Might face-offs in Libya, Syria upend Russian-Turkish relations?

The late February airstrike that killed 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib province marked the deadliest attack on Turkey’s armed forces in decades, and reputable reports said Russia was behind it.

Turkey cranked up its war machine in response, launching attacks on Iran-backed proxies in Idlib and dispatching thousands of soldiers and convoys of military equipment to considerably strengthen its position in Syria’s last rebel-held province.

Yet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government did not go after Russian forces or criticise their leader, President Vladimir Putin. Instead the two began negotiations, and needed just a week to reach an Idlib ceasefire deal that has now been in place for three months and has sharply curbed violence and allowed tens of thousands of displaced people to return to their homes.

“It’s a good start for a broader and final settlement,” Alexey Khlebnikov, Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Ahval in a podcast.

He saw the ceasefire deal as highlighting how Russian-Turkish ties had grown and stabilised since their nadir in early 2016, when Russia levied harsh sanctions against Turkey for its downing of a Russian jet along the Syrian border.

The tenor changed when Turkey committed to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems the next year, and Ankara is now in talks to buy Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Last year, Russian interest in Turkey’s real estate sector nearly tripled and more Russians visited Turkey than tourists from any other country. 

“The two managed to find a working formula despite having quite a lot of differences,” Khlebnikov said. “They decided not to focus on them but rather focus on things in common.”

An example is Turkey’s S-400s, which it purchased despite repeated U.S. and NATO protestations and the threat of U.S. sanctions. In late April Ankara announced a delay in the activation of the S-400s, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Analysts have argued that the delay is more about buying time to negotiate a deal with the United States that includes a financial rescue and avoids sanctions.

Last week Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said Turkey remains committed in principle to activating the S-400s, which hinted at some ambiguity. Khlebnikov said Moscow would not mind losing the potential technical knowledge to be gained from the S-400s operating alongside U.S. and NATO hardware, as this was never among its objectives.

“For Russia it’s a done deal,” he said. “It’s already received payment and it’s in the process of delivery of the S-400s. It doesn’t matter whether Turkey will use them or just store them in a military warehouse.”

Moscow and Ankara remain on opposite sides in the Syrian war, with Russia strongly supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey standing against him since the conflict’s early days. Yet since the Idlib ceasefire the two have been able to extend their joint patrols to secure a lengthy stretch of the crucial M-4 highway in northern Syria.

“Over the last two and a half months they [the patrols] managed to grow from just several kilometers to 25 kilometers,” said Khlebnikov. “This is a significant achievement, but the hardest part is still ahead.”

He expected some confrontations around Jist al-Shughur, an area further down the M-4 and a stronghold of jihadi groups like Turkish-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic Party of Turkistan, which reportedly attacked a Turkish convoy last week.

Khlebnikov acknowledged the ceasefire is less than perfect and will need to be updated, but he also expected it to hold, at least in the short-term. Pointing to Turkey’s build-up of some 15,000 troops and 6,000 military units, Khlebnikov saw little chance of Assad resuming his Idlib offensive anytime soon.

“It would be suicide for him to go on a full-fledged military operation against the Turks,” he said. “Assad will understand he cannot fight the Turkish army in Idlib openly without Russian support, and he understands that Russia won’t fight the Turkish army, because that’s unacceptable. That’s a no-go.”

Khlebnikov did see one route to renewed violence. Following the opening of the M-4 highway, if Turkey were to fail in its commitment, as part of the Sochi deal, to separate radical rebels from moderates and essentially terminate HTS in Idlib, then Russia might have good reason to launch limited operations with Syrian forces.

Ryan Bohl, Middle East and North Africa analyst with consulting firm Stratfor, expected Turkish forces to aggressively pursue the separation, as Turkey’s deep economic troubles combined with the pandemic had made its government more risk-averse and in need of allies.

“In Syria, specifically, it has caused the Turks to try to take a harder line with HTS and other radical groups,” Bohl told Ahval in a podcast. “They are now more interested in making sure those groups can’t upset their relationship with Russia because they’re concerned about all their trade lines, all their tourism.”

Another theatre of conflict between the two is Libya, where Turkey has in recent months boosted its military support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which as a result has gained ground against the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, France, Egypt and Russia.

As Turkey’s intervention has begun to turn the tide, the UAE appears to be wobbling in its support of Haftar, while Russia may be doubling down, if last month’s appearance of Russian Mig-29 fighter jets was any indication. Moscow says it did not send the jets and has maintained an air of deniability regarding its involvement in Libya, mainly by dispatching mercenaries of the private firm the Wagner Group. Khlebnikov expected Russia to continue to support Haftar, but not to an extent that would end the war.

“I don’t think Russia wants to throw all its weight behind Haftar and make him win because it needs to maintain this role of a broker,” said Khlebnikov, adding that Russia has also given some support to the GNA and has mainly sought a stalemate. “The only way to reach a lasting settlement is to try to find a compromise between warring parties.”

As in Syria, Russia and Turkey have largely avoided direct confrontation in Libya, yet they remain at cross purposes, particularly as Ankara aims to get rid of Haftar and seems dead-set on defending its maritime borders deal with the GNA. Last week Turkey announced plans to begin exploratory drilling off the coast of Libya.

Also last week, Turkish state broadcaster TRT launched a Russian language news site saying it was designed to fight disinformation and manipulation through the press. Observers saw it as part of a budding information war, as Russia and Turkey aim to present their own views on Syria and Libya and other areas of mutual interest, such as energy and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russian state-run news agency Sputnik has repeatedly published stories that have angered the Turkish government, such as one in February arguing that Turkey’s Hatay province had been stolen from Syria. Despite these potential emerging Russian-Turkish battlegrounds in Syria, Libya and online, Khlebnikov felt confident that the relationship would stay strong and mostly positive.

“You build trust and cooperation not overnight -- it takes months, years to build that,” he said, adding that both sides are aware that very real risks remain.

“Given how much the two countries invested in developing their relations over the last years,” he said, “they know that they have a lot to lose.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.