by Helena Cobban
This week, Mideast watchers have been breathlessly awaiting the arrival in NATO member Turkey of the first of the two batteries of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purchased from Russia in December 2017. Officials in the State and Defense Departments have warned that, with Turkey’s receipt of the S-400s, the country would be expelled from the international consortium making and slated to receive advanced F-35 fighter planes and would suffer other sanctions.
U.S.-Turkey relations seem headed for a crisis, though some analysts suggest that this may be finessed for several months to come. But Erdogan’s move to “balance” Turkey’s NATO membership with a stronger relationship with Russia already marks a significant shift in the global balance. It has a number of probable causes, including Erdogan’s continuing anger that Washington has rebuffed his repeated demands that the once-powerful cleric Fethullah Gulen be extradited from Pennsylvania in connection with the July 2016 coup attempt in Ankara. Another probable cause for Turkey’s current step toward Russia can be found in the ever-simmering cauldron of international intrigue in northern Syria.
It is three months since U.S.-backed forces in northeast Syria announced their final victory over the last Islamic State holdouts there. A couple thousand U.S. troops remain in that region, pursuing a mission whose definition has all the stability of silly putty. But the main shift in international power visible in northern Syria is not directly about the U.S. troops. It is about the steady flow of influence in the region from Turkey to Russia.
Reversal of Fortunes
From a 10-year perspective, 2009 was the heyday of Erdogan’s influence across the Middle East and beyond. In 2009, trucks laden with Turkish products rumbled hourly across Turkey’s lengthy border with Syria and on to large markets in Jordan and the Gulf. Erdogan sought, and in many parts of the world won, accolades as an influential supranational figure who successfully wedded a mildly Islamist worldview to democratic inclusion and an intense push for modernization. Turkey enjoyed a high degree of peace at home, humming industries, rising living standards, and good relations with a broad network of trading partners in the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and beyond. It even had a a fairly good (though sometimes troubled) relationship with Israel.
In 2009, Russia was still reeling from its decade of corrosive Yeltsinism and was barely an actor on the Middle Eastern scene at all.
Today, Turkey is plagued by deep-seated strife in its southeast, a teetering economy, severe political splits, and a whole series of diplomatic crises—in addition to the one it has with Washington. And only one power, Russia, has a broad web of well-nourished diplomatic ties with all the parties relevant to the Levant’s balance similar to the one that Turkey used to have. How did this reversal of fortunes come about?
Syrian Civil War
The explanation has, basically, two components. One is the series of serious strategic and political missteps taken by Erdogan and his team, centering on (but not limited to) the disastrous decision they took in August 2011 to buy into Barack Obama’s call for the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The other is the re-emergence of a portion of the influence that Moscow used to enjoy in the Middle East, in the context of President Vladimir Putin having consolidated enough power at home to be able to think of cautiously projecting some back into the Levant—and of him being aided in doing this by the diplomatic smarts of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his team.
Turkey’s support for the regime change project in Syria opened the whole of the 500-mile, often mountainous border between the two states for a massive, years-long delivery of arms, money, and foreign fighters to the anti-Assad fighting forces in northern Syria, with nearly all the costs born by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. But the anti-Assad forces failed to win the speedy victory that their backers in Washington and Ankara had so confidently predicted. As the fighting dragged on, Turkey increasingly started to suffer blowback in the form of anti-Ankara activities undertaken both by some of the takfiri extremists it had supported in Syria and by allies of the Kurdish forces who emerged as a serious, organized force in northeastern Syria.
In June 2014, the takfiri Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used the northeast Syrian city of Raqqa to announce the establishment of an “Islamic State” (ISIS or IS) that straddled the Syrian-Iraqi border but had unlimited geographic and domestic policy ambitions. The considerable forces under Baghdadi’s command then imposed their own extremely harsh version of Islamic law on all who came under their sway. Members of the region’s very large Kurdish, Yazidi, and indigenous Christian communities were all alike subjected to IS’s campaigns of genocide.
