The Syrian Connection in the Turkish-Russian Tango

Leveraging its close relations with both sides of the Ukraine conflict, Turkey has seized the opportunity to highlight its strategic importance. The latest Russia-Ukraine talks in Istanbul highlighted Turkey’s arbitration role. Earlier, hosting peace talks at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum was a remarkable posture for Ankara, which has been struggling to break international isolation. In the last NATO summit on March 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aimed to take center stage as peacemaker, stating that the two sides had almost reached a consensus on several key issues; but Ukraine’s swift denial pointed to challenges for the Turkish government.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has put Turkey in a most difficult position. On the one hand, Ankara has been scaling back its aggressive foreign policy for the past year. Through high-level visits by Gulf Arab and Israeli leaders, the Turkish government has sent clear messages to Washington about its new direction. On the other, Turkey perceives Russia as an indispensable actor in key matters, including the complicated Syrian war where the security of the Turkey-backed Idlib region as well as Turkish military operations against Kurdish groups are heavily dependent on Moscow’s policy decisions. As the Ukraine war appears to extend into a longer military conflict and stalemate, Turkey’s balancing act between Washington and Moscow faces more challenges.

As the Ukraine war appears to extend into a longer military conflict and stalemate, Turkey’s balancing act between Washington and Moscow faces more challenges.

Acting delicately, Turkey was successful in managing expectations between American and Russian officials. Designating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war, Ankara has applied the Montreux Convention of 1936 to close the Bosphorus Strait to warships, effectively blocking the potential passage of Russian fleets. Yet, this act was more symbolic than practical support to Ukraine, given that the Russian vessels had already deployed before the announcement. Despite that, the convention required Turkey to prevent “belligerent” warships only, but Ankara decided to apply the rule to all vessels, including NATO’s. Turkey’s balancing strategy was also apparent in its decisions: while the Turkish government joined the condemnation of Russia at the United Nations General Assembly, it did not close its airspace to Russian aircraft, which made it the exception among NATO countries. Whereas Turkish drones were most praised by Ukrainian authorities, Turkey did not join the global financial and trade sanctions on the Putin regime and its oligarchs. Rather, Ankara chose to criticize the sanctions, calling them counterproductive.

The war in Ukraine has put US-Russia relations onto a new course, creating broader implications for Syria and beyond and affecting Turkey’s balancing act. As some analysts duly noted, Washington’s intensifying effort to isolate Moscow undermines its current Syria policy that largely depends on Russia’s cooperation and goodwill. To be sure, strained relations have already resulted in Russian threats to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid into northwestern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

Russian Threats to Turkey in Syria

Turkey’s vulnerabilities to Russia do not stem only from economic dependencies (such as the tourism sector and the flow of natural gas), but also are shaped by security concerns regarding the situation in Syria. In the past few years, all Turkish military operations there were made possible by Russia’s consent. Frustration with Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters aided the Turkey-Russia cooperation despite their being on opposite ends of the war in Syria. This cooperation, however, has not been smooth. Russian missiles killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in 2020, the biggest loss of life for the army on foreign soil since the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. In return, Turkey destroyed the Syrian regime’s artillery and made it clear that a potential migration wave from the Idlib region is a red line for Ankara.

Turkey perceives two major threats from the Syrian war: the potential statehood for the Syrian Kurds and a larger migration wave from Idlib.

Turkey perceives two major threats from the Syrian war. First is the potential statehood of the Syrian Kurds which could legitimize the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Second, the loss of the delicate balance across Turkey’s border due to the Syrian regime’s advances in Idlib is likely to result in another wave of migration from Syria. For the former threat, Ankara regards Moscow as a potential ally; for the latter, Russia is a potential adversary. Russia still enjoys an upper hand in the Idlib region should it want to attack it while Turkish military bases and about 20,000 soldiers remain vulnerable to surprise attacks.

Given this background, it is not a coincidence that Russia’s response to the lethal Turkish drones in Ukraine came from Syria; Moscow renewed its threats to cut humanitarian aid across the Turkish border which may have disastrous consequences for over 4 million civilians in Idlib and  trigger a dreaded migration to Turkey’s border towns. The Moscow-Damascus alliance also gave military signals. Recently, Syrian forces struck a Turkish military vehicle, wounding several soldiers. As long as the United States does not devise a new US policy in Syria, Turkey’s vulnerabilities there are likely to be exploited by Russia. In essence, the dynamics of the Syrian war will remain important in shaping the future of Turkey’s armed drone supply to Ukraine. It is important to remember that the Bayraktar (TB2) drones did not enter the Turkey-Russia chess game recently: the export to Ukraine began in 2017, and later Ankara strategically deployed TB2 drones in the Libyan conflict against Russia-allied groups. The Turkish drones shaped the Libyan war trajectory, which also served as a counterbalance to Russian leverage in Syria.

The Potential Game Change in Syria

The Biden Administration’s attempts to unite NATO members against Russia may cause a change in US-Russia relations in Syria. For Damascus, heavy economic sanctions on Moscow are a serious and threatening development. On the other hand, some Arab states’ increasing willingness to accept the Assad regime back into the family raises hopes in Damascus. A critical aspect of the new order will be shaped by American decisions on sanctions against the Assad regime, including the Caesar Act, which bans foreign entities from making any formal investments in regime-controlled areas. Washington may want to control the pace of normalization with the Assad regime strategically. The sanctions were already hitting hard; now with the emergence of a wheat crisis due to the war in Ukraine, Damascus will be further weakened, which will perhaps result in Washington’s use of the carrot-and-stick strategy in Syria.

