Regional war brews between Turkey and Russia

While tensions simmer in Syria’s Idlib province, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh could put Turkey and Russia on a path to war.

An Armenian soldier fires an artillery piece during fighting with Azerbaijan’s forces in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh (AP).

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Turkey and Russia have had a hot-cold relationship in recent decades, with a long history of war going back to the late 18th century. Destiny has seemingly put the Turkish and Russian civilisations on a collision course, with the Turks and their allies having been the main obstacle standing between the Russians and their 300-year march towards the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

In that time, the Russians have overrun several territories that were once Turkish, or at least once allied to the former Ottoman Empire. Turkish control and influence has been all but wiped out from southern Poland, southern Ukraine and the northern Caucasus. Entire populations have been uprooted, including the Meshketian Turks of Georgia, the Circassians of Sochi, and the Tatars of Crimea, only very few of whom were able to return to their homeland. Be it in the name of Orthodox Christianity, pan-Slavic nationalism, or Marxism-Leninism, the Russians have for hundreds of years successfully built corridors of influence that have cut through Turkish and Muslim territories in their southward advance.

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Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian influence was at its historic peak. The Balkans, the Black Sea, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia were totally under Russian control. During the Cold War, Soviet-promoted communism was creeping into Hellenic society in both Greece and Cyprus, while Marxist-Leninist ideas fueled a number of militant groups in Turkey, including the PKK, which sought to carve out a Kurdish leftist utopia in the country’s southeast. Following the coming to power of Hafez al Assad in Syria, the Soviets secured a naval base in Tartus, which was later inherited by the Russian Federation. But when the Soviet Union fell apart, besides the Russian base in Tartus, the Russians were more or less defeated.


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However, the Russian withdrawal was not complete. The Russians left behind assets, puppet leaders and open-ended conflicts that required Moscow’s mediation. The Tartus naval base represented Russia’s last bastion in the region, and Moscow relied on the status quo protected by Bashar al Assad, son of Hafez, to ensure that this remained the case. But when the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Russia was alarmed, especially as the Assad regime appeared to be on the backfoot throughout much of the war. When Syrian rebels took control of the Idlib province in 2015, as well as most of Syria’s commercial capital Aleppo, Moscow was prompted to intervene on Assad’s behalf.

This created problems between Russia and Turkey, with Turkey having supported the Syrian opposition in the conflict. Russian airstrikes targeting rebels along the Turkish-Syrian border was also creating a dispute, as Russian warplanes were on a number of occasions accused of infringing on Turkish airspace. Not only was this a problem for Turkey, but it was also alarming for NATO. If attacked, Turkey, being a NATO member, could have invited a NATO military intervention that would potentially bring Russia and the West to direct blows.

However, Turkey was not satisfied with the West’s stance in the war, especially as the US opted to back the YPG militia in the Syrian conflict. Turkey has long accused the YPG of being an affiliate of the PKK. Washington’s attempt to rebrand the YPG by forming the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) failed to put Turkish concerns at ease. Judging the threat from the YPG to be more of a priority than that posed by the Assad regime, Turkey therefore entered a three-way cooperation with Russia and Iran to de-escalate the conflict in Syria, particularly in Idlib, where clashes between regime and rebel forces have since frozen, minus occasional skirmishes.

But freezing the conflict in Idlib has done very little in the way of ending the conflict all together. The rebel-held province is partially under the control of pro-Turkish militias, and partially held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formerly known as the Nusra Front before it broke off from Al Qaeda. Although HTS does not want to engage with Turkey militarily, it is by no means pro-Turkish. Turkey is also reluctant to send its troops to war with HTS, considering it faces bigger threats from groups in the region that are more openly opposed to Turkey’s presence, namely the YPG. Yet, Russia has placed on Turkey the removal of HTS forces from the M4 Highway, that runs between Idlib and the coastal Latakia province, as a condition for continued cooperation.

Syrians climb on a Turkish tank in Neyrab, March 15, 2020 as they protest agreement on joint Turkish and Russian patrols in northwest Syria (AP).

