Putin, Erdogan, and the new Syrian breaking point Russian-Turkish tensions are reaching dangerous heights in Syria and Libya, but a war is still unlikely
Following several years of friendship, Russia and Turkey have once again found themselves on the verge of the kind of cold war they last experienced in 2015 – 2016 — and, once again, the cause of the conflict is the same. The two governments have completely different perspectives on what to do with the last remaining opposition enclave in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. With Moscow’s support, Bashar al-Assad intends to eliminate the country’s final Islamist strongholds. Meanwhile, Ankara is trying to stop him and has even threatened the Syrian government with another war. Some active battles have already broken out: One attempt to arrest Syrian troops led to eight Turkish fatalities. Direct talks between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have previously managed to smooth out disagreements like these one-on-one, failed to repeat their success on February 5, leaving current tensions unresolved. The Syrian advance has continued, and both Moscow and Ankara have accused each other of violating their previous agreements. Dmitry Kuznets explains why Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads again and how this new conflict could end.
Tensions between Russia and Turkey emerged in 2015. The two countries have been in an alliance or a hybrid war ever since.
In 2015, Russia and Turkey became adversaries in a hybrid war in Syria. The Turkish government supported the opposition, including opposition Islamists, while the Russian army entered the war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. After the Turkish air force took out a Russian bomber in November 2015, Russia responded with a trade embargo and a ban on Russian tourism to Turkey. By 2016, however, it seemed that the two sides had figured out how to solve the difficult questions standing between them. In the fall of 2019, that diplomacy went far enough for Russia to successfully stop Turkey’s advance on Syrian-controlled Kurdistan. Then, in January 2020, the two opponents struck up another shaky but active truce, this time in the Libyan civil war. All the while, though, one problem remained unsolvable: the fate of the opposition enclave in the Syrian province of Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are prepared to flee oncoming Russian-supported Syrian troops and head for Turkey, which is warily anticipating a migration crisis that could also spread to Europe.
The stakes went up in fall 2019 when Erdogan opened up a second Russian-Turkish front in Libya.
In the fall of 2019, Erdogan had just given up a part of Idlib to Putin, and he decided to try taking his Syrian problem into his own hands. The Turkish army advanced on the country’s northeast regions, which were controlled by Kurdish troops Ankara considers to be terrorists. Until that point, the Kurds had been allied with the United States in that country’s efforts to combat the Islamic State by proxy. However, in October 2019, President Donald Trump succumbed to pressure from Erdogan and cut off his country’s alliance with the Kurds, enabling the Turkish army to invade in pursuit of a new “war on terror.”
The Kurds sought help from Russia (despite previous tensions due to the U.S. alliance) and the Syrian government (which had a kind of live and let live relationship with Kurdish forces). In the areas Erdogan had attempted to seize, Syrian troops and Russian military police began to arrive. In subsequent negotiations between Putin and Erdogan, tensions were more or less resolved. Instead of gaining control over all of Syrian Kurdistan, Erdogan was left with a narrow strip of land on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The results of that game with Putin in Syrian Kurdistan clearly didn’t satisfy Erdogan. He decided to open up a new front in the conflict — this time, in war-torn Libya. Russia (like most Arab countries as well as France and the United States) was already on once side of the conflict: that of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. By the end of 2019, Haftar had seized most of Libya with the exception of a few coastal cities and the capital, Tripoli. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Private Military Company were among the forces supporting Haftar’s advance. Erdogan decided to begin supporting Haftar’s adversaries in Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, which was officially recognized by the United Nations but had lost most of the world’s support.
At the end of 2019, Turkey sent more than 4,000 troops from its Syrian proxy units to Libya as well as a small number of instructors and equipment operators from its own army. Those forces were clearly insufficient to change the situation at the front: The troops began suffering losses as soon as they arrived. However, Putin and Erdogan almost immediately decided to freeze that conflict as well. A ceasefire was announced throughout Libya on January 12, 2020, though subsequent peace negotiations in Moscow ended poorly. Khalifa Haftar, who believed himself to be on the home stretch toward victory, refused to sign the agreements that were ultimately reached, which would have established a dual system of power in Libya. European Union leaders were also unable to persuade Haftar to pursue peace during a February conference in Berlin.
Nonetheless, by early February, the Libyan conflict had become significantly less heated. Syrian fighters stationed there said that their only motivation for fighting in the country (apart from money, of course, and the Turkish citizenship promised by their handlers in Ankara) was the chance to kill Russian mercenaries. Some fighters said even that motive was weakened by their Libyan hosts’ offers of marijuana, which they had taken to “smoking like cigarettes.” A few dozen troops from Syria ultimately managed to desert to Italy.
Since January, Assad’s troops (with Russia’s support) have almost advanced to the Turkish border. Erdogan has promised revenge.
Meanwhile, in January 2020, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian troops charged along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. By the end of the month, it was clear that this was not just another advance with limited objectives that would end in yet another truce after a few more towns along the front lines were captured. Even after the army had reached its initial objective by capturing Ma’arat al-Nu’man, the second-largest city in Idlib, it didn’t stop.
