Syria conflict: Turkey-Russia thaw may change geopolitical dynamics in West Asia

The conflict in Syria took another ugly turn on Monday night, after a 22-year-old Turkish policeman, Mevlut Mert Altintas, fatally shot the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, Andrei Karlov in broad daylight.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to condemn the assassination, and said that the killing is aimed at straining ties between Russia and Turkey. He also added that the murder is intended at derailing Moscow's effort to effect a solution for the four year long Syrian civil war.

Meanwhile, Turkey's President Recep Tayyep Erdogan too condemned the attack, taking to Twitter to state that the envoy's assassination is a clear provocation to Turkish-Russian relations.

Both countries chose a measured approach while denouncing the ghastly killing, opting to not flare up the already fragile situation in the Middle-east. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan also agreed to co-operate in the investigations in Ankara.

The murder comes at the time when Russia-backed Assad troops are closing in on a victory at Syria's Aleppo.

The bilateral ties between the two major powers involved in the Syrian civil war has been oscillating between collaboration to covert belligerence.

For the starters, Moscow has openly been backing Bashar al Assad while Turkey's Erdogan supports the Syrian opposition. The conflict enters a quagmire when one brings in the Kurds into the picture. The Kurds have been waging a war of independence since decades, which is opposed by Turkey, as parts of the Eurasian country is populated by the Kurds.

 Syria conflict: Turkey-Russia thaw may change geopolitical dynamics in West Asia

A file photo of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (R) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Reuters

On the other hand, Moscow has been supporting the Kurdish cause in order to gain a foothold in the region. According to the Al Monitor, a West Asian monitoring website, Russia had offered Kurds to form a federation, which was rejected by Damascus.

Turkey, on its part, opposes Assad — a Alawite Shia — and "covertly supports the Islamic State and other Sunni-radical groups in the region as a way to keep Shia/Iran forces in check", wrote Abhijnan Rej in this article for Firstpost. The removal of Assad from power has also been one of the main pre-conditions to settle the conflict in Syria.

The Turkish government is accused of overlooking the threat from the ISIS, while blaming the Kurdish rebels for the attacks on Turkish soil. Some wild accusations also pointed out that Turkey smuggled illegal oil from the Islamic State. However, in a twist in the tale, Turkey openly entered the war against the Islamic State and Kurd rebels in September this year.

Russia, directly entered the war in the September 2015, though it had covertly supported the national government in Damascus since the civil war began in 2011. According to an article in The Economist, there are several motivations behind Russia's support of Assad.

In what can be reminiscent of the Cold War, US, Moscow's long-time rival, supports the rebel troops. Syria has been a ally of Moscow, even when most of the Middle-eastern nations later turned towards Washington. Additionally, Russia maintains its only naval base in Tartus, in the Mediterranean region.

Syria's conflict threatened to bring Ankara and Moscow to the brink of an all-out war in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for alleged violation of its air space.

However, here also came the first major twist in the diplomatic tale involving both the countries.

While both countries are approaching the conflict in opposite direction, there has been a visible thaw in the bilateral ties. In August 2016, both presidents met for the first time since the downing of the fighter jet.

While speaking to the media after the meeting, the general sense was that the incident was being downplayed. Turkish president Erdoğan called it a “well-known incident last year”, while Putin referred to it as “the tragic incident involving the death of our servicemen”.

Analyst believe that the cost of escalating a regional war made both countries to think about a rapprochement.

According to Rej, the threat of a Nato intervention into the bilateral conflict could have had great consequence in the region. Turkey, as a matter of fact, is a Nato ally, right from the days of the Cuban missile crisis. Any attack on Ankara might have brought Brussels — and Washington — into the conflict.

Erdogan on his part, chose to move closer to Putin, as a bargaining chip to pressure his Western allies to include Turkey into the European Union. The European Union in the meanwhile, suspended talks for including the Eurasian country, because of its post-coup purges.

Media reports suggest that Turkey's ties with Russia is all set to improve after it softened its stance against Assad. This is after Ankara openly stated that the tanks are in Syria "to end rule of cruel Assad".

On the other hand, Russia is reportedly supporting Turkey to take over border Kurdish towns in order to strengthen its defence against Kurdish rebels.

This 'give and take' relationship between the two powers might change the dynamics of the conflict, which has killed more than 4,30,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Realpolitik is driving once rival countries to come together. With Donald Trump — who might seek a rapprochement with Russia — set to be inaugurated in January next year, the bloody war may see a major turning points in the future.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 17:28:37 IST