Russia cannot do without Turkey’s cooperation in Syria

People fleeing the conflict zone in Idlib, northwest Syria. File photo.

The former Soviet Union was a satiated world power. It didn’t have to prove anything. The Great Patriotic War (1941-45) spoke for itself. Thus, triumphalism was never a diplomatic tool in the Soviet inventory. 

The removal of the US nuclear missiles from Turkey in the downstream of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was not even publicised, although it was a strategic victory for Moscow. 

In comparison, “post-Soviet” Russia performs today at the opposite pole — there is an irresistible urge to display triumph and be hailed as a “power broker” on the global stage. 

Most recently, Russian commentaries have portrayed Turkey as the “loser” in the agreement regrading the crisis in Idlib that was reached in Moscow on March 5 between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan. (See New Putin-Erdogan deal is sugar-coating the Turks’ surrender, RT op-ed, March 6, 2020)

Prima facie, Erdogan appears to have conceded more than what he could extract out of Putin during the 6-hour long talks in the Kremlin. But then, the big picture hasn’t changed — the endgame in Syria still remains in stalemate and there is general recognition that the Moscow agreement has a short shelf life. A digression is useful at this point. 

The Turkey-Russia-Syria triangle has some striking similarities with the Pakistan-US-Afghanistan triangle. Pakistan and Turkey are neighbouring states to Afghanistan and Syria respectively, with a complicated history where territorial disputes, nationality questions, security challenges and sheer irredentism have got intertwined with external / extra-regional interventions. 

Pakistan could not win the Afghan conflict but it could make sure that the US also didn’t. Russia’s predicament in Syria is also that it can push back at Turkey but the stalemate (or quagmire) continues. 

Neither Pakistan nor Turkey can afford to lose because far too much is at stake for their national security. Indeed, neither is a match for the US or Russia respectively in military terms. 

But, having said that, both Pakistan and Turkey have the capacity (and the grit) to keep pushing the envelope unless and until their legitimate interests are realised. 

When it comes to Syria, to borrow the metaphor from the Afghan Taliban, Russia holds the watch but Turkey keeps the time. Without Turkey’s cooperation a peace settlement in Syria will remain elusive for Moscow. 

In the Af-Pak context too, there were triumphalist moments when the US rubbed the Pakistani nose in the dust — the Abbottabad operation to kill Osama bin Laden, for example. 

In fact, the recent killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib (some say the number could be as high as 50-100 troops) draws comparison with the deadly Salala incident — the 2011 Nato attack in Pakistan — when US-led forces engaged Pakistani security forces at two Pakistani military checkposts along the Afghan-Pakistani border while two NATO Apache helicopters, one AC-130 gunship and two F-15E Eagle fighter jets entered the Pakistani border area of Salala (in the Mohmand Agency) from across the border and opened fire, killing 28 Pakistani soldiers and wounding twelve others. 

Make no mistake, like what Pakistan did to the US eventually after the Salala incident, Turkey can also bide its time and make the Russian intervention in Syria very costly for Russia until the Kremlin one day realises it has become a “bleeding wound” or an “endless war”.  

Geography cannot be wished away and geography favours Pakistan and Turkey. The paradox is that Russia’s military supply lines to Syria pass through Bosphorus or the Turkish air space. 

Arguably, Turkey is far better placed than Pakistan. Turkey is a NATO power and a major presence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (which are crucial theatres where the alliance counters Russia.) It also happens to be buffer for the European countries that grapple with the migration problem. 

True, the chances of any military help from NATO for Turkey may appear slim as of now. President Trump avoids confrontation with Russia and the western powers on the whole are wary of Erdogan’s flip-flops. But then, this can change. (here)

The situation has become fluid. No doubt, it is also in the West’s interests that Russia is humbled in Syria and “taught a lesson”. The western alliance is watching with growing interest Turkey inflict pain on Russia and its allies. Turkey has adapted well to the hybrid war in Syria; its “little green men” have done rather well in the past week or two in Idlib. 

In the last few weeks, Turkey’s Syrian proxies are targeting Russians and battling militias from Iran and from the Lebanese Hezbollah in Idlib. This is a paradigm shift. And it is not going unnoticed in Washington where a shift in attitude toward Turkey is already noticeable. 

Now, if Erdogan plays a spoiler’s role in Syria, frustrating the best-laid plans of Russia and Iran, that will certainly catch Washington’s attention at some stage soon enough. (here , here and here

Finally, let it not be forgotten that Russia and Turkey are fighting two wars in Syria that are fundamentally different. Both claim this is a war on terror groups. But for Russia, this is also a geopolitical war. Whereas for Erdogan, this is also a war for the remaking of Ataturk’s Turkey as much — just as the war in Ukraine has been for post-Soviet Russia.

Curiously, what Erdogan is doing is almost ditto what Putin tried and achieved to a great extent in Russia or what India’s Narendra Modi is presently attempting — whipping up a militaristic-Islamist-nationalist wave to create a new society. The stunning truth is that this wave has created a new society in Turkey. And the Turkish society has largely welcomed this new wave.