. This change of position lays a foundation for cooperation with Russia. Theodore Karasik from the Washington-based think-tank Gulf State Analytics said, it is very important for Turkey to agree with Russia on al-Nusra Front to «correct its own mistakes».
«Providing coordination and cooperation between the security forces of Turkey and Russia is important to avoid the occurrence of accidents and unnecessary developments. Re-establishing this dialogue is also important for the future of Syria», Cavusoglu told reporters in Sochi.
The normalization of relations with Russia would help Ankara to focus on domestic issues. In the long run, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement could serve to bring a sustainable ceasefire and stability to Syria, which would also slow the influx of refugees into Turkey and Europe. But it’s not about the joint fight against terrorism only. There are greater strategic calculations related to the thaw between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey is a major Eurasian power. Its closer integration into the Eurasian system despite the country’s NATO membership is a natural thing. For example, Turkey already has an observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and is showing increasing interest in the Eurasian Economic Union. It is also a key participant in the Chinese Silk Road project. A restoration in relations between Turkey and Russia may lead to resumption of the dialogue between the Eurasian powers and Turkey in order to integrate it with the Eurasian institutions. It will strengthen its position with regard to the West. This is important for Ankara in the face of its growing disputes with the US (mainly on the issue of the Syrian Kurds) and the EU (cooperation on migration issues and the process of integration with the EU in the light of the state of democracy and policy towards the Kurds).
The Russia-Turkey rapprochement is part of a bigger picture. The US has recently made a game changing proposal that could lead to greater cooperation with Russia in Syria.
The proposed agreement was transmitted to the Russian government on June 27. The US is ready to work together with the Russian Aerospace Forces sharing targeting data and coordinating an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The plan requires the opposition forces covered by the Geneva cessation of hostilities accord to disentangle themselves from the al-Nusra group and move into identifiable areas where they would not be vulnerable to government and Russian air attacks.
If the agreement is in force, Russia and the US-led anti-IS coalition of over 60 nations and partner organizations will be coordinating activities in their anti-IS effort. At the same time, Russia and Turkey will cooperate on a bilateral basis to attack common enemies. The US and Turkey have drastically changed their stances. Both are reaching out to Moscow. Both have concluded that Russia is indispensable for finding a solution to the Syria crisis. Russia’s growing clout spurs diplomatic initiatives on the part of other actors aimed at increased cooperation. This trend defines the current situation in Syria.