image Photo: Reuters

Do Syria-Turkey clashes presage a wider confrontation in the Middle East?

Expert on Syria, Iraq, radical Islamic groups, and Kurds

Despite Syrian-Turkish clashes this week, Moscow is set to remain the key arbiter in Syria.

Turkish forces responded Turkish forces responded to the fire, claiming to have killed 76 regime soldiers. The Assad regime itself denies that its forces suffered any fatalities. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is opposition-associated but regarded by many news outlets as generally reliable, reported that at least 13 regime soldiers were killed by Turkish fire.

Syrian regime soldiers have been killed in Israeli air raids on a variety of occasions, when they sought to activate air defenses against Israeli aircraft targeting Iranian sites in Syria. Russian military contractors fought US troops along the Euphrates River in February 2018, suffering heavy losses. This is the first time, however, that a direct conventional confrontation has taken place on the ground between members of two state armed forces since the beginning of the war.

So does this event presage a wider confrontation between Assad and Erdogan? And what are the implications for Russian attempts to maintain a diplomatic process intended to finally bring the war in Syria to a close? Will the Turkish-Russian rapprochement which has formed a notable presence in regional diplomacy over the last year suffer serious damage as a result of the week’s events?

Firstly, it is undoubtedly the case that the Syrian regime’s attack on Turkish personnel is a blow to Russian diplomacy. Since emerging as the key diplomatic arbiter in Syria following its entrance into the conflict in September 2015, Russia has sought to maintain cordial relations with a variety of warring sides. Israel and Iran, Turkey and the PKK, Turkey and the Syrian government. This is the first time that members of the latter pair have directly targeted one another.

Evidence from the other two files, however, would suggest that kinetic action need not mean the general collapse of Russian mediation and diplomacy. Israel has killed Iranian personnel on numerous occasions during its air raids over the last three years. All this has taken place at a time when Russian air defenses were present on Syrian soil, in the west of the country. At no time have the Russians made any attempt to offer assistance to their supposed strategic ally.

Similarly, the Syrian Kurds have been severely let down by Moscow on a number of occasions, as a result of the Russian strategic goal of inducing Turkey away from its alliance with the United States. Russian personnel were removed from the Afrin area, enabling the Turkish invasion of that area and the displacing of 300,000 Syrian Kurds in Operation Olive Branch in early 2018.

Yet these undoubted Russian betrayals did not result in a wholesale turning away from Moscow on the part of either the Iranians or the Syrian Kurds. On the contrary, both these forces need their relationship with Russia to provide at least a part of what they want. Without the presence of Russia, Israel’s actions against Iran in Syria would likely be far more intense. Russia, meanwhile, prevented a catastrophic repeat of Operation Olive Branch on a larger scale east of the Euphrates in October 2019 by sending forces across the river and then brokering a ceasefire on October 22 which stopped the Turkish advance.

Russia, because of the US decision to avoid major engagement in the Syrian war, has emerged as both the decisive military factor and consequently as the main diplomatic force in the country. Since everyone needs it to get anything done, and since there is no alternative patron available for many tasks in Syria, Moscow remains the indispensable partner for all.

This dynamic is likely to apply also in the case of Turkey, the regime and Idlib.

Turkey is without doubt angry about the major advances made by regime forces with Russian air support in Idlib province. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday warned Assad to withdraw his forces behind Turkish observation post lines by the end of February or face the consequences.

The Turkish president told his AKP (Justice and Development Party) parliamentary group that “Turkey’s air and land forces will move freely in all operation areas [in Syria] and in Idlib, and they will conduct operations if necessary.”

‘“Nothing will be the same after the Assad regime attack in Idlib which killed Turkish soldiers,” Erdogan said, before adding that Turkey expects Russia to take note of Turkish sensitivities in this area.

Elsewhere, Erdogan declared the Russian sponsored Astana diplomatic process “moribund,” and criticized Russia for violating its commitments under the Sochi agreement of September 2018.

It is highly questionable whether Assad will heed this warning. Regime forces are currently only 8 km. from Idlib city, the last major Syrian city in rebel hands. Assad is determined to place his flag throughout the entirety of Syria. Russia, which will be the real power in the country if he does so, supports this goal.

But even if a limited military engagement takes place between Turkish and Syrian regime forces, it will need to end in diplomacy. And for diplomacy in Syria, Russia remains the only available address.

Furthermore, Ankara needs Moscow for more than just saving face and preventing a new refugee flow in northwest Syria. The relationship with Russia is vital in the promotion of Turkish interests against the Kurds east of the Euphrates. And even if Turkey engages in muscle-flexing in Idlib, Erdogan cannot afford the body count that a widened conflict with Assad would entail. More broadly, Turkey is in the process of purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, is partnering with Russia on the Turkstream pipeline to provide gas to Europe, and needs Russia to prevent an assault by Libyan general Khalifa Haftar on Turkey’s allies in the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Libya.

Finally, Turkey has nowhere else to turn. The US shows no signs of being interested in reengaging in Syria west of the Euphrates. And anyway, it could not deliver Assad.

It may well be that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not in complete control of his clients. But past experience suggests that regional powers and smaller players alike will settle for getting part of what they want from Russia’s deft diplomatic juggling in Syria. In Syria, Russia remains too big to fail.

Published in the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, 9 February 2020