Turkey, like its Ottoman predecessor, has been competing with Russia for centuries in contests for influence across Eurasia. This competition continues to this day in Syria. Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime being a source of fierce disagreement between the two nations and the international community as a whole. Turkey’s backing of a broad coalition of Sunni anti-Assad rebels has long been a point of contention for the pro-Assad Russians. Whereas Turkey sees destabilizing forces spreading closer to its borders. Instead of de-escalation, both nations had increased tensions with their respective military interventions in the war which have resulted in several openly hostile actions between the two powers.
On November 24, 2015 a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down by Turkish fighter aircraft after allegedly briefly crossing into Turkish airspace during a bombing run in Syria’s Latakia Province. Diplomatic relations broke down following the shootdown with Russia initiating economic sanctions against the Turkish economy, particularly against the well-developed tourism sector of the economy. The sanctions were cancelled after an open apology by Turkish president Recep Erdogan in the summer of 2016. This was the first step in an unlikely reconciliation process between the two nations which has persisted despite several additional crises.
The improved relations survived the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara and the deaths of three Turkish soldiers in a Russian airstrike this week near al-Bab, Syria. In fact, these relations have improved over the last several months with an ever evolving role for both nations in the peace settlement process in Syria. Both military and diplomatic lines of dialogue have opened as both nations have attempted a more cooperative approach to address mutual challenges in Syria.
Militarily, outright hostility has transformed into a mutual understanding through the fight against ISIS. The original disagreement over the political future of Syria has been put on the back burner for the time being after the Russian backed Syrian armed forces captured Aleppo. The Syrian government has not initiated any major offensives against the rebels to capitalize on their capture of Syria’s largest city. Instead, the Syrian forces and militias have targeted ISIS in both Aleppo and Homs governorates. For the first time in the war, Syrian forces have passively aided the Turkish backed Euphrates Shield forces in their siege of al-Bab, the last major urban center still under ISIS control before their de-facto capital, al-Raqqah. Though not directly, the Syrian forces have cut off al-Bab from ISIS supply lines in the south. Additionally, the Russian air force has started to coordinate airstrikes with the Turkish military. There have been dozens of Russian airstrikes in the al-Bab theater of war over recent weeks.
Russia and Turkey have also recently been diplomatically involved in attempting to reign in the fighting between the government and rebel forces. Several ceasefires have tried to do just that in the history of the war, but the most recent one holds the most promise. Agreed to at peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the most recent ceasefire went in effect at the end of December, 2016. What gives most promise to this peace deal is that Turkey managed to recruit a broad coalition of rebel groups to sign on to the deal, including several Islamist groups. A lasting peace on this front would allow all forces on the ground to focus their efforts against combating ISIS and perhaps finding a diplomatic solution to end the political crisis in the country.
Despite the recent warming of relations between Turkey and Russia, the Syrian civil war is still at a deadly stalemate. In a microcosm of the conflict, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the most powerful rebel group in northern Syria—has consolidated several rebel groups under its banner and started a conflict for supremacy over the more moderate rebel groups. The formerly al-Qaeda affiliated group has gained territory in the area at the expense of rebel groups who took part in the Astana peace talks. This is an attempt to prevent any sort of settlement to be reached among the rebels represented in Astana. An additional conflict among the rebels would only spell more suffering for the Syrian people and make a political solution to the conflict much more difficult to reach.
As the conflict in Syria progresses and hopefully draws to a close, Turkey and Russia will largely bare responsibility for Syria’s fate. With the United States likely to withdraw into itself to focus on domestic interests, the peace implementation will be largely left to the current foreign backers of the warring parties. And it is exactly these backing influences which will probably make the settlement process more difficult. For example, should ISIS collapse in the coming months, would Russia even sit with groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham at the negotiating table? Or, on the other hand, would Turkey reject its long held anti-Assad views and support the inclusion of the Iranians, the Kurds, or Hezbollah in any peace settlement? Though one thing is certain; both nations have the power to negotiate an end to one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.