Will Russia-Turkey tensions undermine their cooperation in Syria and beyond?

On October 26 Russian jets attacked a training camp of a Syrian armed group called Faylaq al-Sham (FaS) in northern Idlib killing over 70 fighters and injuring a lot more. FaS is considered to be the strongest and the most influential group in the Syrian National Army (SNA) and enjoys Turkey’s support and patronage. Representatives of FaS participate in the political track taking part in the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and Astana format. At the same time, with Turkish facilitation FaS, fighters participate[1] in the recent escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan and also were sent to Libya.[2] The Russian attack indicates growing tensions between Moscow and Ankara on the whole set of issues, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh which apparently complicates their bilateral interaction. So, what drove Russia to undertake such a move?

The timing of the Russian strike is very important. It came following important developments. First, over the last month number of ceasefire violations in Idlib de-escalation zone rose significantly (from 45 to 270 a week) together with Russian airstrikes against the targets in south Idlib. Second, Turkey has been growing its military presence in Idlib province since the beginning of the year, while not being able to implement March 5 deal, simultaneously continuing support of the Syrian opposition fighters in the province. Third, Turkey started to openly support Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict which includes sending Syrian and other Middle Eastern fighters to the conflict zone which has become a whole new factor in the conflict. As a result, all these developments gave enough basis for Russia to conduct the strike on Turkey-supported armed group in Syria.

Such strike can be seen as a message that Moscow can do the same vis-à-vis any Turkish-backed groups in Syria and NK conflict if Ankara doesn’t temper its behaviour. Russia has been patient for quite a while about Turkey’s activities in Idlib, in northern Aleppo and northeastern Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russian recent attack on FaS sent a signal to Turkey that there is a price to pay for its moves. Luckily, Russia brokered a deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan which stopped the fighting and lowered the risk of possible tensions grow between Moscow and Ankara.

What does the attack mean?

The fact that Russian jets attacked a target in northern Idlib which is just 10 km from the Turkish border is very important and indicative, and here is why. First of all, Turkey has its air defence systems in northern Idlib and in neighbouring Turkish Hatay province, and neither Russian nor Syrian air forces attacked targets in proximity to Turkish borders in northern and northwestern Idlib for a long time until recent weeks. It indicates that Russia most likely had very good reasons to conduct such attack and the Turkish side did not even consider opposing it militarily.

Secondly, Turkey did not use its air defence to confront the Russian strike. Its air-defence systems must have seen Russian planes coming. As Russian jets operated in proximity to the Turkish border the situation could have become as tragic as in fall 2015 when Ankara shot down a Russian jet, or even more so. Therefore, it seems that Turkey doesn’t want any incident which can lead to an escalation in Idlib, deeper military involvement of the Turkish army and worsen Russian-Turkish relations in general.

And third, Russia could have struck other targets in areas not close to the Turkish border (in south Idlib, along the contact line, etc.) but it picked this particular object in proximity to Turkish territory which sent a stronger signal to Ankara.

“Manual mode” diplomacy

Traditionally, when the situation risks escalating, the Russian and Turkish leaders switch into the manual diplomacy mode – they call or meet each other in a bid to defuse tensions and find a solution. So, the next day after the strike Putin and Erdogan had a phone call which also confirmed the seriousness of the situation.[3] The two leaders discussed Syria, Libya as well as Nagorno-Karabakh.

Interestingly, they focused on joint efforts to implement existing agreements on Syria: March 5 Idlib deal and agreement on the east of Euphrates from Oct. 2019. The fact that Kremlin’s readout of the phone talk mentions Oct. 2019 deal is also important as Russia did not pay much attention to it over the last months, rather focusing on the Turkish failure to implement Idlib deal. Under Oct. 2019 agreement Moscow had to ensure the withdrawal of YPG forces from Manbij, Tel Rifaat, and 30-km width zone along the Syrian-Turkish border in northeastern Syria which was not implemented. As a result, there is a situation where both parties have legit complaints to each other.

In addition to that, during the talk with Erdogan Putin expressed “deep concern over the increasing involvement of Middle East terrorists” in Nagorno-Karabakh fighting. Erdogan responded with the fact that about 2,000 PKK members fight in the Armenian ranks. Thus, there are complaints from each side which are used to pressure each other. As a result, Moscow may use the presence of Syrian/Middle East fighters in NK as a pretext to launch attacks on their training camps in Syria, while Erdogan may use PKK/YPG involvement as an additional excuse to launch a new anti-terror campaign in northeastern Syria. Fortunately, the escalation in NK was stopped with Moscow-brokered deal which reduces chances of further military escalation not only in NK but also in Syria. Regardless of this, Erdogan has already promised a new military operation against Kurds in Syria if they don’t withdraw from Turkish border – an allusion to Moscow that Ankara expects it to implement its part of Oct. 2019 deal.[4] At the same time, if Turkey eventually decides to launch a new military operation against Kurds in Syria, Russia will allow Damascus to start an offensive on south Idlib to get control over M4. Basically, these moves are going to be reciprocal and essentially just updating the current status quo. In addition, US presidential elections outcome will most likely serve as a restraining factor for Turkish plans to start a military operation against the Syrian Kurds.

In the recent interview, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev rejected allegations that Turkey wanted to get control over Tel Rifaat and Manbij in exchange of its military’s withdrawal from observation posts in northern Hama and south Idlib. Lavrentiev also highlighted that Russia is being extremely patient when it comes to Idlib and implementation of March 5 agreement. “We are already waiting for over eight months now and we are in close contact with our Turkish partners. We still expect that agreements on Idlib will be fully implemented,” he said.[5]  

So far, Russia and Turkey managed to resort to diplomacy, and are in search of another compromise which will update currently existing status quo in northeast and northwest Syria. In short, Russia needs control over M4 and south Idlib, while Turkey needs YPG forces out of Manbij, Tel Rifaat and areas within 30 km buffer zone in NES. Although it remains to be seen what are the possible modalities and terms of the future deal, the ongoing Russian-Turkish attempts to find a compromise confirm that they are not interested in escalation and open confrontation. So far, the two chose to resort to diplomacy and avoid their disagreements and differences in Syria (as well as in Libya and NK) to drive their dialogue into the quarrel. While Moscow and Ankara are still committed to demonstrating a positive outcome of their interaction in conflict zones, it becomes a much trickier task.

[1] https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/10/turkey-russia-syria-fighter-transfers-azerbaijan-armenia.html

[2] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrians-idlib-road-damascus-does-not-pass-through-libya

[3] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/64289

[4] https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/28102020

[5] https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4571158?from=main_4&fbclid=IwAR0cKBMi-6Nvk3e90k4VgPAWi6IbHOvqSyKtbdG-VyVlCG3JpaU4FO_5E9o