Russia grows impatient with Turkey in Syria

Russia grows impatient with Turkey in Syria

On August 2, Syria’s warring factions announced a ceasefire to fighting in the last remaining stronghold of Idlib. It did not last long as three days later fighting resumed between the government and its opposition. 

Both sides accuse the other of being responsible for several months of fighting that has killed scores and displaced 450,000 civilians according to the United Nations. Another cause for the violence lies with the security guarantors of the province – Turkey and Russia. 

Previously, Turkey and Russia managed to reach an agreement for a ceasefire in Idlib in September 2018 when fears were mounting that President Bashar al-Assad would launch an offensive. Turkey worries that if of an attack on the province takes place, its two million inhabitants could form a new wave of migrants crossing the border. 

This would have been at a time when the Turkish economy was struggling, and the public’s attitudes towards Syrian refugees was changing to unwelcoming. Idlib was also home to Syria’s most extreme factions such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a successor to the al-Nusra front who if attacked would relocate to Turkish holdings in the north or to Turkey itself, creating new security risks for Ankara. 

The two nations agreed in a memorandum signed in the Russian city of Sochi that called for the establishment of joint Turkish-Russian patrols along with an agreed-upon demilitarised zone. Russia, in turn, would restrain Assad’s forces from an offensive while Turkey would seek to disarm extremist factions like HTS. 

Russia demands respect for Syrian sovereignty

Damascus has long rejected Turkey’s presence on its soil with Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moulalem demanding Ankara’s withdrawal from Syria. Since the start of the latest offensive against Idlib, Syrian forces have repeatedly harassed Turkish forces through strikes close to its observation posts and a direct strike against a military convoy after the most recent ceasefire. 

This is despite Turkish claims that Russia was notified ahead of time that the convoy was en route. Despite that knowledge, Russia warned Turkey that approval from Syria would be required if it was to conduct any operations on its soil. Turkey has promised that it would not tolerate attacks directed against their forces by the regime. The difficulty in carrying that out does come at the risk of alienating Russia, Assad’s largest backer and the other guarantor of the Idlib ceasefire.  

However, Russia’s patience with Turkey appears to be waning over their failure to disarm or remove extremists from Idlib. From the onset, President Putin repudiated President Erdogan’s call to halt an attack by labelling it an attempt to shield terrorists. While Russian critiques have not been particularly sharp, they have been consistent and increasing. 

Echoing their Syrian ally, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has previously called for Turkey to return Afrin to Syria while Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia has called Turkey’s presence in the country illegal, though acknowledged their interests in the conflict. Following recent hostilities in Idlib, Russian officials including the spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry and its envoy to Syria both called on Turkey to do more to combat extremists, echoing Damascus’ recent statement that it would resume operations against these groups.

Turkey considers its options

Russia occupies the superior position relative to Turkey in Syria given its alliance with the regime as well as Iran, Assad’s ally from the start of the war. Its aircrafts provide support for Syrian forces, and it is following Russian approval that Turkey was permitted to launch its anti-YPG Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016. 

Turkey appears to recognise this dynamic to an extent. Whenever its military comes under attack in Syria, Ankara is quick to assign blame to Damascus individually, or it calls on Russia to restrain its ally. While Turkey maintains it will defend its forces in Syria from attacks, it is unlikely any confrontation with Russia will come into play. 

To be sure, Russia does not seek to alienate Turkey given the sway it has with rebel groups in Idlib. Its disagreements with the United States in northeastern Syria make it a useful foil to American designs in the region. The Russians also emphasized in a previous statement with Turkish counterparts their opposition to any separatism from Syria’s Kurds which was considered a victory for Ankara. 

As favorable a stance as that is to the Turks, it also fits into Russia’s stated support for Assad’s goal of reuniting the whole of the country which would foreclose any Kurdish autonomy. Since getting involved in the war, Moscow insists it seeks dialogue between the Syrian government and Kurdish representatives. Following President Trump’s initial decision to withdraw U.S forces from the country, it was believed that the Kurds could reconcile with Damascus and that regime forces would quickly replace the departed Americans as a buffer against Turkey. 

It is unlikely that Turkey at this point will be able to placate Russian demands in Idlib. It remains focused on its anti-YPG campaign and may not risk openly confronting extremists like HTS lest it weakens their proxies further or invites attacks against Turkish forces or territory. HTS meanwhile has been consistent in its refusal to withdraw to any buffer zone and has continued to conduct attacks against regime forces. 

In Conclusion

As Russia’s willingness to put off a full reconquest of Idlib, Turkey has to consider other options. Ankara has no wish to directly engage the regime lest it raises the risk of confrontation with Russia, but it does have means to reduce hostilities.

Occurring alongside the fighting in Idlib, Turkey and the United States have reached a tentative agreement on a safe zone that would push the YPG further away from the Turkish border. While the deal still needs to be fleshed out further, it appears to have satiated President Erdogan who has consistently threatened an offensive against the Kurds. 

This agreement could pave the way for a Turkish-American rapprochement that would not be in the interests of Russia. Already, U.S officials have cited no clash of interests with Turkey in Idlib. In turn, Erdogan has expressed support in the past for American-led airstrikes against Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. 

Russia’s envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev expressed disapproval of the safe zone plan by claiming neither country had the right to establish one. For the U.S, a renewed partnership with Turkey could take away significant leverage from Russia by replacing its guarantees with that of the Americans, particularly as tensions rise between Damascus and Ankara. Such a move would also complicate future efforts by Russia to see Assad reclaim northeastern Syria. 

In a theatre of so many shifting partnerships, there is still any number of variables that could re-alter the dynamics on the ground in Syria. The changing dynamic between Russia and Turkey, however, will remain central to any outcome of this eight-year long struggle.

About Author

Nicholas Morgan

Nicholas is a Masters student in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London (UCL) where he focuses on Russian foreign and security policies with a particular focus on its cyberwarfare elements. He also researches Turkish politics, terrorism, and intelligence agencies as well. Beyond international politics, he has written on technology topics for an independent online media site.