Russia going soft

Instead of battling HTS directly, Turkey has been pressuring HTS to come in line. In a bid to earn Turkey’s respect and secure for itself a more long-term role in Idlib, HTS has been focusing its energy on fighting Hurras al-Deen, which took over as Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria after the Nusra Front split off and rebranded. This has suited Turkey well, as Hurras al-Deen, unlike HTS, is more hostile towards Turkey and its interests. HTS, therefore, is holding off a Turkish attack by fighting Turkey’s enemies. At the same time, HTS is refusing calls to disband and join the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). Russia, which is less forgiving of HTS’s past, classifies the group as an unwelcome terrorist organisation, and due to Turkey’s lack of action against the group thus far, Russia is growing increasingly impatient.

From time to time, Russia expresses its frustration in the form of airstrikes against pro-Turkish rebels in Idlib, and in February, Russian fighter jets even attacked Turkish troops Idlib, killing dozens of them. It was a sign of more to come if the Turkish government didn’t reaffirm its commitments to Russia. The incident sent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately on a flight to Moscow for emergency talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. It seemed Russia’s heavy-handedness had worked, but eight months on, not much has changed on the ground, and Russia once again feels duped by Turkey. This time, to show its dissatisfaction, Russia has decided to suspend its joint patrols with Turkey along the M4 Highway.

That being said, Russia’s announcement of the suspension came with a softening tone, with a promise to resume the patrols as soon as the situation on the highway “calms down”, referring to armed riots organised by HTS against the presence of Russian troops.

There has been a considerable change in attitude from the Russian side since the last major incident in February, with the Russians putting more of an effort into solving disagreements diplomatically. Perhaps the difference today is that Russia’s ally Bashar al Assad appears to be on more shaky ground, with popular protests against his regime once again emerging, particularly in the Druze-majority province of Sweida. Economic woes, amplified by the US Caesar Act sanctions, have left the regime so depleted that infighting has broken out between Assad and his business tycoon cousin, Rami Makhlouf. To add, the narrowing of the economic playing field has put Russian interests in Syria at odds with Iranian interests. Whereas Moscow and Tehran were united by their overlapping interests to keep Assad in power before the sanctions, the two powers struggle to find common ground today regarding who gets to exert greater control over Assad. This leaves Russia increasingly isolated in the region, with very little to show for its sacrifices five years on from its intervention in Syria.

Russian and Syrian regime soldiers during a rehearsal for a military parade at Hmeimim airbase, Latakia, Syria in May 2016 (EPA).

To make things worse for the Russians, Turkey is wrestling its way to a rapprochement with the West, having seemingly survived the threat of EU sanctions. Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, which escalated last year when Turkey announced a maritime demarcation deal with the UN-recognised government in Libya, had reached a near-fatal point when France sent its warship to the region to back Greece, which argued that the Turkish-Libyan deal impeded on its own unilaterally declared maximalist maritime assertions. Greece and Cyprus, backed by France, lobbied the EU internally to slap sanctions on Turkey if it did not withdraw its seismic research vessels from contested waters, with Cyprus even holding separate sanctions on Belarus hostage until the EU agreed to go along with it. The situation risked further alienating Turkey from the West, and put NATO allies on the verge of war with each other. With the world poised for such an eventuality, Russia looked likely to make the most gains from the collapse of security along NATO’s southeastern frontier. But following NATO and German-led mediation efforts, as well as some American posturing, Turkey and Greece agreed to de-escalate tensions and enter talks. If Turkey and its Western partners find a way to resolve their differences, Russia will not only wind up isolated in Syria, but could also find itself phased out of Libya as well.

Turkey shifting north

While Russia counts its chickens in Syria and Libya, another conflict has flared between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The Armenian-majority breakaway region and its surroundings, which is internationally-recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, has been under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s. Besides occasional skirmishes, the conflict has largely been frozen ever since. But following a period of economic growth and military spending, Azerbaijan is now ready to take back the territory by force.

