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Although the war in Syria has ostensibly been a civil war, since its early years the combatants have leaned heavily on assistance and even military might from foreign powers. Turkey and Russia are two of the key players. But how have the aims of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin aligned or competed in Syria?
Russia’s approach to Syria has, like Turkey’s, been shaped by long-standing relations and self-interest. Throughout much of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a determined ally of the Syrian Arab Republic. Moscow was a reliable source of arms and monetary support, bestowing the Kremlin with the influence to shape regional power dynamics and the political landscape in the Middle East.
A similar logic seems to have underpinned Putin’s decision to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime since 2011. Although Russia has maintained warm ties with Syria in the decades since the Cold War, earning Syrian indebtedness since 2011 has served the Kremlin’s desire to re-establish Russian power brokering in the Middle East.
The start of the conflict coincided with a low point in Russian international standing: shunned by the West and with no meaningful role in the Middle East, many questioned whether Russia still deserved the superpower status it had accrued during the 20th century. By propping up the al-Assad government and thus vexing Western and some regional hopes of seeing the revolution succeed, Russia crowbarred a place for itself at the international negotiating table. This status was bolstered when Putin used his influence with Damascus to engineer the supposed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, in the process halting American plans to bomb the Syrian regime over its use of these weapons against its own citizens.
From 2015, Moscow deployed aircraft and then troops to Syria, confirming Russia’s resolute support for al-Assad. In the years since, Russian forces have backed Syrian advances with devastating (and often indiscriminate) firepower, while Russian troops have played a more supporting role. (Noteworthy has been the deployment of Russian mercenaries in Syria, who have played a more offensive role, reportedly to secure commercial stakes in the oil-rich areas they have targeted).
These Russian forces have been largely based at al-Khmeimim airbase and supplied through the port at Tartus, in an arrangement backed by a written treaty.
Russia’s role in Syria has almost certainly also benefitted Putin at home. There has been some media attention for and limited public outcry around Russian combat casualties, but the worst of these have been incurred by mercenary groups rather than official troops, relieving pressure on the Kremlin.
In contrast, Russian officials have maintained throughout their involvement in Syria that they are ‘combatting terrorism’, claiming to be targeting Islamic State during raids on areas held by other rebel groups. In a country that has grappled with the threat of homegrown terrorism for decades, this rhetoric (however superficial) no doubt strikes a chord with many Russians. Despite evidence that the Russian intelligence services facilitated the passage of many Russian jihadis to Syria, ostensibly targeting them in Syria has likely been a crowd-pleaser back home.
Ankara has long had an antagonistic relationship with Damascus, rooted in the fact they were on opposing sides in the Cold War, a historic dispute over the ownership of Hatay province and Damascus’ support for the Kurdish PKK insurgency in Turkey. While ties between the two countries warmed during the early years of al-Assad’s rule, the regime’s repression of the nascent revolution in 2011 turned these relations frosty again.
Turkey’s actions in Syria have been shaped by this long-running antagonism, and Ankara has been a strong proponent of ousting the al-Assad family from power. Turkey has remained firmly on the side of the Syrian rebels and even some hardline Islamists during the war, with wounded fighters being treated in Turkey, the intelligence services providing arms and Turkey acting as something of a rest and recuperation area for war-weary rebel fighters and their families.
Ankara has been a vocal critic of the al-Assad regime and its supporters, garnering a reputation as a fierce proponent of the Syrian revolution on the world stage and a shelter for its refugee population. This has been a key counterweight to concerns during the last decade over Turkey’s declining human rights record and growing authoritarianism, allowing it to retain some moral high ground in the region.
However, Ankara’s first priority has always been its own security and geopolitical concerns, even using the Syrian refugee outflow as a bargaining chip with the European Union (EU) for more funds and even possible accession to the union. Indeed, despite his long-standing support for the Syrian rebels, Erdogan acknowledged in early 2019 that Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies have maintained ties, perhaps a practical move but also one with self-interest at its heart. Through the tumult of the war, Turkey has kept its crosshairs trained on the threat of Kurdish militants, arguably its foremost priority. Fears of an American troop withdrawal, leaving Kurds in Syria open to attack, only reinforces this.
My Enemy’s Enemy
While Russia and Turkey have created and maintained a relatively stable status quo regarding their opposing interests, their interests only align in not impeding on each other’s interests. Even so, in 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft on the Syrian border, drawing Moscow’s ire and temporary economic sanctions.
That aside, Russia is largely content to allow Turkey unfettered dominion over a tranche of northern Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey has ended its most overt support for the Islamist rebels in Idlib province, trapping them in a unwinnable war that seems fated to end in the bloody reconquest of the province by al-Assad and Russia.
The Astana accords have been key to this. An arena of negotiation outside of the US and Western powers’ realm of influence, these agreements have allowed Turkey and Russia to forge their own division of power in northern Syria, demarcating de-escalation zones bordered by observation posts garrisoned by each countries’ forces. This has gifted Ankara with clear zones of influence in north-western Syria, while equally allowing Moscow to draw a ‘line in the sand’ for rebel expansion. Syria’s main bastion of Arab resistance has been officially cornered, with Turkish and Russian outposts marking its limits. Separately, the Turkish invasion of the Afrin enclave in northern Syria was seemingly pre-negotiated with Moscow, as Russian troops were pulled out of the area before the military incursion began.
In north-eastern Syria, this relationship is more complex. Turkey has long maintained its desire to establish a similar safe zone along the border – interpreted by many to mean a military buffer zone against separating US-supplied Syrian-Kurdish militants from Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey. Russia has maintained a neutral stance towards Syria’s Kurds, backing al-Assad’s calls for the ‘reunification’ of Syrian governance but equally not attacking their forces. Further, Turkish military incursion eastwards across the Euphrates is likely not favoured by Moscow, as the entrenchment of Turkish influence in these areas (as is already the case in Afrin) will surely make re-establishing Syrian control more difficult in the future.
Both Russia and Turkey share an interest in testing and flaunting their homemade arsenals in Syria. Although there is no concrete evidence that Russia and Turkey worked together to prolong the fighting, both have made wide use of the conflict to show off their respective weaponry to prospective international clients.
This, along with the cooperation both countries have fostered to further their interests in Syria, has culminated in Turkey contravening the wishes of Ankara’s NATO allies, to try and purchase Russia’s premier anti-aircraft missile system, which Moscow has deployed in Syria.
Arguably, such a deal could hold more negatives than positives for Turkey, but it would characterize this new era of Russian and Turkish geopolitics; an era in which renewed military might and new geopolitical alliances put self-interests above all else.