The tsar and sultan quarrel in Syria, who wins?

From the very beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, debates have raged over which states can be counted among its winners and which its losers. With the fall of Idlib and much of Latakia province in the spring of 2015 to rebel militias backed by Ankara, predictions were made of impending triumph for a Turkish government that seemed to be in a position to dictate terms to the Syrian regime. The Russian intervention to save President Bashar Assad in response seemed to have turned the tide with the fall of rebel-held Aleppo in December 2016. To the great anxiety of Ukrainians as well as other governments fending off the Kremlin, in the months that followed many in the West went on to declare Russian President Vladimir Putin the triumphant victor of a conflict that seemed to have turned completely to Turkey’s disadvantage.

As dynamics in Syria shift from those of an internal conflict between factions backed by neighbouring states to those of a flashpoint between great powers using local proxies to achieve geopolitical goals, a tendency to assume that Russian gains automatically lead to Turkish losses has become entrenched among analysts. Yet while journalists and politicians continued to claim the conflict is now being determined by ‘Moscow Rules’, events in the last few weeks have opened up considerable questions over how tight the Kremlin’s grip really is in Syria. Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-controlled targets in southern Syria have put Russian diplomats under pressure to mediate between rivals who seem to be heading towards confrontation. Moreover, the annihilation of Russian military contractors in eastern Syria by U.S. special forces defending their positions in murky circumstances point to growing difficulties Moscow faces in asserting its supposedly dominant position in the region.

At a time when the Russians are encountering difficulties, the Turkish military has with Moscow’s consent established a ring of bases across Idlib province and undertaken an offensive against Syrian YPG militias affiliated to the PKK in the Afrin region. