Analysis - Political Transformations
Paradox of Relations
Russian - Turkish Relations in the Syrian and Libyan Fronts
Sunday، December 20، 2020
Over the last few years, Russia has emerged as a significant power broker and military actor in the Middle East. Russia's intervention in the Syrian crisis since 2015 has revived its relations with neighboring countries. This increase in Russia's activity has led to convergence and divergence with other countries in the region. One of those countries is Turkey, which had cooperated at times and had differences at times with Russia in the Middle East, especially in the Syrian and the Libyan crises. Ankara and Moscow are fully engaged in the global competition trying to increase their power and influence. They face off in Syria and Libya. In Syria, Turkey supports the rebels in the North West while Russia supports the Assad regime. In Libya, Turkey supports the Government of National Accord (GNA) while Russia supports Libyan National Army (LNA).
Their relation becomes more intricate as both parties got involved in the Caucus, a region of prime importance to both countries. In the vicinity of Russia, the oil route goes Tbilisi-Baku ending up in Ceyhan Turkey. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia supports Armenia. The Caucus crisis showed how the two countries are rivals that are ready to accommodate each other on a quid pro quo basis. The cease happened concurrently with a partial withdrawal of Turkey from some posts in the North West in Syria. Was there an agreement between Erdogan and Putin in this regard? There are no proofs; however, the various events that are happening from the Caucus to North Africa suggest that those two powers are rivals that are ready to accommodate each other. To add to that, the American retrenchment has encouraged the two powers to flex their muscles in the region. Therefore, given the developments in the region, this article has tried to examine the paradox of Russian-Turkish relations and their strategy in Libya and Syria.
Syria Crisis; from De-escalation to competition
Even before their intervention in Syria, the two countries had diverging positions on the Syrian crisis. Turkey after one year started supporting the opposition, while Russia from the beginning supported Assad’s regime.
Syria offered Russia a good opportunity after Crimea to assert itself on the global scene. In fact, Russia stepped up its efforts to achieve its foreign policy goals by intervening in Syria in 2015. Russia helped the Assad regime take back territories. It further proposed to rebels either to reconcile with the regime or to be transported in the green buses to Idlib, which was put later on under Turkish influence. Until the launch of the Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, Turkey’s role consisted of accepting refugees. Yet, it further ramped up its intervention fearing the Kurdish presence on the Syrian- Turkish border. However, it is important to question was there any agreement between Russia and Turkey when turkey decided to conduct its incursion in Syria? After the Turkish air force shot down a Russian bomber in November 2015, Russia responded with a trade embargo and a ban on Russian tourism to Turkey. However, the shooting down of an aircraft did not lead to a confrontation as everyone expected but paved a way to dialogue and cooperation between the two countries leading to the Astana process that was launched in January 2017 making Turkey a pragmatic ally of Russia in Syria.
Since September 2017, Idlib, the rebels’ stronghold has been covered by a “de-escalation” agreement announced jointly by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana. Under the terms of this agreement, Turkey deployed troops to twelve observation points along the front-line separating rebels from regime forces between October 2017 and May 2018. At this line, the troops were tasked with monitoring the de-escalation and guaranteeing a ceasefire. These observation posts were subsequently matched by ten Russian and seven Iranian posts on the regime side of the line.
On the March 5, 2019, at the Kremlin, the presidents of Russia and Turkey announced what they said was a deal to halt fighting in Idlib, calming a volatile conflict that had pushed the two countries to the brink of a direct war. They said the agreement included a cease-fire that would come into force in Idlib. The agreement also included joint patrols by Russian and Turkish troops of a seven-mile wide corridor along a highway that runs through Idlib eastward from the Mediterranean coast toward the border with Iraq.
