Goal no. 4: Discipline Turkey
Modern relations between Turkey and Russia have been rather ambiguous, driven by mutual respect and maybe even admiration between the two leaders (who share similar character traits and have held near-dictatorial power in their countries for more than a decade) and mistrust at the same time.
Recent years brought more cooperation, including a massive nuclear power plant project worth $20 billion, which will be owned and operated by Russia on Turkish soil.
On the other hand Turkey, being a member of NATO, pursuing accession to the European Union, is clearly aligned with the Western powers. Additionally, its position in the Caucasus and strong influence in Azerbaijan are a source of regional tensions with Moscow – especially given the wealth of hydrocarbons and crucial energetic links between EU and the Caspian area, extending further to Iran and Turkmenistan, bypassing Russia. Some ire was also sparked by annexation of Crimea, which was protested by Turkey, over treatment of Crimean Tatars, whom Ankara remains a patron of.
Healthy business relations won’t outweigh misaligned strategic goals of both countries, so Putin will use the situation in Syria to limit Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions. At least for now.
Turkish president visited Moscow a few days ago, concerned over Putin’s declarations about involving Assad in post-war Syria – what, by extension, protects Iranian influence which Ankara certainly does not want in Damascus. Their meeting ended without a joint-statement – customary in Turkish-Russian relations – what would signal that the parties did not reach a complete agreement in the matters discussed.
It was reflected in a comment made subequently by Erdogan, in which he softened his stance and declared there may be a place for Assad in transitional talks – though ultimately his departure was necessary, given that he was one of the main causes of the war.
This declaration indicates that Putin is adamant about Assad’s role in the process and Turkey is forced to accept it. In this game the Russian president has the upper hand.
Even though it may mean Erdogan’s ambitions to extend Turkish patronage over Syria have to be curbed to cover only some of its regions most critical to Ankara’s interests (notably the northern provinces inhabited by Kurds who seek self-determination), Turkish and Russian goals in Syria are not necessarily incompatible.
Putin certainly doesn’t want more responsibility in the Middle East than he already has. As a pragmatic he won’t seek to be dragged into the regional quagmire. Rather, he will simply protect Russian interests and leverage his alliances to influence the matters in Moscow’s favor.
Therefore Turkey may still hope that Russia will eventually trade Assad’s departure for a cooperative government (so Moscow retains its naval base in Tartus) that could be influenced by Ankara. Given that ¾ of the Syrian population is Sunni, Iranian influence may be something Russia is unable to defend in international talks, opening the doors to Turkish patronage.
A scenario not unlikely to emerge eventually could be a proposal of partitioning Syria and creating an Alawite state, on the shores of Mediterranean, where they constitute majority of the population.
It would separate Russian interests from the rest of the embattled country, save Assad’s head and keep naval base in Tartus under Moscow’s control. While that may spur Alawite separatist sentiments in Turkey it would also open up the possibility of Turkish influence expanding across the rest of Syria without conflicting with Russia.
Today however, Erdogan has little leverage over Putin – he must wait to see how the Russian president plays his hand.