Since Turkey bought the anti-aircraft S-400 from Russia last summer, against the explicit recommendations of NATO, there was much talk and fear about Turkey increasingly orienting herself towards Russia and departing from her alliance with Europe and America. The events of the last few days in Syria prove that this kind of talk was nonsense. After the last Idlib accident, in which 33 Turkish soldiers where killed by the Assad military, the Turkish-Russian relationship instantly became so strained as it had not been since 2015. Suddenly the spectre of of a possible war between Turkey and Russia was raised again. Turkey turned to NATO for support and NATO was quick to declare its full solidarity with Turkey, seemingly setting aside the perplexities about Turkey’s behaviour in Syria that had grown stronger when Turkey invaded the Kurdish autonomous region in North-Eastern Syria in October last year.
Both involved in the Syrian civil war, Turkey and Russia had initially what looked like utterly incompatible goals in the Middle East. Turkey, like the United States, wanted Assad gone. Turkish security services trained the opposition fighters almost since the very beginning of the uprising in 2011 that later escalated into an all-out war. Russia instead had traditionally been an Assad family ally and supported him, openly intervening in the Syrian conflict on the side of Assad in 2015, after a Russian passenger plane was allegedly downed by ISIS fighters in September 2015. The Syrian war zone had become a hotbed of extremist Islamist fighters, many of them from the Russian North Caucasus, and Russia wanted to annihilate them there before the threat could make its way back on her territory.
Russia and Turkey’s relation hit a low point in November 2015, when a Russian fighter jet deployed in Northern Syria was downed by pro-Turkish rebel fighters after allegedly having briefly entered Turkish air space. The Russian pilot, who had managed to eject from the falling plane, was killed on the ground by pro-Turkish Turkmen fighters. For a few weeks, it looked like Russia and Turkey could be on the brink of war. Then came the failed July coup of 2016. This was a turning point for the Russian-Turkish relationship too: it is said the Russian secret service warned Erdogan about the coup attempt, in which roughly 200 people lost their lives, and possibly saved the Turkish president’s life. After that it looked like Putin and Erdogan could be friends.
With ISIS gone and the US becoming less engaged, it looked like the Russia-Turkey alliance, together with Iran, another important player in the Syrian civil war, could reach a compromise. The area around Idlib, in North Western Syria that borders Turkey and the last refuge of many rebel fighters, would become a de-escalation zone. The fighting in Idlib, however, never really stopped, and last week’s Syrian government forces attack on Turkish troops may prove to be the fatal moment that makes all progress towards a possible cessation of hostilities impossible. Turkey has today announced it will conduct another operation against Syrian pro-government in the Idlib area. Putin and Erdogan are set to meet one more time next week, in an attempt to discuss divergences and find a solution more appealing than some more years of brutal war. This, however, does not mean that Russia and Turkey are allies.
Stefano Di Lorenzo