Erdoğan asks Russia and Iran to back Turkey’s incursion into Syria


The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has used trilateral talks with his Iranian and Russian counterparts in Tehran to make the case for a further Turkish incursion into north-western Syria.

Erdoğan cited Kurdish forces in Tel Rifaat and Manbij, two towns in north-west Syria where Russian and Iranian forces are present, as justification for Turkey extending its zone of control in the country. “What we expect from Iran and Russia is to support Turkey in its fight against terrorist organisations,” he told a press conference following the meeting.

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Erdoğan against a further invasion during talks at his office, stating that “a military incursion of Syria will benefit terrorists”.

The visit to Tehran provided Erdoğan with an opportunity to reaffirm ties to both Tehran and Moscow, along with plentiful opportunities to court Moscow’s cooperation on key issues.

Putin and Erdoğan greeted each other warmly at the start of their bilateral talks, despite a brief moment where the Turkish leader kept his counterpart waiting. The talks provided an opportunity for Erdoğan to secure Moscow’s backing for a tentative agreement to evacuate grain across the Black Sea with a control centre in Istanbul, with UN-backed talks expected to continue in Istanbul this week.

“With your mediation, we have moved forward. True, not all issues have yet been resolved, but the fact that there is movement is already good,” Putin told Erdoğan. The Turkish president later referred to his counterpart as “my dear friend Putin” during a roundtable discussion on Syria.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Turkish authorities have insisted on balancing the country’s Nato membership with its longstanding relationship with Moscow.

Turkey has hosted peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and sold Ukraine armed drones for use against Russian forces. Haluk Bayraktar, who heads the company manufacturing the TB2 drones used in Ukraine, told CNN shortly before Erdoğan arrived in Tehran that his company would never sell drones to Russia, as “we support Ukraine, its sovereignty and its resistance”.

But Turkey has declined to join sanctions against Russia, stepped up its purchases of Russian oil since the invasion, and continues to push ahead with construction of a nuclear power plant by the Russian state company Rosatom, under threat due to western sanctions on Sberbank, a major backer of the project.

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“Russia can’t afford not to engage with Turkey. They want a relationship with Turkey as a Nato ally – that wouldn’t change even if Putin and Erdoğan step aside tomorrow,” said Hanna Notte, an analyst at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. “But the fact they deal so efficiently and closely on issues, that you can put down to the Putin-Erdoğan rapport,” she added, saying the leaders share elements of anti-western sentiment that has fuelled a longstanding personal relationship.

“They share a view of the world as multipolar, where countries outside of the west should have a say on how things are run.”

Yet Erdoğan’s approach to foreign policy rests on showing that Turkey acts independently, putting its interests first. This aids his appeal to a domestic audience ahead of an election expected in the coming year, where Erdoğan faces increasing opposition.

Despite previously lifting objections to Finland and Sweden joining Nato and securing the lifting of some weapons sales in the process, Erdoğan this week repeated threats to “freeze” their accession if Turkish demands aren’t met. At a Nato summit in Madrid in late June, Erdoğan’s tactics secured him a meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, who stated his support for sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, despite ongoing opposition from Congress.

Last week, the Turkish president leaned on Putin during a phone call in which he pressed for Russian agreement on the UN security council’s cross-border aid mechanism providing vital aid to more than 2 million Syrians in rebel-held areas in the north-west, blunting Russian threats to veto the aid renewal altogether.

“There’s all this leverage building up because of Ukraine and all these crises at once; it would be surprising if Erdoğan doesn’t try to squeeze something out of this moment, as this is what he does,” said Aron Lund, of the Washington-based thinktank the Century Foundation.

“Under Erdoğan, especially in the latter half of his rule, Turkey is always stirring up crises and then getting something in return for stopping them. That’s been the modus operandi all along,” said Lund.

“It damages Turkey’s standing in a lot of countries. We witnessed a severe lack of appreciation for this in Congress and in the EU parliament, for example. But Erdoğan doesn’t care, or doesn’t seem to. He can show off the results to aid public opinion and he benefits domestically – plus Turkey benefits in real foreign policy terms, they do get results,” he said.





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