NATO’s second largest military is ‘bending’ to Russia — and leaving the US out in the cold

putin erdogan

Osman Orsal/Reuters

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) talks with Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan after their news conference in Istanbul December 3, 2012.

The United States was not invited to a meeting held on Tuesday in Moscow between Turkish, Russian, and Iranian officials aimed at solving the crisis in Syria — and it’s not the first time Washington has been left out in the cold.

The US was also shut out of negotiations between Russian officials and Syrian rebel factions hosted by Turkish officials in Ankara earlier this month. Those talks ultimately led to a fragile cease-fire and evacuation deal in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, where intense fighting has raged for weeks.

Though they are on opposite sides of the war in Syria — with Turkey supporting the opposition and Russia supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — Turkish officials reportedly signed a Russian proposal to end the conflict, titled the “Moscow Declaration,” during their meeting in the Russian capital on Tuesday.

This is Turkey bending to Russia, Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New York Times on Wednesday. “This is putting a fine point on Turkey’s policy of ‘Assad must go’ no longer being the policy.”

The Turkish-Russian rapprochement — which has been ongoing since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for shooting down a Russian warplane in November 2015 — is likely to continue following the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on Monday.

Statements released by Russian and Turkish officials in the aftermath of Ambassador Andrei Karlov’s death suggested the countries were determined not to let the incident derail their renewed friendship, while Erdogan and Putin said that the assassination has only strengthened their resolve to jointly fight terrorism.

Officials and lawmakers in both countries, meanwhile, have implied that the US may have played a role in Karlov’s assassination, an insinuation the US State Department has vehemently denied.

karlov

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov speaks a gallery in Ankara Monday Dec. 19, 2016.

In any case, analysts say, those declarations both explain and foreshadow the countries’ increasing coordination in the Middle East — and their evolving hostility toward the United States.

At this point, “Moscow has almost everything it wants from Ankara in Syria,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Including Turkish acquiescence to Aleppo’s fall.”

Forces backing Assad, including Iranian-led Shia militias and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, recently took back the rebels’ last enclave in eastern Aleppo amid heavy airstrikes from Russian and Syrian warplanes.

Turkey has long been staunchly opposed to Assad but has softened its calls for him to step down, and deprioritized its support for the Syrian opposition, amid its rapprochement with Russia and fears that an autonomous Kurdish zone will be established along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Given Turkey’s dependence on Russian energy and tourism, moreover — and the current tensions between Turkey and the West over its poor human-rights record and censorship of the press following a failed coup attempt in July — it is in Ankara’s interests to maintain the pace of its diplomacy with Moscow.

“I don’t think we should be surprised to see Turkey moving closer to Russia given the more immediate benefits that Russia can deliver,” Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said in early October.

‘It’s just a free-for-all’

As the Turkish-Russian relationship gets stronger, US-Russian relations have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. The State Department formally cut off its bilateral channels with Russia over its “war crimes” in Syria in early October, and President Barack Obama has threatened to retaliate against Moscow for its hacking campaign during the presidential election.

Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing Russian news agency RIA Novosti, that nearly all communication channels between the US and Russia had been frozen. But the State Department denied that there had been a break in dialogue.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what is meant by this comment, but diplomatic engagement with Russia continues across a wide range of issues,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told Business Insider.

“That we have significant differences with Moscow on some of these issues is well known, but there hasn’t been a break in dialogue,” he added. “Indeed, as we noted, Secretary Kerry spoke by phone with Foreign Minister Lavrov just yesterday about the situation in Syria.”

Kerry has continued to meet and speak regularly with Lavrov about Syria since the State Department formally suspended negotiations with Russia over Syria in October. But the US has not been present at the two most consequential Syria meetings held in the last month in the Turkish and Russian capitals.

Russia, meanwhile, has been quick to take advantage of the tensions between Turkey and the West.

“Russia understands that nobody gives you anything, you just have to take it, and in this environment, with the US retreating faster than the other side can advance, it’s just a free for all,” Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times.

“When the Turks, the Iranians and the Russians all agree on a process without the US being in the room,” he added, “you realize there is a problem for us.”

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