Following their meeting in Sochi on October 23, 2019, Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan officially announced a ceasefire throughout Northern Syria.
The bilateral agreement reached in Sochi strengthens the role played by Bashar al-Assad in the region between the Syrian Kurdish world and the area on the border with Turkey. It also ensures the permanence of Russian forces throughout Syria and finally serves to formalize the Turkish military presence in the region and in Syrian territory. A position of the Turkish forces on the border between Syria and Turkey, for about 32 kilometres from the borderline between the two countries.
With a view to separating the Syrian Rojava (which means “East”, in Kurdish) from the Kurdish areas of Iran, Turkey and Iraq.
Russia regards this agreement as the final confirmation of the victory of the Syrian forces of Assad (and Russia) in the long Syrian war.
The Russian Federation won in Syria because it bet on the comparatively stronger horse, i.e. Assad’s regime, and also because it had a coherent and stable strategy, compared to Obama’s and Trump’s ambiguities. An additional reason was that no European country, frightened by the instability of the North American attitude, joined the United States in its actions on Syrian soil.
The agreement between Erdogan and Putin in Syria, which was born as early as the Turkish leader’s repression of the 2016 attempted coup d’état, has even created the “Astana Process” involving also Iran in a negotiation which has metaphorically “killed” the Geneva talks, where many pro-American elements were also present and active.
However, even after the knocking out of the Geneva talks, the United States was still significantly present in North-Eastern Syria, before the arrival of Turkey throughout Northern Syria.
Now the U.S. forces have largely withdrawn, precisely as a result of Turkish operations. Hence there is no possibility, however remote, that the USA can wage again a war against Assad starting from North-Eastern Syria.
That was Russia’ greatest fear.
In Syria, as early as 2015, Russia has always attached greater importance to operations in Western Syria, while the recent Turkish attack against Afrin has ensured that Turkey and Russia actually expelled the Kurds from the area – the Kurds who, after all, were the only U.S. real strategic asset.
All the Turkish projects for Northern Syria, ranging from the transfer of the Turkey-supported jihadists from Idlib eastwards to the use of the many Syrian Sunni refugees in Turkey to replace the Kurds in North-Eastern Syria, are a strategic blessing for Russia.
On the one hand, it is currently possible for Assad to directly hit Idlib alone but, on the other, we also need to consider the Turkish pressure on the Kurds towards the East, which jeopardizes the link between Turkey and the United States.
This is another excellent result for the Russian strategy in Syria. There was also the U.S. forces’ hasty relinquishment of their role in protecting the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurds, which put the Kurds themselves in a position to accept the new Russian “protection”.
Russia also reaffirmed the 1998 Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey, which envisaged the possibility for the Turkish forces to cross the border and exert strong pressure on the Kurds.
Nevertheless, what does the Russian Federation really want from the Kurds and especially from their Syrian Democratic Forces?
The agreements reached so far to organize Turkish-Russian “joint patrol units” on the Syrian border enable Russia to become the only future peace broker in Syria, while Assad’s army has moved to North-Eastern Syria, by establishing itself well away from the safe zones that Turkey has already occupied.
A “zero-sum game” for everyone, except for the United States. The European Union, as usual, is not part of the game.
Russia, however, does not want to shoulder the whole burden of territorial control of Eastern Syria, but it lacks the new proxies, i.e. the autonomous forces acting in its name and on its behalf.
At the beginning of Russia’s engagement in Syria, its aim was only to support Assad and put an end to the US obsession for the “Arab springs”, which were destabilizing as never before. However, now that there are multiple actors on Syrian territory, Putin wants to manage relations with everyone and with the utmost care, considering that his primary goal is currently not to accept a simultaneous clash with many opponents.
Other problems for the Russian strategic decision-making are to avoid the clash between Iran and Israel passing through Syria, but not only on Syrian territory, as well as to limit the Turkish, Kurdish and even Syrian expansion on Syria’s northern border – a situation that would no longer enable Russia to manage military equilibria with a minimum effort.
However, what are Turkey’s real regional aspirations?
Firstly, there is the stabilisation of Syria, and not just for the Kurdish issue. Secondly, there is the Eastern Mediterranean region and finally the Turkish positions in the Black Sea region.
The Kurdish issue, which is well clear for Turkey, is related to its awareness of having to control its East without problems: if there are opposing forces in the Turkish expansion line towards Iraq, Syria and Central Asia, the deep core of Turkey’s current foreign policy disappears.
There is also the energy issue, considering that Turkey buys most of its oil and gas from Russia and that it wants to play a decisive role in the new extractions that are being prepared in the Eastern Mediterranean region, between Cyprus, the Lebanon, Israel and Greece.
Turkey is hungry for foreign investment and this must also be taken into account when defining the Turkish strategic equation.
Turkeys’ recent purchase of the Russian S-400Triumfmissile and defence systems (NATO reporting name: SA 21 Growler) places Turkey in the position of having to rebalance its military relations with the United States but, in the Black Sea area, Turkey’s and Russia’s interests tend to conflict.
As stated above, the relationship between Russia and Turkey was born from the Turkish perception that the United States is somehow involved in the 2016 attempted coup.
Moreover, Russia wants to take Turkey out of the NATO geostrategic environment, both through the sale of weapons such as the S-400 and with the wise exacerbation of tensions between Ankara, the EU and the USA.
