Less America, Less Iran: The Russo-Turkish Rapprochement in Syria

Ceng Sagnic discusses the Russo-Turkish rapprochement with a focus on the Syrian war and the shifting Turkish policy concerning that country.

Putin and Erdogan together.  Illustrative. Credit:  Kremlin.ru
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan. Illustrative.  Credit: kremlin.ru

The recent Russo-Turkish rapprochement has allowed both governments to diminish the roles of each of their respective rivals in the Syrian conflict. The Russian-led bloc's heavy pressure has pushed some of the rebel groups to seek survival instead of victory. Meanwhile, radical Islamist organizations have filled the power vacuum left by retreating Syrian or rebel forces, while nationalist Kurds have formed an Iraq-style semi-autonomous administration in parts of northern Syria. In this fluid environment, Turkey has given-up its opposition to the Russian-led bloc in Syria in exchange for a policy focused on securing Turkey’s foothold in the overall geopolitical equation. Turkey's policy change and rapprochement with Russia have diminished Iran’s role in Syria and secured Turkey’s last point of access to the Sunni-Arab Middle East, through its control over territory it captured during Operation Euphrates Shield, which extends from Jarablus to the north of al-Bab. For Russia, the rapprochement with Turkey limits US involvement in political negotiations over Syria's future. While the Russo-Turkish facilitated political process in Astana lacks the capacity to singlehandedly determine Syria’s future, Russo-Turkish rapprochement could reduce US and Iranian influence in Syria.

The Border Crisis: Turkey’s Changing Syria Policy and Rapprochement with Russia
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Turkey’s anti-Assad Syria policy has shifted from remote support for rebel groups to on-the-ground military intervention, which commenced in August 2016 with the ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield led by the Turkish military. Turkey’s changing policy in Syria included a rather surprising rapprochement with Russia, which raises concerns for Iran and other Russian allies in Syria.

Official Turkish statements do not fully reflect Turkey's motives for its military intervention in Syria. According to Turkish officials, the primary objective of Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria is to protect rebel groups from the Russian-backed al-Assad regime and radical Islamist organizations – players which also threaten Turkey’s national security. The statements also identify the secondary objective of preventing US-backed Kurdish groups from connecting the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat –PYD)-administrated self-declared cantons. These stated objectives of the ongoing operation in Syria evoke widespread support from Turkish nationalists for the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP).[1] However, not all of Turkey's reasons for directly intervening in Syria are fully articulated in these official statements.

First, prior to August 2016, Turkey was almost on the verge of losing its geographical connection to the Sunni-Arab Middle East. Russia's 2015 military intervention boosted al-Assad’s territorial gains against the rebels while the US-backed Kurds continued to seize border regions from the Islamic State (IS). With Shi'i Iran to the east and Kurdish northern Iraq and northern Syria to the south, before August 2016, Turkey's only access to the rest of the Middle East was the besieged and rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib. This limited access to the Sunni-Arab Middle East was a natural result of the advances around Aleppo by the Syrian regime and its Shi'i allies, with support from the Russian military. In other words, while supporting the Sunni-Arab forces attempting to topple the Syrian regime, Turkey was caught off guard by Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, and faced the imminent risk of losing territorial access to its natural allies. This border crisis played a significant role in Turkey’s policy shift.

Turkish policy makers' understanding of Turkey's capacity to influence the Syrian conflict was impacted by the following factors: Iran’s success with proxy paramilitary groups; the US government’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan - PKK); the inability of Syrian rebels to form a united front, despite Turkey’s unconditional support; and Russia’s first military intervention in a Middle Eastern country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkish policy makers recognized Turkey's compromised position, and the fact that Russia had the capacity to block Turkey’s military maneuvers in Syria with its strong and technologically superior military presence. In order to remain an actor in Syria, the AKP-ruled Turkey’s options were narrowed, resulting in its pursuit of a tactical and limited-scale alliance with Russia. That being said, Russia’s open permission for Turkey's surgical intervention within Syrian territories is not the only outcome of the Russo-Turkish rapprochement.

The rapprochement has also significantly limited Iranian influence in areas with no Turkish operational activity. This is critical to Turkey, considering that according to the most recent reports by Russian sources, a Russo-Turkish agreement preset the boundaries of Turkish operational expansion in northern Syria.[2] In a stunning demonstration of the limitation of Iranian influence, the pro-Russian head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that his Sunni militiamen from Chechnya have been deployed to the Syrian regime-controlled Aleppo.[3] Even though there is no way to confirm that the dispatch of Sunni Chechen forces to Aleppo is part of an agreement between Turkey and Russia, many sources on the ground in Syria and Turkey emphasize that the decision was taken by Russia to limit Iran’s operational influence in the Sunni-populated second largest city of Syria.[4] In fact, some Turkish sources, quoting anonymous Turkish diplomats, reported Iran’s opposition to Operation Euphrates Shield - an operation conducted in cooperation with Russia, including limited Russian aerial support for the Turkish military.[5] Furthermore, the addition of Turkey, the outspoken sponsor of the Syrian revolution, as a partner in the trilateral Syria negotiations diminishes Iran's influence, while leaving Russia's superior position unchanged.

