As chummy as Turkey and Russia appear these days - and as much as this unnerves the US and the NATO allies - many of the two countries' interests are diametrically opposed. The uneasy alliance is currently being tested on the frontlines in Syria.
By Soli Özel
Turkish-Russian relations, the source of so much concern in the Western alliance, were strained considerably when the Syrian Army advanced in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month, aided by Russian air support. Russian aircraft even hit Turkish targets, killing two and wounding five Turkish soldiers. Ankara complained loudly about the Idlib assault’s brutality: some 900,000 civilians are trying to escape – to a Turkey that is unwilling to accommodate yet more refugees. It houses 3.5 million already.
Yet, unable to access Syrian air space, Turkey’s military options on the ground are limited. It regularly attempts to hit Syrian positions with artillery but with limited impact. At least seven of Turkey’s twelve observation posts, which were established to pacify the most radical Jihadi elements, are surrounded by the Syrian Army. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey even spoke recently of “war.” Turkey now counts 15 casualties since the assault began.
All the while, the two sides have been negotiating a solution to the impasse in Idlib – though with no results yet. Hopes were invested in a summit in Istanbul on March 5, to be attended by Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey. However, Russia just announced not to work on a quartet summit but trying to arrange a bilateral one only between Turkey and Russia, or a trilateral summit including Iran.
The Idlib crisis demonstrates that the closeness of the two sides is tenuous. As Professor Evren Balta of Özyeğin University observes: “Arguably the most important problem in Turkey-Russia relations is the fact that the cooperation between the two countries has never been predicated upon common principles, institutions or even a short-term common vision. These two countries that do not trust one another and have different understandings of their interests and of the threats they face, can only manage to have a partnership if a third actor appears on stage that both of them mistrust more than one another.”
The three-and-a-half-year rapprochement worked so well mainly because both powers were weary of American designs in Syria. Also, Turkey was deeply estranged from its NATO allies after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. In contrast to the West’s passivity as the coup unfolded, Russia stood by Ankara. Many Turks were deeply disappointed with the West’s lack of solidarity at the time.
The episode reinforced the belief that Turkey’s Western partners do not appreciate its security concerns. This was the background to President Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow three weeks after the coup, where he bought the anti-aircraft weapon system S-400, further straining relations between Ankara and Washington. Despite sympathy from President Trump, the US terminated Turkish companies’ participation in the production of the F-35 stealth combat aircraft and stopped delivery of those already purchased. A furious US Congress put pressure on the president to apply sanctions against Turkey.
Despite the two countries’ cooperation in a number of fields, the positions of Russia and Turkey are diametrically opposed in Syria and in Libya. Whereas the Turkish government is passionate about terminating the Assad regime, Russia bailed it out in September 2015 when several cities were under siege. Moreover, when Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 aircraft in November of that year, Moscow reacted with punishing sanctions.
Aaron Stein argues that “the Russian-Turkish entente stemmed from a shared interest: Forcing the US to leave Syria … The shoot down [of the SU-24] prompted a change in Russia’s bombing of the opposition, severing Turkey’s access to Aleppo city, and upending a joint Turkish-American plan to fight Islamic State in northern Aleppo. After Ankara’s defeat, the Turkish government narrowed its interests and chose to focus on driving a wedge between the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces [anti-Assad coalition], with the intent of forcing an American withdrawal from Syria.”
Kurds in Play
In fact, to this day the alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the Kurdish People's Defense Units (PYD/YPG) is the most important constituent, and the US is arguably the most serious bone of contention between Washington and Ankara.
Turkey deems it wholly unacceptable that the US support the PYD, which it calls terrorists. For Turkey, Kurd control of the entire Syria-Turkish border is out of the question. In fact, the Turkish military engaged in two operations in Syria precisely to prevent it, both of which had the green light from the Russians; the first had the tacit approval of and even assistance from the US. The first, called “Euphrates Shield” ostensibly against IS in August 2016, cleared Kurdish forces but without reaching the critical town of Manbij, a city in northern Syria, 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates. The second operation, “Olive Branch,” targeted the Kurdish city of Afrin.
Turkey undertook a third operation, “Spring of Peace,” after President Trump withdrew American troops from the area and gave Turkey the green light. Ankara’s ambition was to create and control a “safe zone” that would extend to the Iraqi border and effectively terminate the Kurdish experiment with autonomy. The US and Russia prevailed on Turkey to limit its zone to a 120 km wide and 30 km deep area. The Syrian regime returned to the border with Turkey as the Russian troops took over American bases. Politically, Turkey did not attain its goals. This was a stark example of the unequal nature of Russia-Turkey relations.
For both Russia and Turkey, their recent cooperation has been mutually beneficial. Ankara needed Moscow’s assent to conduct military operations in northern Syria. This was to ensure that Kurdish territory did not extend west of the Euphrates River. Moscow, on the other hand, benefited from Turkey’s ability to control parts of the armed opposition. In fact, if Turkey had not cut off the Islamist opposition in Aleppo, the city would not have fallen to regime forces.
Moscow also culled other perks. The two countries cooperated in the Astana peace process, thus sidelining the Western nations that favored another peace process, known as the Geneva process. Moscow’s close relations with Ankara, and more importantly the sale of the weapons’ systems, opened a rift in NATO. The perennial question about Turkey’s loyalty to the Western alliance was rehashed and many a pundit demanded that Turkey be expelled. Trust among members was shaken.
It is an open question at the moment whether this crisis in Turkey-Russia relations will lead to a full-scale break. The likelihood of a rupture is low. The loss of the rebel-held enclave of Idlib to Bashar al-Assad’s forces presents a major challenge to Turkey’s influence in the Syrian conflict. As Balta observes the “fall” of Idlib to regime forces wasn’t an issue just because it would unleash a new wave of refugees. A Turkish presence in Idlib enabled it to control the main highways. It also gave Turkey leverage by virtue of its influence over the armed opposition groups. This was how Turkey protected its gains won in military operations.
As things stand, once the Assad regime recaptures its territory and liquidates the Jihadi and other opposition groups, the military phase of the Syrian conflict will basically end. Perhaps a sliver of land will be left to Turkey to house refugees.
Since the two sides still need each other in Syria – and they have mutual economic interests, particularly in the field of energy – Turkey and Russia are likely to find a new modus vivendi. But the closeness of the past three and half years in their relations is unlikely to endure.
Soli Özel is a professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and a former Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow.