Russia and Turkey in Syria: The Erosion of the Friendship?

10 March 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Turkey and Russia have their individual reasons for being in Syria.
  • They are, however, on opposite sides of the civil war that has engulfed that country.
  • It is unsurprising, therefore, that one side, Turkey, eventually suffered casualties as a result of an attack by Russian-supported forces.
  • That, together with other reasons, has led to an erosion of trust between the two countries, which will take a long time to mend.

Summary

An airstrike on Turkish military personnel in Syria’s Idlib Province killed thirty-three soldiers and wounded around fifty (seventy, according to some sources) more. Those numbers made the toll Turkey’s worst loss of life in its operations in Syria. Ankara blamed both Syrian and Russian warplanes for the attack, although Russia blamed Syrian forces for the attack. According to Turkish Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, however, Turkey had informed the relevant Russian authorities that Turkish personnel would be operating in the area and it was Russia’s responsibility to pass on that information to its Syrian partners. As Mr Akar put it, ‘This attack occurred even though the locations of our troops had been co-ordinated with Russian officials in the field. … Despite warnings after the first strike, the Syrian regime unfortunately continued its attacks, even targeting ambulances.’ According to one source, ‘Updated reports indicate a two-storey building used by the Turkey military as a command headquarters was levelled in a targeted Russia airstrike.’ Compounding the issue, a request by Turkey to Russian air traffic controllers, who control the airspace in northern Syria to allow its helicopters into Idlib to evacuate its casualties was rejected; the casualties were driven to a hospital in Renhanli, which is across the border in Turkey.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence responded to those allegations by claiming that the Turkish troops had been in close association with Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Assad regime and which had, furthermore, captured the key town of Saraqib in the province.

Turkey retaliated by attacking more than 200 Syrian-force targets in Idlib. According to Mr Akar, ‘Turkish forces destroyed five Syrian regime choppers, 23 tanks, 10 armoured vehicles, 23 howitzers, five ammunition trucks, a SA-17, a SA-22 air defence system as well as three ammunition depots, two equipment depots, a headquarter and 309 regime troops.’

The incident has caused much tension between Turkey and Russia, which had entered into an agreement on Idlib in 2018 prohibiting aggressive action in that province. Since that time, however, over 1,300 civilians have been killed in that zone, laying bare, first, the hollowness of the agreement and, second, the fact that all sides will continue to act in the manner that best suits their individual agendas apropos Syria. That is especially concerning because, following the military actions that the Syrian regime under its ruler, Bashir al-Assad, has taken, over one million displaced Syrians have flocked to the Turkish border in a bid for safety. Turkey has taken in around 3.7 million Syrian refugees.

Analysis

Russia and Turkey have their individual reasons for being in Syria. Russia supports the Assad regime for geostrategic and historic reasons. The port of Tartus in Syria, which hosts a Russian fleet, was the drop-off point for Russian military equipment in 2015, when Russia first intervened in the civil war. Next, Russian marines were seen at Assad International Airport near Latakia, which is around one hundred kilometres south of Tartus. These ports provide Russia with direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and a regional presence. Tartus and Latakia also give Russia’s Black Sea fleet access to open water beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Russia is, therefore, hardly likely to do anything but support Assad, who provides them with this opportunity, and ensure that he remains in power.

By retaining a presence in the region, President Putin also ensures that Russia has a role to play in any developments there. That coincides with his goal of making Russia a great power once again. A presence in the Middle East also enables Russia to be perceived as a counter to the major presence of the United States there. Russia could be viewed by those Arab states that are not overly friendly with Washington as a providing a balance to, for instance, the US Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Bahrain. It is relatively easy for the Russian leader to ensure that his country remains involved in the region; he need only continue to build on the ties that the Soviet Union created with authoritarian regimes there during the Cold War. It is those same ties that keep Russia in the region; they perceive any unrest there as a security threat to themselves. By that reasoning, Russia did not intervene in Syria solely to alleviate the threat to Assad; Moscow was concerned that fighters from Islamic State could return to Muslim-majority regions like Chechnya. Syria offers a base from which Russian forces could continue to carry out operations against the remnants of Islamic State and ensure the continued elimination of that group’s fighters, even if secretive arrangements were made by other countries to allow them to escape.

In Idlib itself, Russia seeks to weaken the rebel forces sufficiently so as to demonstrate that the only regions beyond the reach of the Assad regime are the buffer zones that are controlled by Turkey and the territory that is controlled by the Kurds, with the backing of the US, that lie to the east of the Euphrates. Russia, in short, has a good deal of incentive to ensure that Bashar al-Assad remains in power. It has, therefore, allied with pro-Assad forces in Syria, such as the al-Ghanamah tribe, which remains loyal to the Assad regime and has traditionally enlisted in National Defence Forces.

Russia has previously also operated with Iranian-backed forces in Syria that also sought to support the al-Assad regime. In 2015, for instance, Tehran reportedly deployed around one thousand élite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops to back up its proxy Hezbollah forces that were fighting Islamic State terrorists. Iran sought to destroy Islamic State (IS) for two main reasons. First, IS posed a major ideological threat to Tehran. IS followed a hardline, orthodox (Sunni) version of Islam that perceives Shi’ism as antithetical to its beliefs. In the view of the IS fighters, therefore, the Shi’a must be eliminated. IS, moreover, claimed a vast portion of Iranian territory as part of its caliphate. Second, if Tehran was to prosecute its battle for regional influence with Riyadh to a successful conclusion, the elimination of IS provided it with an avenue to do so. If Tehran could remove the IS threat to the region, there would be little doubt that its standing would be enhanced, the more so since IS also threatened the Saudi regime. The elimination of IS would portray Tehran as being powerful enough to eliminate a threat to Riyadh, despite Riyadh portraying itself as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. It was unsurprising, then, that IRGC personnel were stationed in Syria, specifically at the air force facility at Ghorin, near the Syrian naval base at Latakia. According to one report, Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, met Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2015 to discuss a joint initiative in Syria. That would appear to indicate a confluence of efforts and goals.

Turkey, for its part, has declared that Assad had to be deposed since at least 2011. While that would appear to put it at odds with Russia at first glance, the situation is far more nuanced than that. Turkey does not appear to have changed its mind about toppling Assad or working with other countries to see him toppled. In the Turkish perspective, Assad has caused it no end of trouble by instigating the civil war in Syria and leaving Ankara with thousands of refugees streaming across the common border, who have to be cared for at no small expense.

That aside, Turkey is also concerned that the Kurds seek a homeland and are using the war in Syria and the fragile political situation in Iraq to press their claims for one. Turkey does not wish to have a contiguous, Kurdish territory running alongside its border, especially after Kurdish groups declared the establishment of a federal system in northern Syria in territory that they had captured from Islamic State and named Western Kurdistan. Turkey fears that its own Kurdish population may seek to break away from Turkey, together with their strongholds in eastern Turkey. Were that to happen, it would be a severe blow to Turkey’s sovereignty and an overturning of the principles established by Kemal Ataturk when he founded modern Turkey.

Ankara views any military takeover of Idlib by Damascus as untenable. Any such control by the Assad regime would trigger further mass migrations by Syrian refugees towards Turkey. From a geostrategic perspective, the loss of Idlib would weaken Turkey militarily in the buffer zones that it now controls as well as at the negotiation table. Ankara would also find itself weakened in its fight against the Kurdish forces and in its efforts to find a political solution in Syria, which would leave Assad in power. That weakness would translate into perceived weakness in its military deterrence and, as a consequence, its efforts to generate influence in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and regionally. The Erdoğan Government’s desire to be seen as a leader of the Islamic world would be dealt a body blow.

Turkey’s attitude towards Idlib Province underwent a radical change after Syrian regime forces captured Maarat al Numan. Ankara had, until then, sought to use diplomatic means through Russia to curtail the Assad regime’s operations in the province. After the regime’s forces took Maarat al Numan, however, Ankara recognised its objectives in relation to the M4 highway and Saraqib; controlling those two assets could give the regime a relatively easy path towards re-capturing and controlling Idlib, which would place a great deal of pressure on Turkey’s control of the buffer zones it controls. Ankara, therefore, began to reinforce its forces in Idlib Province. It also demanded that the regime’s forces and its supporters withdraw from Idlib Province in line with the Sochi Agreement that Turkey and Russia negotiated in September 2018.

As tempers on both sides frayed, Mr Erdoğan publicly asked Mr Putin, ‘What’s your business [in Syria]? If you establish a base, do so, but get out of our way and leave us face to face with the regime.’ In the event, the two leaders agreed to meet in Moscow, where they struck a new agreement to resolve their differences over Syria. The map above shows the agreed-upon security corridor in Idlib, one outcome of their discussions.

