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Turkish-Russian partnership under fresh stress test in Syria

Turkey’s appeal for Western backing in Syria has cast a pall on its partnership with Russia, whose toughening attitude on the ground is a reminder to Ankara of what could happen down the road.
A member of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, searches through the rubble and debris in a building at the site of reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Ariha in the northern countryside of Idlib province, Syria, Jan. 30, 2020.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to the West to return to the “regime-change” game in Syria seems to be getting a hardball response from Russia on the ground, fueling uncertainty over the future of Turkish-Russian collaboration in the conflict.

Russian-Syrian air raids in Idlib, where Turkey’s military buildup has come to shield the rebels holding sway in the province, have recently expanded to northern areas under Turkish control since Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016.

Russia fired ballistic missiles on oil facilities in Jarablus and al-Bab March 5, destroying vital economic resources used by Turkish-backed opposition forces. More extensive strikes followed March 21, targeting a gas facility, an oil station and a management building of Watad, the oil company of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), near the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey in Idlib. Russian warplanes carried out the attacks, according to the Syrian daily Al-Watan.

In another strike the same day, a missile landed near the headquarters of Faylaq al-Sham, one of Turkey’s principal allies, in the village of al-Qah in southern Idlib, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Turkish border, Turkish media reported. An ammunition depot and a rebel headquarters in northern Idlib were among the other targets. Missile strikes continued the following day, hitting targets in the southern periphery of Idlib. Separately, an attack on a hospital in Atarib in the western Aleppo countryside killed six people, among them a child. Meanwhile, rebels affiliated with Al-Fatah al-Mubin operation room, led by HTS, the main Islamist faction in Idlib, targeted Syrian army forces with rockets and mortar fire in southern and eastern Idlib, including along the M-5 highway. 

The Turkish Defense Ministry accused the regime of targeting civilians and said it had asked Russia “to immediately stop the attacks.” The Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador March 22 to convey Turkey’s concerns over the attacks.

The escalation poses another stress test for the Turkish-Russian partnership in Syria following the deadly clashes in Idlib a year ago, which resulted in the government forces’ seizure of the M-5 highway and came to an end with the signing of a Russian-Turkish deal in Moscow on March 5, 2020. 

Tellingly, the escalation coincides with a quest by Erdogan to repair Turkey’s frayed ties with its traditional Western allies, including efforts for a fresh start with Washington after Joe Biden took over as president. In a March 15 article for Bloomberg, Erdogan pointed to Syria as a ground where the two NATO allies could cooperate and reconcile. “The Joe Biden administration must stay true to its campaign pledges and work with us to end the tragedy in Syria and to defend democracy,” Erdogan wrote, arguing that Turkey’s military presence in Idlib has protected “the opposition’s final stronghold” and millions of civilians. The “most sensible option” for Western leaders, he wrote, is “to throw their weight behind Turkey and become part of the solution in Syria, at minimum cost and with maximum impact.” Turkey rejects any settlement plan that “does not address the Syrian people’s demand for human dignity,” he said, calling for a new political system.

Erdogan’s appeal resonates as an attempt to use military partnership as a stepstone to normalize ties with the West and at the same time strengthen his hand against Damascus and its allies as they gear up for a fresh offensive in Idlib and even revive the regime-change agenda, which had fallen through when Russia intervened in 2015.

The escalation coincides also with a Turkey-Russia-Qatar deal for a new track in Syria, excluding Iran. The March 11 deal appears open to dual use. It places Qatar — a financier of the Syrian opposition — in Russia’s circle of influence, but at the same time compounds Turkish-Qatari coordination, which might tickle the disrupted revolution dreams in Syria. 

Russia, for its part, is not simply displaying military wrath, but has been making things harder for Turkey as part of a long-running strategy, well aware that its partnership with Turkey has limits.

Turkey’s rebel allies — clustered in the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA) — could hardly hope for the Western sympathy that the Free Syrian Army enjoyed in the early years of the Syrian conflict. The Western view of the Turkish-backed factions is so negative today that it seems to preclude any fresh partnership on the ground. Not to mention that HTS, the dominant force in Idlib, is internationally designated as a terrorist group. 

As for the Gulf heavyweights, their perspective of the Syrian conflict is now marked by an impulse to prevent “Turkish expansionism” in the region. Russian efforts to bolster Arab support for Damascus have yet to bear fruit, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov returned rather pleased from his Gulf tour in early March. 

In light of the recent developments, the Turkish-Russian partnership appears at a dead end in Idlib and northern Aleppo. A similar rupture has been underway in the northern areas to the east of the Euphrates, where the Sochi deal between Ankara and Moscow stopped the expansion of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in 2019. The Turkish military is nowadays setting up a fifth base around the Kurdish-controlled town of Ain Issa amid sporadic clashes between the Turkish-backed SNA and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the area over the past five months.

Russia has faced accusations of tolerating Turkish attacks as a means to pressure the Kurds to cede Ain Issa to the Syrian army. Yet the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, Maj. Gen. Alexander Karpov, indicated last week that Russia was deeply disturbed by Turkish fortifications in the area. Turkey’s actions, he said, violate the Sochi deal and undermine efforts for a settlement in Syria. 

What's more, the Russians, who are supposed to watch the cease-fire, seem to have stopped restraining the SDF. Attacks on Turkish-backed groups have increased in the Afrin region as well. All those developments bring up a crucial question: Is Russia clearing the way for the Kurds against Turkey in response to Ankara’s overtures to the West?

The escalation appears unlikely to grow into a showdown akin to the one in February 2020 as the Russian-Syrian attacks have proceeded without ground offensives, at least for now. Still, Turkey’s quest for collaboration with the West will inevitably have repercussions in the field.

Despite Russia’s evident anger, Ankara has betrayed little anxiety, boosted by favorable signals from Washington such as the US condemnation of civilian casualties in the recent Russian-Syrian attacks in Idlib and Aleppo. The Biden administration is obviously in a score-settling mood vis-a-vis Russia, but how much this will reflect on Syria remains unclear.

Speaking at a NATO gathering in Brussels March 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States and NATO had a strong interest in keeping Turkey anchored in the alliance, but, obviously, this requires Turkey to distance itself from Russia. Above all, Washington expects Ankara to give up on its Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, as Blinken told his Turkish counterpart in Brussels.

Though Turkey is keen on collaborating with the United States in Syria, its precondition — an end to US support for the SDF — remains a fundamental problem. Nevertheless, this precondition could ease into an open-ended expectation, depending on what the United States might offer. Erdogan might keep up his objections in the areas to the east of the Euphrates, while agreeing to Turkish-US partnership to the west of the river. In any case, Turkey’s and Russia’s settlement visions in Syria remain diametrically opposed despite their coordination in the Geneva and Astana platforms. Erdogan would hardly mind getting rid of this incoherent partnership and going back to his original agenda in Syria, drawing on Western acceptance.

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