Less America: Russia’s Turkey Factor in Syria
The objectives of Russia’s military intervention may already have been achieved along the coastline, with the consolidation of regime control and the dramatic increase of Russian military power, as well as through the Assad regime's capture of the strategic city of Aleppo. Prior to the Russian intervention in 2015, the Syrian regime was faced with the imminent risk of losing territorial continuity. This continuity was threatened by IS expansion to al-Qaryatayn in Homs, al-Qaeda presence in Zabadani of Rif Dimashq, and rebel groups from Idlib within range of the coastal city of Latakia. Today, courtesy of Russia's presence, even the Islamic State (IS) cannot threaten the territorial continuity of the Syrian regime, despite recent IS advances beyond Palmyra in central Syria. Meanwhile, according to many observers, the expansion of Russian military bases in western Syria has secured Russia’s access to the NATO-dominated eastern Mediterranean Sea, and limited NATO’s operational capacity in that area.[6]

However, the assumption that Russia shares Bashar al-Assad’s intentions, including keeping al-Assad in power and restoring government control to the entire country, is undercut by the improvement of Russia’s relations with Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Kurds. After all, Russia has introduced Turkey to the trilateral negotiations, despite Turkey's open support for rebel groups, and has renewed talks with Syria’s Kurds over Kurdish nationalist aspirations.[7] These developments reflect the possibility that Russia is not planning a resolution to the Syrian crisis that would be amenable to Bashar al-Assad and regime loyalists. If this is the case, then Russia may be including Turkey in order to expedite the political process that could eventually allow for the scaling back of Russian military engagement in Syria, after Idlib is recaptured by the regime.

Furthermore, the inclusion of Turkey and its rebel proxies in direct talks with the Syrian regime and Iran is likely to decrease US influence over the negotiation process. Parallel to Turkey's utilization of Russia to diminish Iran's role in Syria, Russia's assignment of Turkey to lead the rebel side of the trilateral Astana talks is a means of reducing America's role in the overall process. Even though negotiations among Syrian belligerents ­ including the Kurds - are not likely to gain any significant momentum outside the framework of the UN-sponsored Geneva talks, the Russo-Turkish rapprochement has detached Turkey’s military mission in Syria from the overall mission of the US-led international coalition, and set up Astana as an alternative platform for negotiations. Given Turkey’s nascent anti-Western sentiments, particularly due to US support for Syrian Kurds, the option that is "less America" is seen as a win-win situation for Turkey and Russia.[8]

The Win-Win: The Syria Conundrum with the Russo-Turkish Rapprochement
The Russo-Turkish rapprochement in the Syrian crisis allows both sides to diminish the role of Iran and the US in the overall political and military processes. For Turkey, reaching an understanding with Russia required some tolerable compromises in Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast, but allowed Turkey to recover from its border crisis and offset the influence of its historical opponent, Iran. As of the writing of this article, Turkish forces have reportedly reached al-Bab from the north, and the Syrian military has refrained from entering territories to the south of al-Bab designated for future Turkish-backed FSA control.  This is a result of the rapprochement with Russia. In the meantime, Turkey’s influence over a significant portion of the Syrian opposition allowed Russia to singlehandedly lead the Astana talks, a US-free platform.

The less Iran, less America option, produced by the Russo-Turkish rapprochement, is a win-win situation for both sides. While the trilateral political negotiations between Russia, Iran, and Turkey are still not capable of resolving the Syrian crisis or imposing a lasting ceasefire, the Russo-Turkish rapprochement as the basis of these negotiations has become a key factor for both Russia and Turkey in their respective Syria policies. A political process that would make the costly and large-scale Russian military operations in Syria unnecessary cannot proceed without Turkish compromises on behalf of the rebel groups in Idlib and Aleppo. Simultaneously, a viable solution for the Turkish border crisis - potentially one of the greatest geopolitical challenges that Turkey has encountered - requires Russia’s green light.


Ceng Sagnic is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) - Tel Aviv University. He serves as the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program and editor of Turkeyscope. cengsagnic[at]gmail.com

[1] For insights into AKP’s alliance with nationalists, see: Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, “Erdoğan's Referendum,” Beehive, January 31, 2017.

[2] On February 11, 2017, a statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense on territorial advances by Turkish-backed FSA in the al-Bab region clearly mentioned a previously agreed border with Turkey, between FSA and the Syrian regime. The English version of the statement can be accessed here

[3] "قديروف" يعترف بإرسال قوات شيشانية إلى حلب  , Ajel, January 24, 2017. 

[4] This argument is based on my personal conversations with Syrian rebel figures and Turkish journalists. However, another columnist for a prominent Arabic-language outlet mentioned similar speculations about Russia’s attempts to limit the Iranian presence in Syria. The article can be accessed here.  

[5] "İran, Fırat Kalkanı'ndan memnun değil," Al-Jazeera, January 13, 2017 

[6] Artem Kureev, “The invisible Russian military presence in Syria,”  Russia Direct, July 16, 2016. 

[7] “Russia Promoting Syrian Government-Kurds Dialogue Establishment,” Sputnik, February 10, 2017 

[8] Can Dündar, “Amerika’ya elveda,” Zeit, August 12, 2016