by Bulent Aras
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to Moscow in late August to raise his concerns over the Assad regime’s military offensive in Syria’s Idlib province. Putin extended him a warm welcome but offered him no assurances regarding the situation in Idlib, which is not what Ankara was hoping to get.
Turkey’s priorities in Syria are to prevent the emergence of a PYD/YPG led Kurdish entity along the border and to avert the further flow of refugees from Syria into Turkey. Its game plan for the former depends on establishing a safe haven in northeastern Syria in coordination with the U.S., and for the latter it depends on reimplementing the Idlib demilitarization agreement Turkey and Russia signed last year. Despite progress on both fronts, the current situation does not satisfy Turkey’s concerns, particularly in Idlib. In just the few days after Erdogan’s visit to Russia, thousands of Syrians marched toward Turkish border after being displaced by Syrian and Russian bombardments across northwestern Syria.
Russia’s main commitment under its Idlib agreement with Turkey was to prevent Syrian attacks on that province. But it has not done so, and it has not responded to Turkey’s complaints about the situation. There are two reasons, one overt and one undeclared, for Russia’s unwillingness to address Ankara’s concerns. The first is the Russian judgement that Turkey has failed to fulfill its main commitment under the Idlib agreement, to clear radical groups out of the province and dissolve their military units. The undiscussed motive has to do with Russia’s goal for post-war Syria, which is to secure the Assad regime as Moscow’s client.
Given that goal, why does Russia care at all, or at least pretend to care, about Turkish concerns in Syria? There is a simple answer to this question. Russia foresees a prospect of asymmetrical partnership with Turkey, with the senior role reserved for itself. Moscow has carefully taken advantage of Turkey’s domestic and regional problems, for example by offering a number of incentives to President Erdogan in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016. This partnership presents opportunities for Russia in several areas.
First, it is in Russia’s interest to make Turkey a dependent ally, especially when it comes to Syria. Ankara’s main concerns in Syria relate to border security—the Kurds and refugees. Ankara recognized the importance of Russia’s role in Syria after it downed a Russian fighter jet in 2015. Its subsequent rapprochement with Russia is what made Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria possible. Consequently, Russia has been able to control Turkey’s role in Syria and has tried to manage the operations of the Turkish military to ensure they don’t impede Russia’s agenda. Moscow also presents itself as a peacemaker in Syria through the Astana process, which relies on the participation of Turkey and Iran. Beyond Syria, Turkey is part of Putin’s vision for an enlarged G8, along with China and India.
Second, Turkey has been a reliable customer of the Russian defense industry. Turkey bought Russia’s S-400 air defense system despite threats of U.S. sanctions in response, and has persisted in that purchase despite being kicked out of the F-35 stealth fighter project. That decision has cost Turkey its initial $1.5 billion investment in the project and has further cost Turkish companies a potential gain of $12 billion from their participation in the F-35 manufacturing process. Erdogan appeared to show interest in Russia’s new Su-57 fighter jet at the 2019 Russian aviation and space fair (MAKS-2019), as an alternative to the F-35. Although Turkey hasn’t formally asked to purchase any Russian aircraft, Moscow has confirmed that there are ongoing discussions and Erdogan singled out the Su-35 and Su-57 as alternatives to U.S. planes after his visit to Russia. Moscow and Ankara have also discussed joint defense projects, and Erdogan has indicated his desire that Turkey take part in the production of the next generation S-500 air defense system.
Third, Moscow enjoys any cleavage in NATO and the trans-Atlantic partnership. Russia’s developing partnership with Turkey has generated significant concern in Washington and Brussels. The reasons for these concerns range from the possibility that Western military secrets could be exposed to the Russians to political divergences in the Western security framework. Turkey’s purchase of Russian arms has raised questions about the future of its NATO membership. Any crack in NATO would mean divergence from the organization’s unified stance against Russian designs toward countries like Ukraine and Georgia.
The political atmosphere inside Turkey is conducive to close ties with Russia. The conservative-nationalist coalition in power in Ankara is critical of the West due to a perceived lack of support during the 2016 failed coup. They feel their voice is not being heard in the U.S. and a number of European Union member states when it comes to the “war on terror.” The Eurasianist bloc within the Turkish ruling elite has influence beyond its electoral capacity and has played a crucial role in supporting the rapprochement with Russia. This group has been a long-time advocate of a pro-Russian course in foreign policy as an alternative to the West, particularly the U.S. In addition, a Russian propaganda machine operates in Turkey through social and print media outlets, and has proven efficient in shifting public opinion on Russia-related issues.
Russia would prefer to pursue its partnership with Turkey as long as it has the senior role. That would satisfy Turkey’s short-term political and security considerations, but it will be detrimental in the medium-to-long run. Turkey’s political tradition, the structural template in Turkish politics and foreign policy, and Ankara’s bureaucratic ethos would be the main barriers against the emerging partnership with Russia. Turkey’s authoritarian drift has weakened, but is not likely to overcome, Turkish modernization and Western-style institutions. A look at the history of alliances in Turkish history makes it clear that its elites will not abide a junior and dependent role in any partnership in the absence of vital, existential concerns.
The Turkish-Russian partnership is a reality in Syria, though there may be challenges on the horizon. Moscow’s realism would likely prevent it from attaching too much value to any alliance. But losing Turkey, which is not out of the question, would be a major setback in Russia’s regional policy. There is no future for an asymmetrical Russia-Turkey partnership, and their future relationship will depend on developments in the regional and domestic landscapes for both of these countries. Their current alliance is likely to shift toward a mix of cooperation and competition, similar to earlier periods, but perhaps less tense following this current period of good relations.
Bulent Aras is a Senior Scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center and Visiting Researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.