Turkey’s offensive into Northern Syria may have been short-lived, as President Recep Erdogan went to Moscow as the “defeated” party. Yet, Russia’s rush to rescue Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces exposed Putin’s deep concerns over the prospect of wrestling with a more difficult ally in the near future—Iran.
For Turkey, the reasoning behind its Operation Spring Shield incursion into Northern Syria was clear. With Assad’s forces making gains in Idlib province, the number of refugees heading towards Turkey posed an alarming threat to a Turkish economy under strain.
Moreover, President Erdogan faces a local opposition growing in self-confidence after seizing Istanbul and uniting Ankara and Izmir in the municipal elections amidst growing anti-refugee sentiment.
With limited support from Europe—which would welcome a weakening of a frustratingly dominant and influential Turkish president, and from the US—which remains concerned over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, Turkey finds itself isolated in Syria.
In other words, Operation Spring Shield was more a lashing out by a cornered NATO member than any example of a carefully considered and calculated military operation.
With little diplomatic leverage, Turkey sought to assert itself over Russia in Syria using force.
Given the thaw in Moscow’s relationship with Europe, and France’s lobbying for warmer relations, Putin had become less responsive and sympathetic to Erdogan’s concerns over Syria.
Given the recent thaw in Moscow’s relationship with Europe over the past few months, and France’s lobbying for warmer relations between the two parties, Putin had become less responsive and less sympathetic to Erdogan’s concerns over Syria. Russia was no longer the isolated party that found solace and an effective marriage of convenience in an equally isolated Turkey just a year ago.
Only Putin underestimated the effectiveness with which Turkish forces would strike Assad’s and the extent of the damage Turkey would wreak on the Syrian armed forces. The swift advance and subsequent capturing of Saraqeb was a humiliation for Russia’s ally, and therefore for Russia, which had painstakingly portrayed itself as the overlord of Syria and its future.
Ordinarily, Russia would not have been particularly concerned by this. Putin is well aware that Turkey has little issue with Idlib returning to Assad’s authority eventually. The Russian President is acutely aware that Turkish intervention in Syria is built primarily on legitimate security concerns over the movement of the Kurdish separatist forces—Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), and economic worries over the prospect of bearing the brunt of looking after an estimated 4 million refugees.
Moreover, Turkish public opinion has little appetite for military excursions into Syria beyond that which directly relate to threats that resonate with nationalist sentiments such as Kurdish separatism.
Putin’s concerns lay in the potential altering of military dynamics on the ground to such an extent that it would weaken Moscow’s ability to leverage against a more difficult ally—Iran.
In other words, Putin did not fear that Turkey would somehow launch a military campaign of such magnitude that the Syrian opposition would find themselves propelled to a position of strength overnight. Instead, Putin’s concerns lay in the potential altering of the military dynamics on the ground to such an extent that it would weaken Moscow’s ability to leverage against another more difficult ally—Iran.
By delivering heavy losses to Assad’s forces, Turkey threatened to provide a golden opportunity for Iran’s militias to emerge at the forefront once more. Although Iran has played a pivotal role militarily, Russia has often displayed a preference for the use of the Syrian armed forces in establishing Assad’s control over key areas.
The reasoning is well founded. Russia has limited its involvement to military advisory and air strikes. In other words, it has not deployed significant ground troops on the basis that the Syrian armed forces will do the fighting instead.
However, Iran’s policy is far more involved. Iran’s militias operate on the ground giving them a physical presence that has wider ramifications for the Syrian state if Assad succeeds in restoring his control over the country. Iran’s foreign policy is built on militias who operate in a grey area within and outside a weak state apparatus.
Hezbollah – a party deeply sympathetic to Iran and whose members fight on behalf of Iran’s interests in Syria, for example, is part of the Lebanese political system. As a militia, it is able to exercise power disproportionate to its democratic representation. Likewise, in Iraq, Iran-backed militias exert enormous power over Iraq’s political system to the extent that many have political wings that represent influential blocs within parliament.
Although Iran and Russia are united in their backing for Assad, they are not united in their vision as to what Syria should look like.
Although Iran and Russia are united in their backing for Assad, they are not united in their vision as to what Syria should look like. Russia favors strong Syrian state institutions that it can influence. Iran prefers weaker institutions that allow its proxy allies to act ultra vires if, and when, needed.
For Putin, Iran is a far more difficult ally than Turkey.
Erdogan may have aspirations for Turkey to play a bigger role in international affairs. Yet, the Turkish population is more accustomed to an isolationist foreign policy that has its roots in former President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy, who exchanged Turkey’s regional leadership for peace with the victors of the first World War.
Iran, though, is committed to an expansionist foreign policy that has led it to dominate the political scene in Iraq and Lebanon and provide sufficient backing for the Houthis in Yemen. Moreover, while Iran appears to be inspired by a Shia ideology that stretches beyond its borders and ensures the loyalty of battle-hardened political figures such as Iraq’s Hadi al-Amiri and Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah.
It is in this context that Putin refused Erdogan’s request to visit Turkey to discuss the escalation between the two countries, and (if reports are to be believed), the reason Putin refused to agree to meet Erdogan in Moscow unless the Turkish-backed forces suffered a major military defeat.
Only after Turkish-backed forces were defeated in Saraqeb did Putin agree to the meeting with Erdogan. Putin wanted the Syrian army to claim a victory, however hollow, to strengthen their image after the temporary reversal brought about by Turkish troops. The integral role of Hezbollah in the battle for Saraqeb was played down by Russia and Syria.
Only after Turkish-backed forces were defeated in Saraqeb did Putin agree to meet with Erdogan. Putin wanted the Syrian army to claim a victory to strengthen their image after the temporary reversal brought about by Turkish troops.
None of this suggests that Putin was in the weaker position. It was Erdogan who appeared increasingly hamstrung by dwindling domestic public opinion and frustrated by lack of support from Europe and the US.
Furthermore, Erdogan’s opening of the border with Greece may have exposed Europe’s double standards. But it has also badly damaged Erdogan’s reputation among Arab sympathizers who, while understanding the politics behind it, still view the move as callous and unbefitting of the image of a Muslim leader that Erdogan has been increasingly associated with in recent years.
It also suggests that Putin is not in a position where he can abandon his alliance with Turkey. By offering a way out of the military expedition with an agreement that allowed Erdogan to face his people and claim he had forced Russia into talking, Putin secured more tangible results: namely the opening of the Syrian M4-M5 Highway junction, a de-escalation zone that leaves opposition forces on the south side isolated, a restriction on Iran’s militias, and breathing space for Assad’s forces to recover.
In the meantime, Russia prevented a divorce with Turkey, and created a framework within which Turkey could potentially become the counter-weight to a competitive Iran in a post-war Syria.