The Syrian army has been engaged in a military offensive to reclaim the Idlib governorate since December 1, 2019. To stop Syria’s advance, Turkey started a military campaign on March 1, delivering a new obstacle to Russia’s interests in Syria. Now tasked with ensuring the survival of its ally, Bashar al-Assad, while maintaining overall relations with Turkey, Russia is looking to balance between the two sides to further entrench itself regionally.
Evidently, the hostilities in Idlib complicated Russia’s intentions. Already, on January 31, Erdogan had said: “As of now, Russia is loyal to neither the Astana nor the Sochi [peace] accords,” adding that his patience was “running out.”
Yet, the Idlib offensive went on. An attack killing dozens of Turkish troops on February 27, which Turkey blamed on Syrian air forces (even though the Russian air force was also operating in the region) further exacerbated tensions. Moscow denied that it carried out any airstrikes in the Idlib conflict, even as it has actively been supporting the recent attacks by the Syrian regime.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on March 5 and the two brokered a shaky ceasefire agreement. Though civilians reported a halt to Syrian and Russian violence, the pact is considered a consolidatory measure for Assad’s territorial gains in the province, after the regime in February had recaptured Idlib’s strategic M5 highway between Aleppo and Hama. The ceasefire, which Putin used as a self-interested gamble, has helped defuse the situation. Joint patrols over the other strategic M4 highway to Latakia commenced on March 15, though the issue of the M5 highway was not addressed.
Russia initially intervened in the Idlib conflict in September 2015 to prop up Assad’s regime against opposition forces and to help it recapture the entire country.
Russia initially intervened in the conflict in September 2015 to prop up Assad’s regime against opposition forces and to help it recapture the entire country, with its air force serving as a key ally. Russia has also vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria 14 times throughout the conflict, showing its proactive role in protecting Assad internationally.
Yet Turkey, which has supported the opposition in Syria and opposes Assad’s campaign, has concerns about the inevitable refugee exodus on its border. It has already taken in nearly 4 million Syrians fleeing violence throughout the conflict. As the rest of Europe sits by idly, Ankara has called on its NATO allies to provide extra support, citing the emerging humanitarian crisis.
However, as Russia has done elsewhere in the region, such as mitigating relations between Israel and Iran and its proxies, it has played Turkey and Syria’s frictions tactically. Due to its previously strong relations with Ankara, it has tried to maneuver and retain ties with both Erdogan and Assad.
“Moscow has long sought to ‘balance’ between Ankara and Damascus in northern Syria,” Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, told Inside Arabia. “Putin may well have thought that he was playing Erdogan by arranging for Assad’s defeated opponents elsewhere in Syria to retreat to Idlib, knowing that there would eventually be a showdown over Idlib.”
Though supporting opposite sides in the conflict, Russia and Turkey have still managed to coordinate with one another, and the ceasefire in March further attests to this. Indeed, in September 2018, Moscow and Ankara along with Tehran signed an agreement (known as the Sochi Accord) for Idlib to remain a conflict-free zone.
“Perhaps Moscow has calculated that, with the increasingly toxic relations between Turkey on the one hand and America and Europe on the other—which Putin has done much to encourage, Ankara would come to see the logic of conceding to Moscow and its allies in northern Syria in order to preserve the overall Russian-Turkish relationship [that] Moscow may have convinced itself Turkey now needs more than Russia does,” Katz said.
Dalvet Bahceli, leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), accused Putin of “playing a double game” for backing the Syrian regime against its ally Turkey. Russia had meanwhile dispatched further military support to Assad amid Turkey’s advancements.
Despite their diverging aims in the conflict, clearly both countries want to avoid a major confrontation and have established significant ties which they are loath to jeopardize.
Russia seeks to preserve its relations with Turkey as an important regional ally if only because Moscow has sold Ankara substantial military equipment.
Ultimately, Russia seeks to preserve its relations with Turkey as an important regional ally if only because Moscow has sold Ankara substantial military equipment, including Russia’s supreme S-400 air defense system. Furthermore, on January 8, both celebrated the opening of a 580-kilometer pipeline under the Black Sea between the two countries. Finally, Russia also seeks to use Turkey as its “inside man” within NATO, a bloc which has traditionally rivaled Moscow’s influence in Eastern Europe and afield.
After Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, there were fears of a significant escalation. Yet their relations survived the entanglement and they drifted closer together. It appears, the Russia-Turkey relationship can survive their disagreements over Syria again.
Moscow will meanwhile continue assisting the Assad regime, by providing further military equipment, while seeking to retain ties with Ankara. Putin, on February 29, held talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the Astana Process—the international initiative to end the Syrian conflict—meaning Moscow likely sought to use Turkey to boost its ties with Tehran, which has also supported the Assad regime.
While the March ceasefire deal acts as a temporary measure to secure Assad’s control in Syria, Moscow will look to further exploit tensions should the fighting resume.
While the March ceasefire deal acts as a temporary measure to secure Assad’s control in the country, Moscow will look to further exploit tensions should the fighting resume. Residents in Idlib already feel that this may easily occur. After all, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had rejected calls for a ceasefire just days before Turkey’s intervention, revealing Moscow’s real determination to secure an Assad victory in Syria.
“With Moscow’s help, Syria may be able to push Turkish forces back and retake Idlib—but only at great human cost on both sides,” Katz added.
Should violence resume again, it will present Russia with yet another opportunity to help Assad retake the country. Meanwhile, the current situation has also enabled Moscow to bolster its ties with Tehran and Damascus while fancying itself as a powerbroker.
Hence, while Russia still needs to preserve its economic relations with Turkey, the latter’s antagonistic presence against Assad is a direct challenge to Putin’s interests as he seeks to enforce its grip on Syria and further secure it as a client state. Analysts have speculated this could lead to a falling out, or even direct clashes, between Russia and Turkey in the long run. Now, only time will tell if Moscow can succeed in having it both ways.