By Arab News
By Yasar Yakis*
Ambivalence has started to creep into Turkish-Russian relations. Perhaps it had been present since the outset but was concealed by the two sides’ ambitious joint projects. But, as their cooperation in Syria has shown signs of bogging down and Libya has become an arena of rivalry, the ambivalence has become more visible.
The first signs of difficulties surfaced when Russia persuaded Turkey to reduce the size of the corridor to the east of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, from which the latter sought to exclude the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Originally, Turkey wanted to establish an area 30 to 40 kilometers wide and 440 kilometers long, from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. It was ultimately reduced to just 10 kilometers wide and 220 kilometers long. Furthermore, Ankara initially wanted to patrol this area with Turkish soldiers alone, but Moscow persuaded it to do so in cooperation with Russian troops.
The cooperation has also run into difficulties in Idlib because the two sides’ basic philosophy of cooperation is different. Turkey’s aim was to extend as much protection as feasible to certain groups there, while Russia — together with the Syrian government — wanted to eliminate them once and for all. With their philosophies being so contradictory, differences were bound to surface sooner or later.
There was also a basic difference on the coverage of the cease-fire agreed by UN Security Council resolution 2254, which called on all countries “to prevent and suppress acts committed specifically by Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda, or Daesh and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council.” Turkey was protecting Al-Nusra Front, so it therefore volunteered to persuade the relatively more moderate factions within the group — which later renamed itself Hayat Tahir Al-Sham — to lay down their arms. Despite genuine efforts, Turkey could not fulfill this expectation.
On March 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to clear a 6-kilometer corridor on either side of the M4 motorway and open it to traffic. The negotiations in Moscow lasted six hours and were characterized by Putin as “tense, difficult but constructive.” Russia complains from time to time that Turkey has yet to fulfill its promise.
However, the clearest divergence between Turkey and Russia is in Libya. Russia recognizes the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) but also supports Khalifa Haftar, who fights it. After becoming disillusioned by Haftar’s poor performance, Moscow started to hesitate over whether it should continue to back him. The stakes are high in Libya. If Russia succeeds in holding Libya, it will establish a military and economic presence there. The military presence would threaten NATO’s soft underbelly. The economic presence would allow Russia to take a share of Libya’s abundant oil resources.
Turkey grabbed a window of opportunity by becoming an indispensable ally of the GNA, which invited it into Libya. Ankara’s military support changed the tide in the conflict. Now it is negotiating with Libya’s legitimate government the establishment of air and naval bases in the country.
The difficult task that is awaiting Turkey is that the GNA is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is an embarrassing factor for almost every country except Turkey and Qatar. Now, with the US taking a more active interest in the Libyan crisis, the foundations of the power balance in the region may be shaking. Many things will depend on whether Russia and the US are able to find a middle ground. If this happens, there will be a modus vivendi between NATO and Russia in the Mediterranean. In this, both NATO and Russia would side against the Muslim Brotherhood. This would become an annoyance for Turkey.
Another important player in the region is Egypt. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood is unquestionable. Egypt is important for the Libyan equation because it is a neighboring country. There are no geographical barriers that will impede Egypt sending troops to Libya. Cairo perceives the Muslim Brotherhood threat more seriously than any other country. Its attitude may be compared to Turkey’s perception of the threat it faces from the Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.
The meeting held at the beginning of last week in Tripoli, with the participation of the US ambassador and the head of the US Africa Command, was important. There is not yet a firm commitment by the US in Libya, but there is a clear increase in its interest.
The US interest in Libya cannot be dissociated from the Russia factor. Turkey is aware that tilting too much toward the US will cast shadows on its relations with Russia.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar