Russian officials announced Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, at some point over the following months – the latest sign that trilateral relations are deepening. Earlier this month, officials from all three countries convened for two-day talks on Syria in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, following on the Moscow Declaration that their foreign ministers signed in December. Turkey’s ongoing pivot to NATO’s two leading adversaries continues to raise questions over its commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
Until recently, Erdogan was a major player in the Syrian proxy war against the Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime. Relations between Ankara and Moscow had hit a low point in November 2015 with Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet. Russian sanctions targeting Turkey’s flailing economy, and the abortive Turkish coup of last July, however, pushed Erdogan back into Putin’s arms, and the two strongmen mended fences during a bilateral summit last summer in St. Petersburg.
Turkey’s signing of the Moscow Declaration, guaranteeing Syria’s “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity,” marks the abandonment of its policy of seeking regime change next door. Ankara’s convergence with Russian and Iranian positions continued with the Astana summit, where the parties announced a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire in Syria. Holding the summit in Astana was a deliberate Russian-Iranian attempt to undermine the Western-led Syria negotiations in Geneva.
At the previous week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek reiterated his government’s U-turn by stating that Ankara “can no longer insist on a Syria settlement without Assad.” This statement was poorly received among the Islamist support base of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Simsek's office issued a denial claiming a Russian news agency had twisted his words. Soon after, however, footage of the minister’s talk surfaced confirming the remarks.
Turkey’s pivot to Russia and Iran, and the accompanying turnaround in its Syria policy, stems from two intertwined developments. Erdogan’s support for jihadist proxies in Syria had led to a blowback at home, as since summer 2015 Turkey has become a target for jihadist violence. Turkish officials also witnessed the expansion of Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington deem a terror group. Turkey views the prospect of a contiguous PYD-administered entity bordering the country as an existential national-security threat.
The U.S. and NATO must address Turkey’s security concerns while also reminding it of its responsibilities as an ally. Failure to do so would help Moscow and Tehran shift the terms of the Syria debate, and a decades-long NATO member itself, ever closer to their anti-Western orbit.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.