Being a Turkic-speaking country, Azerbaijan receives huge backing from Turkey. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has tried to play an intermediary role in the conflict between the two former Soviet republics, but as they did during the early 1900s, the Russians enjoy a greater partnership with their fellow Orthodox Christians, the Armenians.

Although sympathies towards the Armenians are also prevalent in European society, especially in other Orthodox Christian countries, the reality is that European state policy generally favours Azerbaijan. That’s because Azerbaijan is an oil-rich state, tipped to help the EU diversify its energy reliance on Russian imports via the planned southern gas corridor, which will pass through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before entering Europe. As can be seen, pipeline plans do not include Armenia, a small, landlocked and impoverished country that has very little to offer Europe geopolitically. Despite Armenia experiencing somewhat of a revolution a few years ago, similar to the popular uprisings that sent the pro-Russian government of Ukraine scurrying in 2014, the country failed to enter the Western orbit. It remains almost entirely dependent on Russia, whereas Azerbaijan has been more successful in diversifying its alliances, even managing to be one of the few Muslim countries on good terms with Israel.

Without Russian support, many would agree that Armenia would not even exist. So, the authorities in Yerevan are somewhat obliged to carry out Russia’s dirty work when it is required of them. Russia is threatened by the southern gas corridor, which is undoubtedly a competitor to Russia’s monopoly over Europe’s energy supplies. It was no surprise, therefore, that prior to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh breaking out, the Armenians targeted for the first time Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region, a key junction for the gas corridor, as well as other trilateral projects between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey that stand to benefit Europe. By destabilising the region, Russia aims to sabotage these projects and reassert its relevance to the European market, especially as the EU continues to push its influence eastwards in Ukraine, and now in Belarus too.

But Turkey, confident that the West will silently support its stance on the conflict, has not shied away from expressing its unconditional solidarity with Azerbaijan. There are even unconfirmed reports that Turkey has sent mercenaries recruited from among its allies in northern Syria to fight on Azerbaijan’s behalf, and even allegations of Turkish-made drones wreaking havoc on Armenian forces. Armenia has also been accused by Turkey of using mercenaries and fighters from the PKK to boost its forces, but even if true, it seems that unless Russia gets directly involved in another conflict haphazardly, the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is doomed for failure.

Turkish interest in the war could also see a rise in pan-Turkic nationalism in Turkey. While many former Soviet states in Central Asia maintained their neutrality after becoming independent, Turkey naturally emerged as a player in the Turkic states of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There are still Turkic and Muslim populations in Russia where Turkish influence can be found, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Turkey also yields influence in the troubled, oil-rich Muslim republics of the northern Caucasus, including Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia. Likewise, Turkey has Turkic and Muslim allies in former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states, such as the Bosnians in the Balkans, the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, the Gagauz in Moldova, and the Turks of Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia.

Any one of these allies could be activated to challenge Russian interests at any time. Unlike Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in the MENA region, Turkish support for these populations is not based on the personality of the Turkish president. Turkey’s sense of affinity with these populations comes from a shared 2,000-year history, as well as a long-term strategic goal to keep the Russians at bay. While Turkey’s involvement in Arab countries, especially those that were former Ottoman territories, steps on the toes of modern-day Western hegemony, the West does not consider Turkish expansionism as a threat where it plays a useful role in weakening the Russians. The Turkish-Western alliance was born in the mid-1800s based on this understanding, and was reaffirmed upon this shared vision during the formation of NATO in the transition period between World War II and the Cold War.

It is therefore likely that if the EU and Turkey can come to a fair power-sharing agreement in the Mediterranean, Turkey may agree to back down on certain red lines in its dispute with Greece for more Western backing in the anticipated escalations between Turkey and Russia elsewhere, be that in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or future proxy wars in other regions where Turkish and Russian interests clash, or for that matter, where Turkish and Western interests overlap. Perhaps Turkey’s recent announcement of its discovery of natural gas in the Black Sea is an indication that Ankara is ready to shift its focus to the north if it is offered a satisfactory deal to its south. That will largely depend on Greece, which despite being in Europe in body, has more often than not proved to have its heart in Russia. But of course, that’s another story for another time.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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