“We do not always agree with our Turkish partners in our assessments of what is happening in Syria, but each time at critical moments, relying on the achieved high level of bilateral relations, we have thus far managed to find common ground on the disputed issues that have arisen, and come to acceptable solutions,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said in the Kremlin, standing alongside Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “That’s what happened this time too.” The 2019 deal, like a previous agreement over Idlib, is unlikely to end the war in Syria, which began in 2011 and has killed as many as half a million people, most of them civilians. Nor was it clear if Mr. Assad, who was not part of the deal, would respect it. The crisis in Idlib similar to the shooting of the Russian jet could have pushed Russia, a nuclear-armed global power, and Turkey, a member of NATO, toward direct military confrontation. However, both countries sought a mechanism to deescalate and prevent a confrontation by accommodating each other and sharing influence. (1)
"Putin has always been a professional recruiter, and his foreign policy is about attracting leaders. Putin has worked hard to recruit Erdogan and keep Turkey away from the West," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a veteran military analyst in Moscow." Russia has in the past floated the idea of letting the rebels retain the city of Idlib under Turkish protection, along with territory up to the border, while Turkey and its rebel allies pull back from two vital highways — the M5, which runs north south from Damascus to Aleppo, and the M4, which runs eastward from the coast toward the border with Iraq — that have been blocked for years because of fighting. (2)
Turkey was able to a certain extent to mitigate the negative effect of the rapprochement with Russia on its relation with the US. Despite the indignation of American politicians at Turkey, a NATO member, for acquiring the Russian made S-400 missile system, Erdogan managed to keep a smooth relation with president Trump. Despite being excluded by the US congress from the F-35 purchase as a reaction for acquiring the Russian missiles, the relation between the two leaders marked an improvement over the relation president Erdogan had with president Obama where the point of contention has been the support to the Kurdish factions in the fight against Daesh. Following a call between Erdogan and Trump in October 2019, the latter withdrew from the north east paving the way for a Turkish incursion into the North East. The Kurds sought help from Russia (despite previous tensions due to their US alliance) and the Syrian government. In the areas Erdogan had attempted to seize, Syrian troops and Russian military police began to arrive. In subsequent negotiations between Putin and Erdogan, tensions were more or less resolved. Instead of gaining control over all of Syrian Kurdistan, Erdogan was left with a narrow strip of land on the Turkish-Syrian border. In October 2019, the two countries struck a deal to remove Kurdish YPG fighters from areas close to the Turkish border (3).
However, this cooperation in Syria is transactional and far from strategic. The involvement of both Turkey and Russia in other fronts make an agreement on Syria more complicated. Syria became a reservoir for mercenaries both country use. Turkey is sending fighters from Idlib to support the GNA, while Russia is supporting the LNA. Similarly, both countries have sent fighters from Syria to join the Caucus fight. Syria is used as a negotiating card by both countries. As the Azari, made advances in Nagorno Karabakh, Turkey dismantled four observation posts in the east of Sarakeeb to the West of Idlib (4). This makes a final agreement between the two countries on Syria unlikely.
Syria also has allowed Putin to position himself as the middleman. Over the years, he has tried to pull multiple players closer through military, economic or diplomatic deals. In 2018, Russia was the main broker between the regime and the US and opposition to allow the regime to deploy in the South West (5). It has allowed Israel to strike Iranian posts (6). It is the middleman that can talk with the different parties.
Libya as a new front
While Russia always supported the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Moscow joined Western-led arms sanctions in 2011. Since 2018, there have been rumors in the media that Russia is trying to expand its military base in Libya, and Moscow had announced that Special Forces had been sent to support the Libyan National Army. Unlike Syria, where certain restrictions bound Russia, Moscow is more active in Libya. Following its intervention in Syria, Libya presented a perfect location for Russia facing Europe. In this regard, Russia's support to LNA in 2016 has been interpreted as a step towards strengthening Russian military presence in the region. Moscow, which has played a key role in Libya's domestic and foreign policy for decades, especially during the time of Muammar Qaddafi, is once again trying to have an active and visible role in Libya.
On January 13, 2020, Moscow hosted both Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Fayez Al-Sarraj; head of the United Nations recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to sign a ceasefire. While the GNA accepted the proposed deal and signed the document, drafted by the Turkish and Russian negotiators, Mr. Haftar left Moscow on 14 January, without signing. The terms and conditions of the proposed ceasefire remain a mystery. Probably, due to mistrust between the two parties, Haftar did not accept to withdraw his forces from the position they have taken since April 2019. To add to that he wanted a precondition disbanding all “militias and terror groups,” fighting along with the GNA. Such a clause was not included in the proposed agreement. (7)
Washington position has been key in changing the balance of power in Libya after the re-treat of LNA President Trump called for rapid “de-escalation” to avoid retaliation by Haftar forces (8). Nevertheless, Turkey stopped at Sirte and refrained from venturing further east as such a move will require additional troops and reinforcements. Meanwhile, it is not just Russia that is interested in defeating Turkey’s efforts in the Libyan capital: Cyprus, Greece, and Israel have their stakes in the conflict as well. The maritime demarcation line with the GNA seeks to outflank the EEZ agreement signed by Israel, Cyprus and Greece independently of Turkey. Yet, Egypt was deploying antiaircraft missiles and troops to its border with Libya to protect its national security. (9)
While Turkey attacks Haftar, Turkey has not directly attacked Russia. Both Russia and Turkey are looking for a compromise in Libya in order to secure their interest and avoid escalating tensions. As Libyan have agreed to sit with each other and discuss a solution, this might limit the role of Russia and Turkey. Despite that, both countries are still backing their local partners. Turkey has sent two planes of Special Forces while Haftar received Russian made defense system.
