The problems between Turkey and the United States are well known. But lately, the real tension involving Ankara is on the Turkish-Russian front. This marriage of convenience between the two countries is being sorely tested by Syria and the particularly thorny issue of Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian rebels.
Yet Idlib is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind the façade of brotherly comradeship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin – the “sultan” and the “tsar’ – lies a mountain of problems. In almost all issues of strategic significance, the two leaders are, in fact, on opposite sides: Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the civil war in Libya, the frozen Armenian-Azeri conflict, the Balkans, Cyprus, Eastern Mediterranean gas exploration, Israel, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the list goes on. In fact, whenever I am asked to talk about Turkish-Russian relations, I often quip that Venezuela is the only subject on which Putin and Erdogan see eye to eye.
To be sure, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile-defense system is a significant waypoint in their relations, but not in the usually accepted manner. For Ankara, this transaction was never meant to be the beginning of a new strategic partnership; it was the price of entry into northern Syria. Turkey needed to stop the emergence of a Kurdistan — call this a “Lesser Kurdistan” — from the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria, where Russia had military dominance. But after Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, Putin was in no mood for a mere apology from Erdogan. The S-400s sealed the deal, allowing Turkey then to enter Syrian Kurdish regions such as Afrin and Al Bab in 2016 and 2017.
But Idlib, on the other hand, has proven to be a more difficult enterprise for the Turks. When the Assad regime took Aleppo, most of the Islamist forces there sought refuge in this small province on the Turkish border, where Turkey and Russia agreed to create a de-militarized zone in 2018. The population of Idlib today is around three million. Turkey already hosts close to four million Syrian refugees and Erdogan is determined to stop another wave of Syrians entering the country. Ankara therefore pledged to ensure the withdrawal of radical rebels from the area and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire.
Neither has really fulfilled their side of the bargain, however. Russia has violated the ceasefire consistently and recently embarked on a fully-fledged air campaign, paving the way for the Syrian regime to retake the province. Using counterterrorism to justify its actions, Moscow argues that extremists now have an even stronger hold on Idlib because Turkey failed to demilitarize the region.
Tensions over Idlib have escalated dramatically in the last two weeks. A rare direct military confrontation between Turkish and Syrian regime forces resulted in the death of 14 Turkish soldiers and more than 100 regime troops.
Erdogan blames Russia for the escalation, but is unwilling to confront Putin directly. Instead, he sent 5,000 additional troops to Idlib and directed his anger at the Syrian regime. “If any harm comes to our troops… we will hit regime forces anywhere, without limiting ourselves to Idlib,” Erdogan declared last week. He also warned that unless Syrian regime forces pull back by March 1, Turkish forces would do “whatever is necessary.”
Since Damascus is believed now to be under Moscow’s control, it is safe to assume that Erdogan’s message was largely intended for Putin.
But expecting Moscow to comply is unrealistic. Erdogan knows that Russia controls the skies. Turkish airstrikes against the Syrian regime would mean a direct confrontation with Moscow. This is probably why, while Erdogan was threatening Damascus, his defense minister, Hulusi Akar, was being much more constructive, explaining that the real reason Turkey sent more troops into Idlib was to secure “a lasting ceasefire.”
Those who do not abide by the ceasefire – “radicals included,” he added – would be “dealt with by force.” By radicals, the minister meant Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the jihadi group that Syrian forces are trying to expel from Idlib with the help of Russian air power.
All this goes to show that Erdogan is unwilling to burn his bridges with Putin. After all, Russia holds all the cards. Moscow could allow Damascus to take Idlib, thereby flooding Turkey with more refugees. Or Russia could press the Turks into leaving northern Syria by threatening to strike a deal with Syrian Kurdish forces.
Finally, let’s also not forget that Erdogan is beholden to Putin for Turkey’s energy needs. Turkey buys most of its natural gas from Russia and has signed pipeline and future nuclear energy deals with Moscow.
The current tension between Ankara and Moscow may look like an opportunity for the US to step in. But because Putin maintains the upper hand in the Russia-Turkey relationship, Washington has little help to offer Turkey.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.