In northeast Syria, the beleaguered Kurdish communities begged neighboring Turkey to help protect them. Ankara, which had long had a troubled relationship with its own large population of ethnic Kurds and had previously worked closely with IS’s precursor groups, turned down those appeals. In desperation, the Syrian Kurds turned to the United States instead, hosting and supporting the first-ever U.S. combat troops deployed inside Syria.
Turkey’s Kurds were furious at their government’s betrayal of their brethren south of the border. By all accounts their anger over this was a major reason the PKK, the Turkish-Kurd movement, abandoned the ceasefire it had maintained with Ankara since 2012. From 2015 on, southeastern Turkey became engulfed in a brutal civil war. Meanwhile, just across the border in Syria, U.S. troops were working closely with the main ethnic Kurd movement, the YPG, a fanatically loyal subsidiary of the PKK, spouting the pensees of PKK leader Abdulah Ocalan (long imprisoned in Turkey) in all their “political training” sessions. Ankara has remained outraged at the U.S.-YPG coordination ever since.
Turkey has suffered blowback from its decision to join the regime-change project in Syria in other ways, too. Early on in the Syrian civil war, it lost easy ground-transport access to its major Middle Eastern markets. And throughout the eight years of the war it has had to deal with massive inflows of refugees from the fighting.
In 2011-12, decisionmakers in Ankara were prepared to deal with some influx of refugees. But they were convinced that the campaign to unseat Assad would be short and victorious. They were not prepared for anything like the scale or the duration of the refugee flows that occurred. Today, Turkey is still hosting 3.6 million refugees from Syria. In the past year or so, anti-refugee feelings (and actions) have spiked in several Turkish cities.
Government officials in Ankara have spoken of plans to repatriate as many refugees as possible back to the small portion of Syria, the Idlib region, where Turkish-backed insurgents hold sway. But the Idlib region is plagued by brutal fighting: both infighting among the different Turkey-backed militias active there and the intermittent campaigns waged by the Syrian army and its Russian allies to take this area back from the insurgents.
Coordination with Russia
Turkey’s need to work with Russia to try to calm the Idlib frontier has been another accelerant—along with its beefs with Washington over Gulen and the YPG alliance—for it to work on actively improving relations with Moscow. The Syrian government is understandably eager to regain Idlib, but it would need significant help from Russia to do so. Idlib, meanwhile, contains thousands of extreme takfiri fighters, a large proportion of whom are foreigners who flocked there, with Turkey’s help, from scores of countries around the world whose governments do not want them to return home. Turkey also does not want Idlib’s seasoned takfiri fighters (who have broad support networks inside Turkey) to retreat to Turkey. So, since September 2017, it has been working actively with Russia to try to slow the Syrian forces’ advance.
Russia, it turns out, is the only state among the seven that have significant sway inside Syria that enjoys robust diplomatic ties to all the other six: Syria, Turkey, Iraq, the United States, Israel, and Iran. (For what it’s worth, Russia also has decent ties to the YPG, with which its diplomats have, in the past, conducted far-reaching discussions of how Syria’s constitution could be amended to take account of Kurdish concerns.) In June, the Russian national security adviser held a meeting in Israel with his Israeli and U.S. counterparts. Next month, Putin will meet with his counterparts from Turkey and Iran, in Ankara. Russia has evident, ongoing ties to both Syria and Iraq. In all the relationships Moscow has with these other powers, there are issues and concerns. But there has also been a clear identification of shared interests, and a commitment to work together to pursue them.
This commitment to robust diplomacy, and Lavrov’s skill in pursuing it, have given Russia sway in the hornets’ nest of northern Syria and the rest of today’s Levant far beyond what its raw military assets would have accorded it. They have helped set the stage, in the form of the looming S-400/F-35 standoff, for one of the most significant internal splits NATO has ever seen.
As for the planned destination of those S-400s, once delivered, they won’t be deployed to protect Turkey from any future assault from the West. According to reports from Turkey, one battery will go to Sanliurfa, about halfway along Turkey’s border with Syria, while the other will be kept at an airbase near the capital, Ankara, presumably to guard the Presidential Palace from any repeat of the air attack launched by officers loyal to the 2016 coup.