Mr Erdoğan recognises that Turkey cannot, by itself, bring enough pressure to bear on Russia in order to force it into temporarily halting its military operations in Syria, leave alone ending its support for the Assad regime. Ankara, accordingly, has sought to coerce the European Union into pressuring Russia to do so. Complaining that it does not have the resources to support the flood of Syrian refugees, and rejecting the European Union’s offer of more funds for that purpose, Ankara announced that Turkish border patrols would be ordered to allow a new wave of Syrian refugees, who have been dislocated by the fighting in Idlib, to pour into Europe. Greece has now become the immediate route to Europe for those refugees. Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, responded by increasing border security and declaring that his country would not allow migrants to enter the country “illegally”, saying, ‘Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others. I have informed the European Union of the situation.’

Mr Erdoğan also announced that he would speak with US President Donald Trump and the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom about the Idlib crisis and ask for their help in establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. In an interesting turn, he has also asked the US to deploy two Patriot missile-defence batteries on its southern border to enable it to thwart any future attacks by Russian-backed Syrian troops. It is ironic that Erdoğan should make that request, given that he earlier chose to have Russia supply Turkey, a NATO member state, with its S-400 missile defence system, rejecting the US offer of its Patriot missile system.

Given that state of affairs, the question must be asked, could Turkey and Russia possibly engage in conflict to ensure that their individual goals in Syria are not compromised? Ankara knows that it does not have the capacity to engage in conflict with Russia for at least two reasons. First, its military forces are arguably not as capable as Russia’s, no matter how hollowed out the latter may be at present. Russia’s Black Sea fleet, should fighting break out between the two countries, could potentially play havoc by threatening, or attacking, Istanbul. Second, no matter that Turkey remains a member of NATO, the fact remains that Mr Erdoğan has gone to some lengths to insult and belittle various Western leaders, including by reaching out to Russia for military and diplomatic aid. While Article V of NATO’s charter could be invoked, calling on all its members to assist Turkey militarily, that is not a foregone conclusion, given Mr Erdoğan’s past behaviour. His decision, for instance, to threaten Europe with an influx of Syrian refugees led to the angry reaction by Greece, which has deployed police and troops to its border with Turkey to prevent the refugees from crossing over. Thus, while Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO members and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on ‘Russia and the Syria regime to stop the attacks, to stop the indiscriminate air attacks … we also call on Russia and Syria to fully respect the international law’, Ankara cannot be sure that actual military assistance would be forthcoming, especially if it were deemed that Turkey had initiated the conflict. That could be the reason why Turkey has not officially blamed Russia for the attack on and deaths of its personnel, blaming instead the Syrian forces, even as it attempts to constrict Russia politically.

For its part, Russia cannot afford to go to war with Turkey in Syria, either. Turkey would have an overwhelming advantage over Russia in Idlib, given its proximity to that province. Russia would need to transfer massive amounts of fuel, military supplies and aircraft via the Mediterranean Sea – an expensive and time-consuming prospect since the Bosporus would be closed off to it – to have any hope of engaging Turkey in Syria. If Turkey did not attack the Russian homeland, moreover, Russia could not attack any part of Turkey’s without the possibility of NATO forces being brought against it. It is true that Russia could threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons against Turkey, but the immediate ramifications – the sure reciprocal nuclear threat by NATO – and the longer-term ramifications – such as the loss of the European market for its energy products, and the definite moves by Europe and Turkey to ensure closer ties to the US – would be too great to contemplate such an action. Turkey is, moreover, an important geostrategic ally to Russia, having agreed to open “Turkstream”, the pipeline that carries natural gas from Russia to southern Europe bypassing Ukraine, and purchasing the S-400 missile defence system at the risk of losing access to the US’s F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Neither Turkey nor Russia could afford, in short, to engage in direct conflict against one another.

Given the gravity of the situation, however, the up-to-now more-or-less friendly relationship may be a thing of the past. Given the strong-man images that they have deliberately cultivated, neither Mr Erdoğan nor President Putin can afford to be seen as backing down. It is possible, indeed likely, that the two sides may attempt to come to some kind of understanding in relation to Idlib, but the trust between them has been eroded and will take a long time to mend.

 

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