Russian-Turkish relations have survived an important crash test after a harsh escalation of the situation in Idlib almost turned into a full-scale Turkish-Syrian war and threatened to derail the entire peace process in Syria.
In the end, this didn’t happen. The talks between presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow that lasted almost six hours have brought the Russo-Turkish relationship back into working order. It seems that the Astana format – a unique mechanism for coordinating the positions of the countries with completely different agendas – has been preserved.
It became clear long ago that Idlib would become the deciding point for the Syrian war. A large number of militants, primarily of extreme radical kind, ended up concentrated there as a result of compromises in previous areas of escalation. In fact, Idlib, by general agreement, had become a sort of magazine for powder kegs that had been carefully evacuated from other parts of Syria as the government troops advanced.
In 2018, an agreement was reached between Putin and Erdogan that Ankara will ensure the gradual pacification of the turbulent province, while Damascus and Moscow won’t be solving the issue by military means. That agreement didn’t work out.
From the beginning of the acute phase of the Syrian conflict, Erdogan chose to be actively involved (hence the abundance of pro-Turkish militant groups) in order to strengthen and expand Ankara’s geopolitical influence in the region and beyond. The Turkish leader thus started a large-scale and risky game on multiple chessboards.
One of them was Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Erdogan, who once had quite friendly relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, came to the conclusion in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ that the regime in Damascus was doomed and abruptly switched into the camp of his enemies, in order to participate in the reconstruction (or division) of Syria after the collapse of the Alawites.
Instead of the expected blitzkrieg, he got bogged down in a quagmire that eventually entangled all the leading regional players and – due to the emergence of Islamic state (IS, formerly ISIS) – the US and Russia as well. The regional instability also resonated with the situation inside Turkey.
Another game has involved Turkey’s increasingly tangled up relationships with the West. Erdogan is deeply angry at the US and Europe and doesn’t trust them at all. Over the past few years, Turkey’s policy towards the West has been dictated by the desire to show that it’s not all about the US and the EU; that Ankara is an independent player with its own interests and ways of implementing them. This partly explains his surprising (especially after 2015) tilt towards Russia, including energy projects, the Syrian peace process and the unprecedented purchase of the S-400 air defense systems, over the vocal protests of Turkey’s NATO partners.
All of this, however, has not delivered a very impressive result. When the situation became critical, Ankara still rushed to its Western partners: NATO for military-political support and the EU in order to apply pressure on Russia. Both have given a rather unenthusiastic response, which was mainly limited to verbal declarations – although this time the allies, especially the Americans, tried to make their statements sound as substantial as possible.
Last, but not least, there are the relations between Turkey and Russia, a complex and controversial phenomenon worthy of a more comprehensive study. On the question of Syria, the two countries are not bound together by common goals and objectives, coinciding interests, or strong relations based on trust. The basis for this partnership is rather the understanding that without interaction, neither party can achieve anything on its own.
The tormented coordination with Turkey has allowed Russia to achieve the current state of affairs in Syria, which is the return of most of the militant-occupied territory under Assad’s control. But with every new step forward, the room for flexibility narrowed and it was almost gone by the time Idlib appeared on the agenda. The tough choice boils down to restoring Syria within its former borders (possibly excluding buffer zones, like Afrin) or agreeing that some territories will remain under foreign control. All other elements of cooperation between Russia and Turkey – economy, energy, military-technical cooperation, etc. – depend on cutting this geopolitical knot and finding a solution that will allow everyone to save face and maintain the necessary level of control.
An additional problem is the imbalance in the approaches to cooperation from the Russian and the Turkish sides. While there are different opinions on relations with present-day Turkey inside Russia, no one is seriously talking about a strategic partnership and refocusing on Moscow in Ankara, as that would include a complete rejection of its Euro-Atlantic obligations.
Nobody in Russia is expecting this to happen, so any interaction with Turkey is extremely pragmatic, aimed at a specific result, which in case of getting some benefits can be regarded as a bonus. In Turkey, the debate is much more heated and conceptual – Erdogan’s policies are perceived, at least by part of the elites, as an attempt to break the strong and familiar ties, making Ankara dependent on Moscow. Therefore, the argument becomes about Turkey’s strategic approach in the future, which only makes matters worse.
Turkey understands that a conflict with Russia would be a catastrophic scenario. Erdogan hardly wanted things to go this way, but has found himself in a very unfavorable position. Russia is the only major power with which Turkey is capable of finding some understanding in implementation of its goals, in spite of severe contradictions and a heavy aura of mistrust. There are simply no other options available, due to the state of affairs described above.
Without Turkey, and even more so in the case of active Turkish opposition, Russia may also get bogged down in another swamp, and the risks would begin to increase rapidly. This includes the the risks of involving numerous external “well-wishers,” who benefit from pitting Moscow and Ankara against each other with the aim of weakening them both.
In the end, the Idlib escalation turned into a chance for a new meaningful coordination of positions and clarification of possibilities for further joint actions between Moscow and Ankara.
The Afrin scenario (a security buffer zone along the border) plus joint control over the key communications is the compromise that has emerged after the negotiations in Moscow.
Whether that holds up or not, Russia’s Syria policy has seemingly passed a fateful test, avoiding a direct confrontation with Turkey. There will probably be a return to policies in the spirit of the ‘Astana Triangle.’ This means that the Russian intervention, which was launched in 2015, has now truly brought qualitative changes to the region.
What is clear is that this is not the last crisis. A new escalation is inevitable. But there is a chance that further frictions will also be resolved in a similar manner. The fact that a “working arrangement” in this context might mean occasional “recon by fire” and human casualties must sadly be taken for granted.