Turkey beats US to Syria punch

One year ago, it was inconceivable that Ankara, Moscow would broker Syria deal

ANKARA - By brokering with Russia a ceasefire agreement for Syria, Turkey is hoping to sideline the United States at a time of rising tension and ensure Ankara has a say in its neighbour's postwar future.
One year ago, it was inconceivable that Turkey and Russia would agree a truce for Syria, with both spitting out venomous accusations over the shooting down by Ankara of a Russian war plane.
But after a reconciliation process of sometimes dizzying speed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have overseen a truce deal welcomed by all sides in the conflict that may lead to peace talks.
Even the December 19 assassination of Russia's ambassador to Ankara in the heart of the capital failed to derail the process, indeed bringing the two countries closer.
The ceasefire was announced after weeks of talks hosted by Turkey in Ankara between Russian representatives and the Syrian opposition that Turkey worked to support and keep secret.
Previous stabs at a ceasefire have involved Russia and the United States, but on this occasion little effort was made to include Turkey's NATO ally.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, said Turkey was acutely aware US President-elect Donald Trump could strike a deal on Syria with Russia shortly after taking office and wanted to get in there first.
"Ankara has seen the writing on the wall that Trump and Putin will have a deal on Syria, and is therefore, working to have its own deal with Putin ahead of the Trump presidency," he said.
- 'Shaken relations' -
The ceasefire deal with Russia comes at a time when Turkey's relations with the United States are encountering strains unseen since the Iraq war of 2003.
Whereas Erdogan hailed the Syria ceasefire as a "historic opportunity", the State Department was less euphoric, calling it "a positive development".
Turkish officials are livid over US backing for Syrian Kurdish militia groups seen by Ankara as the local branch of the Kurdish militants who are waging a deadly insurgency inside Turkey.
"No development, no regional and global policy since the 1950s shook Turkey-US relations so deeply," wrote Ibrahim Karagul, editor-in-chief of the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak daily.
Adding to the frustration, Ankara claims it has received no US military support for Turkey's own incursion inside Syria aimed at cleansing the border area of jihadists and the Kurdish militia.
The Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies have for weeks been stuck and taking casualties in the town of Al-Bab where jihadists have offered their fiercest resistance.
With conspicuous timing, the Turkish army on Friday said Russian planes hit IS targets in Al-Bab and south of the city three times for the first time, in apparent support of the Turkish operation.
"Washington has been reticent to extend air support to Turkey's campaign," said Cagaptay. "Therefore, Turkey is turning towards Russia."
- 'Greatest struggle' -
Ankara and Moscow had seemed unlikely partners to broker a deal on the Syria conflict, having stood on polar opposite sides since the war began in 2011.
Erdogan has denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "murderer who has killed 600,000 of his own people" and must be ousted.
Russia is the regime's chief ally and its intervention in Syria from September 2015 tipped the balance of the conflict against the Turkey-backed rebels.
Yet Ankara remained silent as Assad claimed full control of Aleppo in his most decisive victory of the civil war and worked with Moscow on an evacuation deal.
Erdogan instead stepped up his rhetoric against the United States, even accusing Washington of backing IS jihadists.
With the regime holding the upper hand, Turkey has decided to work with Russia rather than against it to ensure Ankara has a say in the postwar future of Syria, whose land was part of the Ottoman Empire and is still considered to be its backyard.
Erdogan said in a speech on December 22 that Turkey risked being the victim of a new Sevres Treaty -- the 1920 agreement that was to partition the Ottoman Empire -- if it stood still in the region.
"We are in the biggest struggle since the War of Independence" that ensured the creation of modern Turkey in 1923, Erdogan said.
Turkey's own incursion in Syria has crucially been aimed not only at Islamic State (IS) jihadists also but also preventing Syrian Kurds establishing a key corridor from Aleppo province into Turkey.
"Turkey's policy on Assad has suffered a clear defeat," said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group.
"But Erdogan is still fighting to keep the Syrian Kurds in check and sees cooperation with Putin as the best way to achieve it."