The American retrenchment has contributed to this increasing rivalry and cooperation between Turkey and Russia. The American presence and involvement created a kind of a buffer between the different regional powers. The US failure to intervene in 2013 when Assad used chemical weapons gave the opportunity for Putin to intervene in Syria. We see also the outgoing Trump administration passing the buck to Europe asking them to do more in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. Facing European inability to be decisive and to take action, Russia and Turkey are taking the lead and each has allies local and regional in the different conflicts.
The Syrian crisis is indexed to Libya, which further complicates the matter. Therefore, Turkey's serious involvement in the Libyan crisis and its closeness to the GNA can be a ground for Turkey to gain leverage over Russia in the Syrian case. Despite the fact that Putin and Erdogan have become increasingly close as a result of their resentment of US and EU policies, it is evident that their countries are increasingly at odds over important issues such as Syria and Libya. Ankara wants to use Libya as leverage in its overall bilateral relations with the US, and most likely intends to coordinate some aspects of the cease-fire agreement with Washington, Evidence shows that US wants to prevent increased Russian influence in Libya. Especially now that president elect Biden has as a priority containing Russian influence.
At present, Turkey's relations with Russia are in a dilemma. On one hand, Russia needs to cooperate with Turkey on the other they have diverging objectives. Turkey wants to use the US-EU card in some way to reduce Russia's influence in Syria. However, US and EU’s opposition to the Turkish incursion in the North East have limited Turkey’s ability to do so. Despite the rivalry between Russia and Turkey, the two want to accommodate each other. Now that the two countries are involved in two territories their relation becomes more complicated but more intertwined. Therefore, the ongoing dynamics in Syria may have indirect repercussions over bilateral negotiations on Libya and vice versa.
The two countries have economic ties that strengthened by the launch of TurkStream gas pipeline that was commissioned in January 2020 carrying Russian gas from the Black sea to Turkey. Russia is also a key source of tourism to Turkey (16). Those economic ties drive both countries to seek accommodation and avoid full confrontation. However, the conflicts in which both countries are involved are becoming more complex making this balance harder to maintain especially as a new US administration will take over the White House in 2021.Unlike Trump, Biden who sees Russia as a rival is unlikely to tolerate a Turkish -Russian rapprochement but he will also need Turkey to contain Russia. The coming months will tell how this will affect the already complex relation between Russia and Turkey.
- Dmitry Kuznets (February 7, 2020), “Putin, Erdogan, and the new Syrian breaking point Russian-Turkish tensions are reaching dangerous heights in Syria and Libya, but a war is still unlikely”, medusa, available in: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/02/08/putin-erdogan-and-the-new-syrian-breaking-point
- Andrew Higgins (March 5, 2020), “Putin and Erdogan Reach Accord to Halt Fighting in Syria”, NYTIMES, available in: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/world/europe/putin-erdogan-syria.html
- BBC (October 23, 2019) “Turkey Syria offensive: Erdogan and Putin strike deal over Kurds” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50138121
- Al Watan (26/11/2020) Turkish occupation dismantles 4 observation posts https://www.alwatanonline.com/%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%ad%d8%aa%d9%84%d8%a7%d9%84-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%aa%d8%b1%d9%83%d9%8a-%d9%8a%d8%ae%d9%84%d9%8a-%d8%a8%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%83%d8%a7%d9%85%d9%84-%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%a8%d8%b9-%d9%86%d9%82%d8%b7/
- Ibrahim Hamidi (17/9/2020) “The South Syria Deal: Two Years Later” https://cgpolicy.org/articles/the-south-syria-deal-two-years-later/
- Judah Ari Gross (21/8/2019) “Russia gave Israel green light to strike Iran in Syria, Iraq” https://www.timesofisrael.com/report-us-russia-gave-israel-greenlight-to-strike-iran-in-syria-iraq/
- Mustafa Fetouri (January 16, 2020) “Why Haftar refused to sign the Moscow ceasefire document” Middle East Monitor, available in: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200116-why-haftar-refused-to-sign-the-moscow-ceasefire-document/
- Dania Koleilat Khatib (May 27, 2020) “Libyan retreat hints at repercussions for Russia in Syria” https://www.arabnews.com/node/1680681
- Magdi Abdelhadi (August 17, 2020) “Libya conflict: Why Egypt might send troops to back Gen Haftar” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53779425