By early February, government forces had reached an important crossroads — the city of Saraqib. To the city’s north, there is an area on the Turkish border where Ankara has been actively building refugee camps with German financial backing. Beyond that, there is only the Turkish border. About 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the west of Saraqib, there’s Idlib itself, the region’s largest city. By the beginning of February, the Syrian army was four kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the city, and its Islamist opponents had continued to retreat.
This was enough to trigger Turkish intervention. Erdogan demanded that Russia and Syria stop their advance immediately. Pro-Turkish proxy forces moved toward the front, and then Ankara sent several dozen of its own soldiers to Saraqib to organize new observation posts in the very center of the city. One of the columns deployed to Saraqib was shot at by Syrian troops on February 4; eight Turkish soldiers were killed in the attack.
In response, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would take revenge and take measures to remove Syrian forces from Idlib entirely. He found support in the U.S. government: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote that Washington would completely support a retaliatory strike while demanding that Russia and Syria cease their operations in Idlib. Pompeo’s special representative for Syria clarified that the U.S. was not concerned about the fact that the Syrian army’s primary adversaries in Idlib are fighters from the Syrian branch of al-Qaoida. While Washington does consider those forces to be terrorist groups, the representative said, “it is primarily focused on fighting the Assad regime” rather than posing a global threat.
Russia claims Turkey didn’t follow up on its agreements. For the first time, one-on-one negotiations didn’t resolve those tensions.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkey has not held up its end of the Astana Process agreements: It has not drawn its troops back 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the front lines, and it hasn’t separated al-Qaeda Islamists from the “moderate opposition.” What’s more, Lavrov claimed, Turkey has sent some al-Qaeda Islamists to Libya, worsening the situation there. As for the Turkish soldiers who have been killed in Syria, Lavrov argues they moved through Idlib Province without notifying their Russian allies, which prevented Russia from warning them about the attacking Syrian convoy. In addition, Lavrov said, it’s not just the Turkish army that has been hard-hit by the current situation in Syria: A number of Russian “specialists” have been killed since the beginning of February as well.
On February 5, Erdogan placed a call to Putin. Typically, one-on-one negotiations between the two leaders signal the onset of yet another ceasefire, but this time, Assad’s advance didn’t stop. On February 6, the Syrian army occupied Saraqib. While the soldiers defending the city managed to flee, what happened to the Turkish troops who had arrived the previous day is unknown.
On the evening of February 6, more than 20 tanks and armored columns entered Idlib Province from the Turkish side. The Syrian news outlet SANA wrote that the Turkish forces had arrived to “protect terrorists” and that they had stopped their advance five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the front lines. Syrian commanders vowed to attack the Turkish troops if they tried to interfere with their army’s advance.
War is still unlikely. Turkey’s military strength is insufficient, and Russia doesn’t want a renewed U.S.-Turkish alliance.
None of the governments involved has the means to end this conflict using military methods alone. Turkey can’t afford a full-blown war with the Syrian army, especially given the support that army enjoys from Russian aviation and antiaircraft forces. In Libya, the Turkish expeditionary force is also in extremely shaky condition: It obviously lacks the power necessary to defeat Haftar, and it will likely be impossible for Erdogan’s forces to bring in even more troops. The Tripoli airport, where reinforcements and weapons are currently being transported, is now under fire by Haftar’s troops. The capital’s Government of National Accord is even planning to raze a residential area to build a new airport in Tripoli. Meanwhile, it’s not just Russia that is interested in defeating Turkey’s efforts in the Libyan capital: Cyprus, Greece, and Israel have their stakes in the conflict as well. Yet another Haftar ally, Egypt, is deploying antiaircraft missiles and troops to its border with Libya.
Russia also can’t afford to bring about an open, extended conflict with Turkey: The front lines between the Turkish army and its proxies on one hand and Syrian forces on the other is several hundred kilometers long. In addition, while the Syrian army is clearly at an advantage in Idlib, the opposite is true elsewhere, including in Kurdistan, where pro-Turkish proxy forces are prevalent and the Syrian army’s presence is merely symbolic. Even a limited strike in Kurdistan could lead to large territorial losses for Russia’s allies. Ultimately, the Russian military may have more to lose than it has to gain in a conflict between Turkey and Damascus.
Moscow also clearly doesn’t want the last year’s serious decline in Turkish-U.S. relations to be recuperated. A recovery in that relationship could lead to a united anti-Russian front in the Middle East, a possibility that is already under discussion in Washington.
Strangely enough, the only option that both Russia and Turkey might agree to, at least in the short term, is complying with the Astana Process agreements. For that to occur, Turkey would have to occupy part of Idlib Province and force al-Qaeda-adjacent leaders out of the region. The Turkish military has already introduced forces capable of carrying out that operation into the area in recent days. Rank-and-file troops from Islamist units could then be integrated into pro-Turkish proxy regiments, and there is precedent for such a move.
The Kremlin hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Putin and Erdogan will meet in person in the near future for the specific purpose of discussing potential solutions to the Idlib conflict.
Translation by Hilah Kohen