Turkey in Afghan bargain with US amid tensions with Russia

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu hosted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in his hometown Antalya. (Photo: Twitter / Russian Foreign Ministry)

The 21st Sea Breeze exercise of NATO in the Black Sea began on June 28. The most comprehensive of Sea Breeze ever will end on July 23. Ukraine, a non-NATO member, hosts the exercise participated by NATO countries including Turkey, disturbing Russia, which invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. With the arrival of the Russian tourists after Moscow eased pandemic restrictions, the Turkish sector professionals were relieved, but now the Black-Sea-Ukraine tensions add to the Syria and Afghanistan issues between Turkey and Russia.
Two days after the start of the exercise, on June 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in the Turkish resort city of Antalya to meet with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. They met in a hotel in the town of Alanya. Russia gave Turkey what it wanted most in recent daysAs in everything else, there is no such thing as taking without giving anything in international relations.
The question is: What did Lavrov want from Turkey after two years?

Bargain about Syria

Looking at the joint press conference, one can say that the two ministers mostly talked about Syria, not Ukraine. At least, we can say this, considering a diplomatic custom of agreeing on not sharing everything talked behind closed doors with the public.
In fact, it is understood that the planning of Lavrov’s visit was not made in two days, the preparation dates back to earlier. One of the developments that made this visit necessary for Lavrov was the visit of the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to Turkey on 2-4 June. In the U.S. system, the representative to the U.N. is considered a member of the president’s narrow cabinet who has a say in all crucial decisions During her visit to Ankara, Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., Feridun Sinirlioğlu was also present. Greenfield met with Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Advisor İbrahim Kalın, before she went to Gaziantep in the southeast for contacts and observations on the Syrian border.
The apparent purpose of these contacts and observations was to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in the Idlib-Aleppo region in Western Syria and to ease the burden on Turkey regarding refugees. The unseen reason was cooperation to balance the power of Russia in the west of Syria in return for the US pulling the outlawed PKK’s Syrian branch YPG (although it did not give up its support totally) to the fight against ISIL in the regions that would not pose a threat to the Turkish border.
The U.N. is already sending humanitarian aid to civilians in western Syria. However, Russia delivers the aid and hands it to the Syrian state. The U.N aid distributed as if it were from the Bashar Assad regime and used for domestic political propaganda. (This is very similar to the election aid methods in Turkey, but let stay focused on the main issue.) However, the West, the provider of the largest portion of the aid, wants it to be distributed under the name of the U.N., and it also wants the civilians evacuated from the conflict zones by the regime to know that the aid is not the grace of Assad, but an international effort.

US-Russia balance through Turkey?

When humanitarian aid to Syria came to the table at the NATO summit on June 14, tensions increased in Moscow. On top of this, a draft resolution submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by Norway and Ireland on June 26, suggested continuing sending humanitarian aid to Syria but via Turkey and Iraq. Russia’s consent is awaited for the approval this proposal. The fact that the search for reconciliation with Russia on Syria came to the agenda in the Çavuşoğlu-Lavrov on June 30 is in line with the flow of life. Reconciliation with Russia is also important for Turkey. In early 2020, 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack from the Russian-controlled region neighboring Idlib. Three soldiers were killed in similar attacks in April and May 2021. Ankara does not want these attacks to be repeated. This tension with Russia is so sensitive that Russian Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said right after the joint press conference that some remarks were wrongly translated and Lavrov did not say the attackers were Assad forces, but “Both Russia and Syria have nothing to do with the attack.” If not them, Ankara thinks of the other possible scenarios. Namely, the possibility of an attack by the YPG, or a provocation action by a group that has not yet emerged to further destabilize the relations of Russia and Turkey.
And this meeting came at a time when the issue of Afghanistan added to the matters of Syria, Ukraine and Black Sea between Turkey and Russia.
U.S. President Joe Biden distanced himself from President Tayyip Erdoğan, but he wants to show that he is not that distant from Turkey. As the first sign of this, even before responding to Erdoğan congratulatory phone after months, he proposed Turkish mediation in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In addition, Turkey might also undertake the management of the Kabul airport. Turkey is already responsible for the security of the country’s gate to the world.

After meeting with Biden on June 14, Erdoğan said Turkey wanted to see Pakistan and Hungary in Afghanistan. Ankara knows the region well enough to be aware that nothing could be done in Afghanistan without the contribution of Islamabad. The Hungary issue also came to the fore after Viktor Orban’s meeting with Erdoğan on the same day. The fact that Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union has symbolic significance.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar held talks in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the last two days.

Tajikistan neighbor to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. It is also known that Turkey wants to benefit use Uzbek Turk Rashid Dostum in its Afghanistan initiative.
When Turkey takes on the control of the Hamid Karzai airport after the U.S. withdrawal, the contact points of all countries and international organizations in Afghanistan and embassies and representations with the world will be under its responsibility.
On the other hand, Afghanistan is a country that has made every foreign military force on its soil regret. This includes the U.K., Russia and the U.S. The Taliban do not want Turkey’s presence. There is a public concern that after Syria, Turkey might now be dragged into the Afghan swamp. Another concern is about Turkey’s importance in the Western alliance once again limited by its military capabilities, as it was during the Cold War. Afghanistan’s geographical closeness with Russia through the Central Asian Republics is also a threat to Moscow, which is worried about radical Islamist movements.
Therefore, although the actual bargaining on Afghanistan is carried out with the U.S., Russia is also active both at the bilateral level and as a Permanent Member of the U.N. Security Council.
Few in Turkey are concerned about the Afghanistan issues but the country is on the verge of important developments in foreign policy that will have an impact on its future.

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