On August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since November 2015. For the past two weeks, a steady parade of Turkish ministers have flown to Moscow to lay the groundwork — confirmation that the Turkish-Russian relationship, on ice for the past eight months, is headed for a summer thaw. But the St. Petersburg meeting is more than just another summit — it is the opening ceremony for a broader Turkish tilt toward Moscow.
The bases for this Russian-Turkish rapprochement are manifold, but the primary impetus is Bashar al-Assad’s near-restoration in Syria. In the past, Assad had been the major obstacle to improved ties between Russia and Turkey. The countries’ poor relations reached a boiling point when Turkey shot down an Su-24 Russian fighter jet last November. The situation in Syria has changed dramatically since that episode, however. The Russian-Iranian offensive in support of Assad has checkmated Turkey, shutting Ankara out of northern Syria. Now, Moscow and Tehran are in the midst of an operation to restore Assad’s control over Syria’s second city of Aleppo. Even an obstinate leader like Erdogan cannot ignore the hard reality that Assad is here to stay.
Thus, in a remarkable about-face five weeks ago, Erdogan apologized to Putin for the Su-24 shoot-down and asked the family of the killed pilot to “excuse us.” Two weeks later, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey might even entertain normalizing relations with Syria someday.
What to make of this sudden change? By sidestepping the question of Assad, Erdogan is attempting to unlock cooperation with Russia on his other major priorities — the defeat of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and the consolidation of domestic power.
The PKK is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has fought a separatist war against the Turkish state for decades. Its Kurdish sister organization in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For the past two years, the PYD has systematically built up its political control in northern Syria under the guise of fighting the Islamic State. Turkey has tracked the PYD’s rise along its border with alarm — especially since the group crossed west of the Euphrates, a traditional Turkish red line, to participate in the fight to capture the Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State. From Ankara’s perspective, PKK and PYD poses a more ominous threat than the Islamic State — even after the Istanbul airport attack of June 28.
Erdogan understands that in order to stop the PKK and PYD from establishing themselves along the Turkish border, he must deny them international support — most notably, from their natural regional patrons, Russia and Iran. This sets up a possible transaction in St. Petersburg next week: In return for Russia withholding its support for the PKK and PYD, Turkey may agree to look the other way on Assad.
Moreover, Erdogan’s domestic politics only reinforce his regional calculations for tilting toward Russia. The aftershocks of the attempted coup against Erdogan by a faction of the military on July 15 are steadily pushing Turkey away from the West and toward Russia. From the outset, as the coup unfolded, Putin reportedly offered support for Erdogan, in contrast to Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial equivocations. Predictably, that contrast has only grown sharper over the past two weeks: While Russia has raised no objections to Erdogan’s purges of key institutions, the West has regularly criticized his crackdowns, with Kerry even threatening Turkey’s membership in NATO.
For the Turkish press, the narrative is simple: The United States is pitted against Erdogan-inspired Islamic nationalists and shielding the alleged coup mastermind, Fethullah Gulen. One Turkish minister even flatly accused the United States of orchestrating the coup. Incensed Turkish protestors have marched on Incirlik Air Base, the key facility from which the United States flies combat missions against the Islamic State. As Turkey turns inward and anti-Western sentiment rises, Turkish military readiness will suffer. More than ever, Erdogan will rely on the key player on the ground, Russia, to limit the PYD and PKK.
President Barack Obama and his administration are not without options, however. To keep Turkey from moving toward Russia, the United States should widen its aperture beyond the Islamic State to include Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. It should also recalibrate its criticisms of Erdogan, whose paranoia seems justified by the coup. In this endeavor, the Obama administration might draw useful lessons from its predecessor’s management of the crisis in Pakistan in 2007. Rather than alienate its ally, the George W. Bush administration worked behind the scenes to craft a series of incentives and disincentives that influenced Pakistani President President Pervez Musharraf’s decision-making and ultimately solved the crisis.
Today, the United States should stand by the democratically elected government of Turkey, while privately nudging Erdogan to show restraint against his domestic enemies. Most importantly, the United States should offer Turkey assurances about the future political order in Syria while deepening cooperation against the PKK. Our current posture risks not only alienating a crucial NATO ally, but pushing it straight into the arms of Moscow.