It is impossible to ignore the fact that relations between Russia and Turkey over the past decade have reached a high level of strategic partnership on many issues of both global and regional concern. There are a number of reasons, both practical and ideological, for the development of that partnership.
First of all, it has its roots in the independent foreign policies pursued by Presidents Erdoğan and Putin, based on mutual respect for the interests of both countries, the very real need experienced by the two countries for a mutually beneficial economic cooperation and the ongoing quest for a mutual understanding on topical issues of international and regional importance. Naturally, the personal friendship and trust between the two leaders is an important factor in the current good working relationship enjoyed by Russia and Turkey.
At the same time, Moscow is well aware and has always noted that the interests of our countries do not coincide on all issues (which is only natural, since the interests of different states cannot be identical), Turkey remains a member of NATO and is allied with the United States and European countries, and there are still considerable contradictions on a number of regional issues (for example, in Libya and Syria). However, thanks to the political abilities of their leaders, the two countries nevertheless try to find compromises, cooperate where possible, and avoid conflict where their views diverge.
Here it would be redundant to offer full analysis of the state of Russian-Turkish relations on all issues of mutual concern. For the purpose of this article, the author will focus on the situation in Syria.
As readers may remember, upon the outbreak of the civil conflict in Syria in 2011 and the intervention of ISIS (an international organization that is banned in the Russian Federation), Syria became the latest conflict zone in the strategically important region of the Middle East. The Syrian conflict has effectively divided the global community into two camps, which could be described as “respecters of international law and supporters of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic” and “opponents of the legitimate authorities and the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Russia and Turkey are in different camps in relation to this issue. In the Fall of 2015, Russia, out of respect for the sovereignty and legitimacy of the official government of the Syrian Arab Republic, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to Damascus’ official request for military assistance in repelling the aggression of international terrorist groups and achieving internal reconciliation. In contrast, Turkey has never received any invitation from the Syrian authorities to participate in the anti-terrorism and peacekeeping operation.
The Syrian conflict led to a serious crisis point in relations between Moscow and Ankara when the Turkish Air Force and pro-Turkish radical forces shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber in the skies over Syria and shot the combat pilot Lieutenant Col. Oleg Peshkov, who had ejected from the cockpit and was descending in his parachute. Nevertheless, following a tense period, which dragged on for six months, the two countries were able to overcame their difficulties thanks to the joint efforts and mediation of their mutual allies Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Both Russia and Turkey recognized that the benefits from cooperating greatly outweighed any local clashes.
The subsequent partnership between the two countries was based on a recognition of Turkey’s well-founded concerns about the threats of Kurdish separatism – a foreseeable potential consequence of Western (especially US) forces’ support of Kurdish militant formations fighting in Northern Syria against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic.
As we know, the Kurdish issue is a highly sensitive one not only on Turkey, but in other neighboring countries in the Middle East (Syria, Iran, and Iraq). Unfortunately, it is common for other countries outside the Middle East to take sides in the Kurdish issue and try to use it to further their regional interests, pitting one party against others, putting pressure on the recalcitrant governments of the four Middle Eastern countries where the Kurds have their historical homeland, and seeking to destabilize this key region by redrawing established borders.
On the other hand, in response to the long drawn-out conflict in a neighboring country, (in the present case, Syria), certain regional forces may be tempted to make use of the situation to promote their own geopolitical and economic ambitions while claiming to be “fighting Kurdish separatism.”
In fact, after restoring its good relations with Russia following the crisis in late 2015, Turkey has, between 2016 and the present, conducted five localized military operations, or incursions, into Northern Syria, in order to expel Kurdish militant formations from a 30 kilometer deep border strip and thus provide it with a buffer zone.
Since August 2016, the Turkish armed forces, in alliance with the so-called Syrian National Army and the pro-Turkish groups Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Sultan Murad Division (all of which oppose the official government in Damascus) have occupied a zone of Norther Syria with a total area of 8,835 square kilometers, including more than 1,000 settlements (including such towns as al-Bab, Azaz, Jeralbus, Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn). The Turkish forces captured most of these settlements from ISIS (an international terrorist organization that is banned in the Russian Federation) and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia. Both of these groups have been designated as terrorist organizations by the Turkish government. In other words, while claiming to be fighting terrorism, Turkey is waging a blatant war in northern Syria against the local Kurd groups (the People’s Defense Units and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party), in an attempt to drive them out of the border zone and replace them with the pro-Turkish Turkmen population. The ultimate goal of this policy is to secure Turkey’s southern borders and use the Turkmen population in the region to create a pan-Turkic foothold in the Middle East.
In the last 7 years Turkey has conducted the following special military operations in Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017), Operation Olive Branch (January-March 2018), Operation Peace Spring (October 2019), Operation Spring Shield (February-March 2020), and Operation Claw Sword (November 2022). Turkey is thus carrying out military operations on Syrian territory almost on an annual basis, with no regard for the principles of international law or the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic. Its military activity in the Syrian Arab Republic was only halted during the height of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the aggressive ambitions of the Turkish hawks have frequently been reined in thanks to the intervention of Moscow and Tehran. Turkey’s military operations in Syria, initially led by its special forces, and later with the limited participation of its regular armed forces (primarily artillery and armored vehicles), has not escalated into a full-scale war, largely due to the persistent and tough stance taken by Moscow, which refused to provide Turkey with a corridor over parts of Syrian airspace controlled by the Russian Air Force.
During the closely-fought presidential elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomed Vladimir Putin’s attempts to find new options to resolve the dispute between Turkey and Syria and reconcile the two neighboring Muslim countries. As readers may remember, the Russian diplomatic initiative paved the way for a number of important direct meetings, held in Moscow in May this year, between the heads of the Turkish and Syrian Defense Ministries, Foreign Intelligence Services, and Foreign Ministries, plus representatives from the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The parties to these talks agreed to respect each others’ territorial integrity, make plans for a personal meeting between Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad, and discuss a possible road map for the reconciliation of the two countries’ differences.
These initiatives by Moscow gave new impetus to the Astana Group talks held between Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria this summer. However, in June this year, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry abruptly (at least, as far as Russia, Iran and Syria were concerned) said that it would wind up the Astana Group talks, claiming, unconvincingly, that its diplomatic goals had been achieved.
After Erdoğan’s victory in the presidential elections, the Turkish leader, while not officially refusing to continue its dialog with Syria, nevertheless insisted that Turkey would not withdraw its troops from the occupied territories of the Syrian Arab Republic, claiming that Kurdish terrorists still posed a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity and its southern borders. Erdoğan is paying lip service to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syrian Arab Republic by promising to withdraw the troops after all the security problems in the north of that country have been overcome, while at the same time insisting that Bashar al-Assad accept the new territorial reality. He is thus attempting to copy Russia’s approach in its special military operation in Ukraine, while ignoring that the crises in Ukraine and in Syria have very different origins.
In response to the current situation, Bashar al-Assad refuses to make any concessions to Turkey, and insists that he will only meet his Turkish counterpart once the Turkish occupation forces have withdrawn from the northern provinces of Syria. It should be noted that Assad’s position is also supported by Iran, which nevertheless insists that it appreciates Turkey’s concerns over the Kurdish issue.
Meanwhile, on September 28 this year, Turkey’s Minister of National Defense, Yaşar Güler, said that Turkey is open to talks with the Russian, Iranian and Syrian Defense Ministers. Admittedly, he does not accept Syria’s demands that Turkey withdraw its troops. “They want Turkey to leave, but why should Turkey leave?”, he asks. Ankara believes that Damascus should accept Turkey’s temporary presence in the northern regions of the Syrian Arab Republic, because, it claims, the Turks have brought peace and security to these areas, have brought the sale of Syrian oil under control and have put a stop to oil smuggling.
These statements by the Turkey’s Minister of National Defense suggest that Ankara also rejects the plan proposed by Iran on September 18 this year for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory, with Russia and Iran acting as joint guarantors.
These negotiating tactics of Turkey’s, especially following the resounding success of its alliance with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, suggest that Erdoğan is not only showing disrespect to Syria, but also to its key partners, Russia and Iran. Ankara’s hopes of maintaining a military presence in Syria while in effect occupying its northern regions and controlling the oil business could create a new focal point for a potential flare-up of tensions in the Middle East. Turkey would gain nothing from aggravating the situation and jeopardizing its relationship with Iran, and even less so, its relationship with Russia. After all, it is largely as a result of Moscow’s diplomatic initiatives that there is still hope for a political settlement of the dispute in the Zangezur corridor region and a chance to avoid the risk of a military escalation involving Russia, Iran and Turkey in the South Caucasus.
However, on September 29 Turkey again showed its lack of concern for Russia’s interests. On that day, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, held talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, during which the two sides discussed the expansion of NATO, and, in particular, Sweden’s accession to the bloc. According to Reuters, Turkish officials have told US Senator Ben Cardin that Turkey’s Grand National Assembly will ratify Sweden’s membership of NATO in the first half of October this year. If that does happen, then it will mark a significant departure from the loudly-expressed statements which Ankara made before President Erdoğan’s reelection earlier this year.
Such conduct by Turkey will certainly not escape the notice of Russia and Iran, and may even lead to a certain reconfiguration of the system of partnerships and security alliances currently in effect in the region.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.