All potential breaks that will not occur. President Erdogan still has his own European policy in mind and has no interest in definitively abandoning the USA just now that – with President Trump – the United States is showing its desire to move away from NATO’s European axis, but certainly only to a certain extent.
Turkey is not so much interested in this axis.
With specific reference to Syria, Russia has so far shown it wants to keep the Kurds in their traditional areas, without changing the borders of Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On the contrary, Russia – which has not yet a formal relationship with the Kurdish YPG, i.e. the “self-defence force” of the Kurdish community – wants to create a sort of autonomy agreed between the Kurds’ Rojava in Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s government – a special autonomy guaranteed by a new future Syrian constitution.
It is also extremely important to note that Russia is the second economic partner of Turkey, immediately after Germany, while Turkey is only Russia’s fifth largest trading partner.
In 2018, the last year for which data is available, trade between Turkey and Russia increased by as much as 37%, while Turkish exports to Russia alone increased by as much as 47%.
Not to mention the planned renewal of the Turkish Stream Project, the natural gas transport line going from Anapa, near Krasnodar, Russia, through the Black Sea, up to Kiyikoy, on the Thracian coast of Turkey.
We should also recall the Turkish-Russian project for the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
For the time being and also for a long time in the future, Turkey will not leave NATO.
In terms of structures, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is not even comparable to the traditional network of the Atlantic Pact.
The three factors that make full security and defence cooperation between Turkey and Russia difficult are respectively the still important presence of Turkey within NATO, the Ukrainian crisis and finally the Russian annexation of Crimea.
With specific reference to the purchase of the Russian S-400s, Turkey maintains that this stems from the particular difficulty of acquiring the new Western weapon systems, but Russia has not offered any co-production of its advanced weapons to Turkey.
If Turkey could decide quickly and well on the F-35s, the new Patriot missiles, and on some co-productions of weapons with the West, it would certainly know how to get out of the agreement with Russia for the S-400s tactfully, without even severely undermine its relations with Russia.
As to the energy trade between Turkey and the Russian Federation, the former depends on the latter for 55% of its natural gas requirements and for 12% of its oil ones.
It is not possible, however, to easily replace imports from Russia.
Moreover, Turkey exports most of its oil and gas imports from Russia to the EU. In this sector, it is second only to Nord Stream’s Germany.
Moreover, a joint financial fund has been established between Turkey and Russia to organise their bilateral relations.
Turkish leaders argue that this fund strengthens local currencies against the US dollar.
It is probably true.
The Fund, however, also serves to support Turkey’s true and traditional vocation to become the great oil hub from Russia, but also from the Middle East and the Caspian Sea to Europe.
This is the reason why Turkey entered Syria.
This is one of the necessary keys to rationally interpret the Syrian issue.
Currently Turkey’s primary strategic interest is to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but also to increase its clout as a necessary transit area for all energy trade from the Middle East and from the Russian Federation.
In 2003, the Blue Stream completion multiplied Russian gas exports to Turkey.
The future Turkish Stream will bring 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkey to Southern Europe within 2020.
Russia wants to build two parallel lines, at least for the first phase.
Obviously one for Turkey alone, and another one only for Europe.
In the Black Sea area, the USA has so far counterbalanced the Russian Federation only through Atlantic Alliance’s operations.
NATO’s presence in the Black Sea area is fundamental also for Turkey, which mainly fears that the Black Sea will become a “Russian lake” – just to use President Erdogan’s words.
Even before the war in Syria, Russia has been using Sevastopol for actions towards the Eastern Mediterranean region and this is certainly not good for Turkey.
Moreover, at the time, Turkey favoured NATO’s institutional rooting in the Black Sea, by means of a task force between Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Germany with the U.S. tactical support.
The project, however, failed.
Nevertheless, the Russian military presence in Syria, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in the Crimean Peninsula, continues to fuel the Turkish fears of Russian encirclement.
Turkey, however, also avoided supporting the Western sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and Donbass, for obvious reasons of expediency, but it carried out a careful and subtle action against the Russian annexation of Crimea and for the protection of the local Tatar minority.
Turkey is also a direct competitor of the Russian Federation in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Here Turkey has operated in connection with the European Commission to create the Southern Gas Corridor, also operational as from 2020, which will bring resources from the Middle East and Central Asia (and especially from the Caspian Sea) to the EU countries.
Since 2015 Turkey has also been supporting Georgia’s adhesion to NATO, while preserving its special relationship with Azerbaijan – a country with which Turkey signed a Strategic and Mutual Aid Agreement in 2010. Here the issue of the structural contrast between Armenia and Azerbaijan comes to the fore.
As is well known, Russia supports Armenia, as it already did at the dawn of the Cold War.
The Russian Federation, however, also sells weapons to Azerbaijan, with a view to favouring the success of the Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan Initiative.
There is also the long-standing and unresolved problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a low-intensity conflict that has been lasting with ups and downs since 1994.
In this case, nothing has been decided yet in the relations between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey, however, will keep on strengthening its relations with the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, Turkey will never establish a stable strategic relationship with Russia, to the detriment of its participation in NATO as the second force after the United States.
Also in the case of Italy, we will need a broader and naturally complex vision of the international relations and the national interests of Turkey and the Russian Federation itself, which are not the strategic monoliths that many Italian decision-makers unfortunately imagine.