Turkey Pulse

Turkey becomes more dependent on Russia due to Idlib

Article Summary
Ankara has not reacted to large Russian arms shipments to Armenia as Turkey’s current priority is preserving security cooperation with Russia in Syria, particularly in Idlib.

Last week, Russia quietly began delivering large-scale weapons shipments worth $200 million to Armenia as agreed upon between the two countries in 2015. Armenia is set to pay for the deliveries over 13 years with 3% interest.

"State-of-the-art Russian weapons have been completely supplied under a $200 million credit. Some types of such weapons are used in the Russian army," Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan said after the first batch was delivered.

Under the agreement, the purchase includes 90-kilometer-range (56-mile) BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launchers, SA-24 Igla-S MANPADs, Avtobaza-M ground-based radio reconnaissance systems, RPG-26 rocket launchers, SVD Dragunov sniper rifles, grenade launchers, rifles and various types of munitions.

Strategic military relations between Russia and Armenia are not new. Armenia is Russia’s sole military ally in the south Caucasus. The 102nd Russian Military Base at Gyumri is Russia’s only military base in the region.

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With troops at Armavir, Meghri, Artashat and Zvartnots airports, Russia maintains more than 5,000 troops in the country. Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for its economy, investments, electricity, oil and natural gas. Since 1992, Russian troops have been guarding Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Armenia is also the sole south Caucasus country that is a member of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union. Although there was a recent major change in the Armenian government, there has been no change in its ties with Russia.

Kerim Has, a Moscow State University lecturer who closely follows Turkish-Russian relations, said Russia’s military assistance to Armenia has exceeded $720 million in the past 20 years.

“Sometimes, due to developments, some debts are written off," Has told Al-Monitor. He said "a $100 million credit agreement signed in October 2017 provides a 15-year repayment schedule with 3% interest. The latest $100 million credit will be given to Yerevan in the 2018-2022 period, With such credit arrangements and other forms of military assistance, Russia is able to keep Armenia in its axis, prevent expansion of clashes at Nagorno-Karabakh from harming Russian interests while reminding Azerbaijan of Russia’s role in south Caucasus military balances.”

This is precisely why sometimes Azerbaijan feels compelled to buy Russian weapons, Has added.

Has indicated he does not believe the latest military assistance to Armenia is related to Russia-Turkey relations or bears any kind of military message to Ankara. However, a Russian military expert who did not want to be identified said that following its establishment of bases in Somalia, Qatar and Sudan, Turkey now has plans to set up a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan. These kinds of plans are “disturbing” Moscow, the expert said, and added that the timing of the new Russian assistance to Armenia is an expression of these concerns.

But Elnur Ismayil of the Istanbul-based BILGESAM Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies agreed with Has. “Today, the priority of both Russia and Turkey is Syria. That is why both of them tend to ignore security issues elsewhere,” Ismayil told Al-Monitor, adding that Russia’s military and defense industry cooperation with Armenia should not be perceived as a message to Turkey.

Has also highlighted the importance of Idlib. “Syria is the priority but that is a very sensitive ground. Idlib, which has become a powder keg ready to go off, worries both sides. Idlib has actually become the primary candidate to become the starting point of a new Russia-Turkey crisis,” he said. “I believe that in Idlib, Russia will try to keep Turkey on its side but push [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad forward to control the region. It would be naive to think that Russia will tolerate the long-term presence of jihadis at Idlib. Remember, this year there were several attacks against Russian bases from Idlib with mortar fire and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. You can be assured that Russia is searching for a formula to put Idlib under Damascus’ control. I think the Kurdish PYD [Democratic Union Party] is a part of that formula. The number of PYD delegations coming to Moscow from Hasakah-Qamishli has increased.”

It is not hard to surmise that these PYD delegations dispatched to Damascus are primarily seeking weapons and political protection from Russia to balance US inputs.

Ankara’s policy of pitting Russia against the United States in Syria will be more difficult after the Helsinki summit. Northern Syria is not vital area for Russia like Ukraine is. Northern Syria also is not vital for the United States. If somehow the indications of a US-Russia reconciliation in southern Syria are also applied in northern Syria, no doubt Turkey’s cards against both the United States and Russia will weaken.

In sum, currently the priority is on the bumpy Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria. Yet considering that Ankara’s dependence in this forced partnership is increasing day by day, Ankara might be needing Russia even more to maintain Turkey’s military presence at Afrin, Idlib and Euphrates Shield pockets — especially after the accord between Washington and Moscow for southern Syria. Concurrently, Russia’s need for the Astana process is also diminishing following the advances of forces loyal to Assad. One now has to await and see what the non-Syria-related repercussions of Turkey’s increasing dependency on Russia are.

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Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser from 2002 to 2008. After resigning from the military, he became an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in 2016 with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the preceding decade. He has published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals, and his book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments” was published in August 2016. On Twitter: @Metin4020

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