In 2015 Turkey’s relations with Russia were incredibly strained while Turkey and Iran had few points of agreement regarding a Syrian conflict that both nations were deeply involved with. After 2016, Turkey’s relationship with some of the EU’s major nations became strained as well while the Qatari-Saudi split saw the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations develop an uneven relationship with Turkey.
This week however represented an encapsulation of recent efforts that have seen Russia and Turkey become incredibly important partners in trade, energy, technological exchange and regional security. Likewise, Turkey and Iran are working together both in respect of bringing peace to Syria in the Astana format as well as in forming a united front against sanctions. Likewise, the European Union has been drawn back to Turkey as an important trading partner during a time of uncertainty regarding the EU’s relationship with Washington while both Brussels and Ankara share the same opposition to anti-Iranian sanctions. Finally and perhaps most unexpectedly, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has stated that he does not want his state’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to “drive a wedge” between Riyadh and Ankara. In reality this means that the de-facto Saudi ruler seeks to at long last improve relations with Turkey while Mohammad bin Salman’s unexpected praise for Qatar’s economic reforms during a recent speech hints that perhaps Saudi Arabia is willing to moderate its anti-Qatari stance that has always been a point of contention between Riyadh and Ankara.
All of these events serve to put Turkey at the centre of multi-regional affairs involving western Eurasia, Europe and the Arab world. Crucially, while the idea that Turkey was somehow regionally “isolated” has always been a canard, yesterday’s Syria conference in Istanbul proves that not only has Turkey been able to reconcile its multiple east-west partnerships but is doing so from a position of increased regional prestige and geopolitical influence.
Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss ending the Syrian conflict through a political process. While the meeting did not produce a revelation (as no such thing was expected) crucially, the meeting helped to visibly unite Russia, Turkey and the EU as powers that seek a political settlement rather than a military solution to the conflict, while all four nations agreed that Syria’s political future cannot be dictated by outside forces. While differences remain, particularly in respect of the Russia position vis-a-vis Europe, the meeting helped make it clear that Turkey’s moderating political leadership is well placed to pool areas of mutual agreement together among traditionally opposed forces in order to forge a solution to the Syria crisis in-line with international commitments to the letter and spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
While Russia’s position on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is notably different than that of European leaders, it is also notable that while this year Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron made statements that appeared to support the position of the YPG/PKK terror group that once occupied the Syrian city of Afrin prior to Turkey’s neutralisation of terrorism in Afrin as part of Operation Olive Branch, by attending a good faith meeting in Istanbul, the leaders of Europe’s most influential states are clearly demonstrating their renewed commitment to dialogue with Turkey which necessary will include discussions of the YPG/PKK’s activities in north-eastern Syria.
Beyond this, it has been reported that during the meeting on Syria, President Erdogan shared with his international colleagues information on the continuing investigation into the Khashoggi murder. While Russia and the EU have not yet officially commented on Turkey’s wish to see the eighteen Saudi suspects extradited to Turkey where they will face a trail, it nevertheless puts pressure on Riyadh to act on its pledge to cooperate with Turkey now that Riyadh’s European partners and its increasingly important Russian partner have collectively discussed the matter in Istanbul.
Furthermore, while the Iranian President was absent from yesterday’s summit, as all four nations involved are opposed to US sanction on Iran, it appears to be self-evident that this matter was also discussed during closed door sessions.
As the recent Russo-Turkish agreement on the establishment of a de-militarised zone in Syria’s notorious Idlib Governorate demonstrates, Turkey’s ability to moderate between different interests in the Syria conflict is now vital. By establishing trust and friendship with Russia and Iran at levels previously unseen in recent decades and by working with the EU even at a time when anti-Turkish trends in parts of Europe remain an issue of concern, Turkey’s leadership has proved invaluable when it comes to solving regional crises regarding Syria, refugee related issues, trans-Eurasian trade, Iranian sanctions and forming a responsible consensus to the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Taken in totality, far from being “isolated” Turkey is at the centre of regional affairs in ways that have not been seen in many decades.