Indeed, the Biden Administration has already indicated that it wants to lead a concerted effort to engage the Syrian regime. As Charles Lister notes, the exclusion of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the restructured “Syria Small Group”—which includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey—aimed to send a message to all regional actors and pressure them to avoid unilateral steps. The UAE’s normalization efforts with the Syrian regime were largely due to its belief in American disengagement from the region, which prompted it to take an active role in order to counter Iranian influence in Damascus and Beirut.

In the case of a renewed roadmap by Washington in Syria, there may be growing collaboration with Ankara. In the upcoming vote at the United Nations in July 2022 to renew the Bab al-Hawa humanitarian supplies to Idlib, Russia is expected to veto the UN cross-border mechanism enabling them. Thus, the bleak nature of a looming humanitarian crisis is not confined to regime-controlled areas. There are 7 million Syrians who are living in Turkish-controlled zones or the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces areas. The lack of Russian cooperation would mean that the United States and its European allies must find a sustainable solution in order to stop another wave of refugees to Turkey and eventually to Europe. For years, the European Union has been providing financial aid packages to Turkey for preventing the refugee flow, highlighting its serious concern about the issue.

If the US chooses to help Turkey in protecting Idlib’s civilian population and ensuring the operation of humanitarian aid corridors, Russia’s leverage over Turkey will be contained.

In dealing with a humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Washington’s preferences will likely shape Turkish reactions. If the United States continues to allow the current Russian domination to shape the realities on the ground, Turkey will face the burden of the humanitarian crisis alone, which will more likely force it to give concessions to Russia, including on the Ukraine front, and possibly threaten the EU with the next wave of refugees. Two years ago, immediately following the killings of Turkish soldiers in Idlib by Russian missiles, Erdoğan ordered the Turkish gates to Europe to be opened for refugees and accused EU leaders of breaking their promises. Aware of the Turkish nationalist sentiments at home, Erdoğan added that Turkey cannot “handle a new wave of refugees” from Syria. Especially after the Ukrainian refugee flow—Europe’s largest migration crisis since World War II—Turkey’s threats may hamper the Biden Administration’s efforts to unite European countries as one single block against Russian aggression. Under such a scenario, EU leaders will expect Washington’s serious support to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. If the US chooses to help Turkey in protecting Idlib’s civilian population and ensuring the operation of humanitarian aid corridors, Russia’s leverage over Turkey will be contained. In this regard, the question becomes whether US-Turkey relations can be reconciled following a series of crises in recent years.

A New Deal Between Washington and Ankara?

The Ukrainian crisis has rejuvenated some perspectives in Washington that highlight Turkey’s geo-strategic importance and real estate value. The very historical basis of US-Turkey relations, i.e., Turkey’s NATO membership, was largely based on similar assumptions. Aware of the opportune moment, the Turkish government repeated its desire to acquire new F-16 jets and modernization kits for existing warplanes. Erdoğan also sought Biden’s help to lift all “unjust” sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry. Mimicking Erdoğan’s style in negotiations, American officials floated an impossible idea to their Turkish counterparts regarding the main thorn in bilateral relations, i.e., Turkey’s acquisition of Russia-made S-400 missile systems. They suggested that Turkey should transfer the S-400 systems to Ukraine to help resist Russian attacks, and in return, receive the American F-35 fighter jets and Patriot defense systems. It was no surprise that the Turkish government’s response was to propose another impossible idea, i.e., the delivery of F-35 jets and Patriot batteries “without preconditions.” Ankara also pressured other NATO countries to lift their arms embargoes that are expected to hit the Turkish defense industry severely. Due to its military operations in Syria, Turkey has faced full arms embargoes by many—Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, the Czech Republic—and partial embargoes by Canada, Germany, France, and Italy.

A prolonged conflict between Russia and Ukraine will render the Turkish government’s mediation efforts inconsequential, refuting Ankara’s claim of its exceptional value to play in and out of NATO.

While a prolonged war in Ukraine may increase Turkey’s geo-strategic value, Ankara will face significant tradeoffs to sustain its balancing act between its NATO allies and Russia. A prolonged conflict will render the Turkish government’s mediation efforts inconsequential, refuting Ankara’s claim of its exceptional value to play in and out of NATO. Moreover, longevity of the conflict will expose Turkey’s current economic decisions that harm the West’s united front. Specifically, if the sanctions regime against Russia becomes an international norm, Turkey’s attempts to attract Russian investments will be under scrutiny. Western skepticism has grown especially after the official statements that call Russian oligarchs to invest in Turkey. In response to queries about whether Putin’s circle may benefit from Turkish policies, Ankara did not hide its ambition to exploit the occasion. Rising concerns in the West include potential repackaging of some Russian companies as Turkish entities in trading with Moscow as well as systematic banking schemes.

If Turkey becomes a magnet of Russian dark money, however, Erdoğan’s government’s attempt to seize the current opportune moment to repair relations with Washington may be harmed forever. The reactions of the US Congress against Turkey’s previous dealings with Iran and Venezuela were strong, and another sanctions-busting effort by the Turkish government will not be tolerable. Turkey’s international image will likely take a hit as well. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, Ankara has successfully managed to walk a tightrope. The initial success, however, does not guarantee a rehabilitation of the damaged trust between Washington and Ankara.