Russia and Türkiye collaborate in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Published Nov 18, 2022


Turkmen Terzi

The Syrian civil war was conducive to Russia establishing permanent military bases in Syria, thereby consolidating its power in the Middle East.

Russia expanded its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus and operates Khmeimim Air Base, located south-east of the city of Latakia. As a result, Vladimir Putin’s Russia controls much of Syria’s airspace and has deployed more than 60 000 troops to Syria.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s persistent hostility toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paved the way for Putin’s entry into Syria, and the Russian president needs to keep Erdogan close to ensure the security of the Russian presence in Syria.

Türkiye has been backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. The US had supported the FSA for the first two years of the war but later redirected its support to armed Kurdish group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other jihadist groups.

But for Türkiye, the armed Kurdish groups are no less of a threat than ISIS since Türkiye views the Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for an independent state within Türkiye since 1984.

Russia, unlike Türkiye, does not recognise the PKK as a terrorist organisation. On the other hand, Russia does not staunchly back Kurdish groups in Syria as the Western countries do. For Russia, supporting Assad staying in power remains a priority. It is for this reason that Putin has been collaborating with Erdogan to find a political solution in Syria.

Türkiye’s direct military operations into Syrian territory forced Putin’s government to work with the Turkish government, and Putin and Erdogan have met several times since Türkiye’s first military incursion into Syria in August 2016. Then Erdogan conducted Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019.

Türkiye’s military operations in Syria displease Russia. However, an advantage for Putin is that Türkiye prevents the US-backed Kurdish armed groups’ movement to Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, where Russia’s military bases are located.

Western countries supported Kurds against ISIS and remain critical of the Assad regime’s human rights violations against Kurds. Moscow, however, still prefers the Assad regime over the Kurds.

Türkiye’s main concern is the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria’s borders since it fears that Kurdish autonomy in Syria, as in northern Iraq, will encourage Türkiye’s Kurds to establish a similar kind of independent Kurdish region in Türkiye.

The Turkish government has repeatedly expressed frustration over the Western military and financial support for the YPG.

Erdogan mentioned that Putin asked him during a meeting in Sochi in August to co-operate with Assad’s regime to resolve the Syrian conflict. According to some media reports, Erdogan and Assad may hold a meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit that will be held on September 15-16 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Putin opposes Türkiye’s new military operation in Syria to target Kurdish groups, and a possible rapprochement between Türkiye and Syria will strengthen Putin’s power in Syria as a mediator.

Türkiye’s geopolitical position is crucial for Russia as Türkiye controls the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, connecting the Aegean and the Black seas via the Sea of Marmara and regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. Russia also needs Turkish airspace to reach Syria.

These straits are not just the only seaway for Russia to reach the Mediterranean. Montreux also prevents Nato maritime forces from posing a threat to Russia in the Black Sea. Hence, a close relationship with Erdogan, the leader of Nato member Türkiye, is key for Russia reaching the Mediterranean and countering the US in Syria.

The Star