The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia ended when Russia began to move in on rebel territory in Idlib and the Aleppo countryside. From joint gas and arms deals to their role as power brokers in the Libyan conflict, Turkey and Russia depend on one another as both face economic crises and worsening relations with the West. But Turkey risks losing much of its leverage vis-à-vis Russia.
Russian-Turkish relations before the escalation in Idlib
The Turkish intervention in Syria was initially not a cause for concern for Russia since Ankara’s main objective was to fight the Kurds with the help of rebel proxies. Moreover, Turkey did not appear to be interested in most of the territory under the control of opposition forces in Ghouta, Daraa and elsewhere outside of greater northern Syria.
Shortly after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, a mutual understanding was reached between the two countries: Moscow would not object to Turkish strikes against Syrian Kurds in the north so long as Ankara did not oppose Russian efforts to eliminate rebel forces in regions far from the Turkish border. This understanding continued and eventually culminated in the Astana agreement, which gave Russia control of Ghouta, Qalamoun, Daraa and the northern countryside of Homs, among other areas.
Through the Astana agreement, Russia could maintain its grip over large swathes of Syria, returning them to regime hands. It launched strikes against ISIS in the northeast of the country, driving its forces out of Homs and Deir ez-Zor and pushing them back to the Iraqi border, before carrying out attacks to neutralize Syrian rebel factions.
Turkey meanwhile launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2017, followed by operations Olive Branch and Peace Spring, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, but in reality enabling it to subdue Kurdish resistance.
Tensions between Russia and Turkey in Idlib
Turkey was struggling to maintain its control of Idlib, a strategic stronghold of fighters and military resources belonging to rebel factions that remained allied with their northern neighbour in the fight against the Kurds, whose forces had recently dwindled but remained a threat. It was also in the interest of the Turks to have Idlib remain a haven for the revolution, since the fall of the city to Russian forces could trigger a major refugee crisis for Turkey.
The Russians, on the other hand, are keen to seize Idlib with the aim of settling the Syrian conflict militarily and compelling the international community to begin the process of reconstruction, especially after the signing of the Caesar Act. The protracted nature of the conflict has also drained the Kremlin of economic and military resources.
The divergent objectives of Russia and Turkey in this northern Syrian governorate brought tensions to a boil. Turkey was not prepared to face a Russian assault. Russia took advantage of this weakness to make significant gains in Idlib at the expense of opposition forces exhausted from battles lasting more than a year, as well as infighting fuelled in large part by Tahrir al-Sham.
Turkey is now wholly unprepared to bear the consequences of Russia’s military operation in Idlib, particularly in light of the failure of the political process and the spectre of a humanitarian catastrophe. A regime takeover of Idlib will create two crises at once. The first would be a perpetuation of the status quo for the over 3.5 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, while the second would be the prospect of an additional 1–2 million Syrians fleeing into Turkey.
Turkey simply cannot accept more refugees. It will, as a result, do its best to put pressure on the Europeans to provide financial or even military support to maintain the current situation in Idlib.
Europeans are not ready to welcome large numbers of newly displaced people either after the migrant crisis of 2015. This makes Turkey’s position in Idlib more difficult, but not dire.
The regime continues to advance into eastern Aleppo to seize control of the Damascus–Aleppo highway in accordance with the Sochi agreement. Yet Assad’s forces are also trying to gain as much strategic territory as they can beyond the agreed-upon boundary line. Their goal is to secure full control of the highway and defend it against any potential threats, while taking advantage of the zones designated for Turkish and Russian army patrols.
This move will deprive Turkey of a bargaining chip in the next round of talks since the area controlled by the opposition in Idlib would then lack any strategic importance.
There is no doubt that the military route Russia is pursuing in Idlib, despite heightened tensions between Moscow and Ankara, may lead to another Astana agreement. But Turkey for its part seems certain that any such political settlement will be completely ineffectual if the Syrian opposition is left without any territory.
Turkey’s dwindling leverage
Turkey is now trying to use the threat of military action via its proxies in Syria to urge the Russians to restrain their offensive on Idlib. This strategy appears destined to fail, however, as Russia wants a military resolution to the conflict that keeps Assad in power, something that cannot happen as long as Idlib remains outside of regime control. It would seem Ankara has few options left and little in the way of leverage.
Consequently, the Erdogan government is working to persuade the Russians to agree to a phased compromise, one that would prevent the regime from advancing into new territory near the Turkish border. In this way, Turkey hopes to avoid a massive influx of displaced Syrians as well as put a halt to further Russian military gains.
The rift in the Western-Turkish alliance placed Turkey in the position of having to make concessions to Russia in the Syrian theatre so as to curry its favour in its dealings with Western and Kurdish adversaries. Turkey’s recent attempts to solicit Western support and mend relations with the West in exchange for adopting an anti-Russian posture have failed. This will likely prompt Turkey to adopt an even more conciliatory approach toward Russia going forward.