As Turkish pendulum swings from Russia to U.S. in Syria

Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu (with blue tie) in the Munich meeting with a group of U.S. senators led by Graham on Feb. 15. (Photo: MFA website)

The photo above was taken at one of the meeting rooms of the Bayerische Hof hotel on Feb 15, in the premises of the Munich Security Conference. This photo alone can be an example to show how Turkey’s Syrian policy pendulum is starting to lean more towards the U.S. than Russia.
The snap is from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s meeting with a group of U.S. senators. They have their backs to the camera but the person sitting right across Çavuşoğlu is Lindsay Graham: the Republican senator who has, at times, carried out Track Two diplomacy between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan at times of crisis. The committees were discussing the dangerous tensions in Syria, Libya and the sanctions that Congress is planning to implement on Turkey for S-400 missile purchase from Russia.
A while after this meeting, Çavuşoğlu spoke at an inaugural lunch for the promotion of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, which will take place for the first time between March 27-29. Richard Moore, former British Ambassador to Ankara who’s currently working as Director General for Political Affairs in the British Foreign Office, as well as James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara and current Syria Special Envoy of the U.S. Department of State, also attended the working lunch. Among the topics of discussion there was the “good scenario” for Syria, which would be to get the Bashar Al-Assad regime to lift the blockades around Turkish observation posts near Idlib and stop air raids on the city, whilst making sure the S-400 agreement with Russia is unaffected by this. (Since the “Chatham House” rules applied to the meeting, I can’t disclose who said what but the readers are free to make their own inferences).

The anatomy of the Munich Maneuver

Right after that meeting, Çavuşoğlu had another one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during which Çavuşoğlu asked Lavrov that they should ensure the Assad regime stops the Idlib raids — being careful not to imply the obvious Russian involvement in them or give the impression of directly targeting Russia in his request. As he makes his request, he was equipped with the knowledge that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whom he spoke to earlier in the morning of the same day, previously told Lavrov almost the same thing. Çavuşoğlu also expressed that the Idlib dispute should not affect Turkey and Russia’s other cooperation, the S-400 sale. And Lavrov complained to him — again, without explicitly targeting Turkey — that some terrorists within elements that lean on Turkey have been attacking Syria as well as, specifically, the Russian operated Hmeymim airbase near Latakia. Here is a photo from that meeting, below.

Feb. 15 Çavuşoğlu-Lavrov meeting in Munich. (Photo: MFA website)

On Çavuşoğlu’s left sits his political advisor Ambassador Koray Ertaş; his right he has Deputy Minister, Ambassador Sedat Önal; it’s the typical snap of an “inter-committee” meeting.
Now let’s go back to the previous photo with the U.S. Senators to complete the anatomical analysis of this diplomatic maneuver. In that picture, Çavuşoğlu has his Director-General of Policy Planning, Ambassador Burak Akçapar and adviser Ertaş on his left. On his right, the diplomat who takes notes is Ali Kemal Aydın, Turkish Ambassador to Berlin. To Aydın’s right, the person carefully listening to the senators is also a prominent diplomat, but one who isn’t Turkish; this diplomat, sitting on the side of the Turkish committee, facing the U.S. senators, is the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, David Satterfield.
The photo could be taken as an indicator of how Ankara’s Syrian pendulum has swung from Russia towards the U.S. in but a few days; both sides are remembering that they are, in fact, NATO allies.

A front building up against Russia

Just like Jeffrey, Satterfield was present at the political backstage in Munich, also to contribute building a sort of a “front against Russia”, among Turkish and U.S. committees as well as committees from other countries. U.S. relations with Turkey have seen rock bottom a few times over the last years due to Syria. Now that the Iran crisis is escalating, U.S. offices naturally think it’s would be to their advantage to mend the relations with Turkey using Russia and the Idlib conflict.
And in truth, the atmosphere at NATO has lately been favorable for this. During the sessions of this year’s Munich Security Conference, with the title “Westlessness” the fact that Russia and China have been gaining ground has been stressed especially by the U.S. and France.
Right before the Munich maneuvers, Russia’s Ambassador to Ankara, Aleksey Erkhov, had expressed in an interview he gave to the Russian news outlet Sputnik that he had been getting direct threats against his life. This situation had escalated due to the anti-Russian sentiment emerging following the Idlib crisis. Erkhov’s predecessor, Andrey Karlov, was murdered in Ankara on Dec. 19, 2016. Just at the very moment Karlov had fallen victim to the assassination, Çavuşoğlu was on his way to Moscow to talk to Lavrov for the first round of the Astana Process. At the time, due to the fatal raids during the evacuation of Aleppo in Syria, the anti-Russian sentiment was escalating in Turkish media and politics. Upon Erkhov’s warning, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they have taken additional measures to ensure the safety of the diplomatic representations in Turkey as of Feb. 14.

Turkish Intel director was there, too

Among Çavuşoğlu’s contacts following Lavrov were the foreign ministers of Iran, France and China.
It’s worth noting that the leaders’ meeting on Libya which took place in Berlin on Jan. 19 was repeated on the last day of the Munich Conference, Feb. 16. In addition to five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain as well as the hosting country, Germany, three other countries were invited to join in: Turkey, Italy and the United Arab Emirates.
It’s also with noting that Hakan Fidan, Director of National Intelligence Organization (MIT), came to Munich even before Çavuşoğlu and had his own meetings. Of course, Fidan’s meetings with his state and non-state contacts happened not under the spotlight like Çavuşoğlu’s but literally behind closed doors. Presidents of the intelligence services of many countries including Britain, France, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Japan, Lebanon, and Armenia were also present in Munich.

Will Germany lift the embargo?

One of the outstanding conversations in both Çavuşoğlu and Fidan’s meetings was the possibility of a migrant influx reaching Europe through Turkey if a ceasefire isn’t ensured in Idlib. The concern was especially great for Germany. The concern that xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments could shake domestic politics and strengthen the far-right was a concern that Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas explicitly voiced in his joint press conference with Çavuşoğlu. And that was also what Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed most in his meeting with Erdoğan on Jan. 24 in Istanbul. A German authority who spoke to YetkinReport on condition of anonymity expressed that they wanted to stand by Turkey, but that they could only do so on a humanitarian basis, meaning support regarding the migrants, rather than on military grounds. On the same issue, a Turkish government official who, on condition of anonymity, spoke to YetkinReport on last week’s NATO meeting held in Brussels with the participation of Turkish Minister of National Defence Hulusi Akar, has consolidated Germany’s approach by saying that setting aside $25 million for the construction of shelters fit for winter conditions has been discussed — so that asylum-seekers could stay in Syrian territory without passing onto Turkey.
And this brought to mind Germany’s arms embargo to Turkey following the Peace Spring operation. Was Germany considering lifting the arms embargo following the Idlib crisis with Syria, against the possibility of yet another migration influx?
When I asked this question to German Foreign Minister Maas, he responded that “there was no formal embargo, anyway”, and that “a common response with the rest of the EU is in question”. This was not a very specific response; it showed that something was stirring in the background.


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