Turkey re-adjusted its Syria policy to the realities in the field by adhering to the trilateral agreement in Astana on 15 September. This important step in the right direction coincided with other developments in Turkey’s European and transatlantic relations. It also coincided with another major decision by Turkey to buy from Russia S-400 missiles, which are the most advanced surface-to-air missiles that are developed so far.
First, the Astana Agreement. Turkey, Russia and Iran were working hard on an agreement to create de-confliction zones in various regions in Syria. The agreement reached on 15 September is one of the most concrete initiatives taken so far in the Syrian crisis. If it succeeds, it may make substantive contribution to ease remaining tensions in Syria.
After the Syrian Kurds’ initiative to create autonomous cantons in the north of the country, Turkey sees now better that its national interests converge with those of the Syrian regime. Therefore it started to tone down its rhetoric against Bashar Assad. With the decision of establishing a de-confliction zone in Idlib, Turkey and Syria have almost come to the threshold of cooperation one way or another.
The details of the Astana Agreement are not yet fully disclosed. It appears that some details are still being worked out. When completed, it will be like Turkey joining an agreement that has already existed between Russia and Iran, which consisted of supporting the Syrian regime in its fight against all sorts of opposition factions.
Now I turn to Turkey’s relations with the EU and the US. Prospects are not promising in either of them. The unnecessary escalation of megaphone diplomacy affected negatively Turkey’s relations with many of the EU countries, but more specifically with Germany, Netherlands and Austria. Germany suspended arms sales to Turkey. The US President Donald Trump took a similar action for the sale of weapons to be used by the Turkey’s presidential body guards. To add insult to injury, Trump took this action on the day Turkish President arrived in New York for the UN meeting. This cannot be a mere coincidence. Turkey has several thorny issues to be discussed with the US. They include major differences in the Syria policies; US support for the PYD/YPG; the extradition of the self-exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen whom Turkey believes is behind the failed military coup last year on 15 July; the extradition of Reza Zarraf, a Turkish-Azeri-Iranian businessman arrested in the US for having violated US sanctions on Iran; and the issue of Former Turkish Minister of Trade, Zafer Cağlayan, for whom a legal procedure is initiated in the US because of his involvement in a corruption scandal connected with the Zarraf case. It is almost certain that President Trump will raise the subject of Turkey purchase of Russian S-400s missiles.
The S-400 issue did not come out of the blue. When the Second Gulf War broke out, Turkey asked its NATO allies to deploy ‘patriot’ air defence missiles in the airfields near the Iraqi border to protect Turkey from possible attacks. NATO allies agreed to it reluctantly and added conditions to it. Furthermore they refused to extend the deployment while the instability in the region was still going on. Upon this Turkey decided to develop its own national air defence system and opened a tender. The bids submitted by the NATO allies were too high and did not include any technology transfer. Chinese offer was more competitive, but it did not work because of the US pressure. Then Turkey decided to buy Russian missiles, which includes transfer of technology.
Turkey is part of the NATO air defence system called NADGE (NATO Air Defence Ground Environment). Because of difficulties of interoperability with this existing system there will be several shortcomings, but the political message of the deal is more important than its additional contribution to Turkey’s defence.
The deal will definitely affect negatively Turkey’s relations with NATO, but it is not likely to go as far as severing its relations with the alliance in the foreseeable future. It is rather a sign of improved relations with Russia and Turkey’s self-confidence in acting independently from the alliance.
Yaşar Yakış is former Turkish foreign minister.