The Istanbul Attack Could Bring Turkey and Russia Together
On June 30, black-clad gunmen opened fire and detonated suicide vests at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, killing forty-two. This tragedy was the latest repercussion of the chaos engulfing Syria. If President Erdoğan were a gambling man, he would be broke by now. Recent Turkish foreign policy has been rife with failures, most notably the bet that President Assad would fall. Marginalized by the West for “Neo-Ottoman” excesses, Erdoğan turned to Putin, that is, until Turkey downed a Russian jet in November 2015. Erdoğan’s attempt to convey resolve to his base was costly. Russia boycotted Turkish goods and barred travel to the country—a problem exacerbated by terror attacks. Ankara has a window of opportunity to mend ties with regional players, namely Moscow, acquire a better seat at the postwar Syria negotiating table and renew its global image in the process. Wednesday’s terror attack, apparently perpetrated by Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals at the behest of ISIS, could Turkish and Russian interests into alignment. Ankara would be well advised to secure Russian cooperation in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey should continue to support the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in addition to pursuing a new partnership with Russia. Turkey’s harassment of journalists and political opposition soured relations with the West; Erdoğan’s subsequent media blitz has fallen on deaf ears in Washington. If Erdoğan is serious about defeating ISIS, he needs to accept that Assad will not be ejected from power and double down on securing peace in Syria. Turkey will be unable to attract tourists in large numbers until ISIS is defeated and Russian sanctions are relaxed. Putin would find this arrangement favorable, as Western sanctions against the Kremlin have taken their toll.
Of critical interest to Moscow is intelligence on Russian citizens who have been fighting for ISIS. Some officials in Grozny claim that as many as four thousand Chechens have left to fight in Syria. Ankara could prove useful in tracking the movement of radicalized recruits on behalf of the Kremlin. Providing such information would solidify Turkey’s outward stance to the Russians that it is tough on terror, while helping Moscow in its stated goals of destroying ISIS.
Working with Russia would guarantee greater Turkish influence on the fate of the Kurds. Moscow and Washington have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. The threat from ISIS and Kurdish separatism bedevil Erdoğan in equal measure. Turkey realizes a Kurdish state is inevitable; time is running out as the Kurds gain more territory at ISIS’s expense. The real question is where the borders will be drawn. Ankara controls large swathes of what could in theory constitute “Kurdistan.” A Turkey-Russia anti-ISIS coalition would give Erdoğan enough influence over the fate of Syria to ensure that a future Kurdistan takes root only in Iraq and Syria, not Turkey.
Finally, Turkey could serve as an intermediary between the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign and Russia. Despite differences between the two (notably American concerns over civilian deaths and the bombing of non-ISIS rebels), overlapping interests exist. The primary goal, after all, is the destruction of ISIS. Russia and Turkey want to appear powerful to their domestic constituencies; killing terrorists fits squarely into this narrative. Turkey could help deconflict Russian and U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions. Turkish and Western officials must accept that whether they like it or not, Assad—as brutal as he is—is not going anywhere soon and ISIS is now the greater threat.
Despite the abysmal gambling record of recent Turkish foreign policy, the terror attack in Istanbul may prove a turning point. International public opinion is on Ankara’s side and it must not be squandered. Instead of cracking down on the Kurds or the opposition, Erdoğan needs to use this opportunity to stabilize Syria. Reconnecting with Russia will help his own country’s economy and better position Turkey to oversee the conclusion of the Syrian Civil War. Prioritizing ISIS’s annihilation provides Ankara with bargaining chips, hopefully ensuring Assad’s peaceful departure after the war. Although his luck has been poor thus far, “Sultan Erdoğan” may be holding a royal flush.
Blake Franko is an assistant editor at the National Interest.
Image: President Putin and Erdoǧan at a meeting in Baku, June 2015. Kremlin photo.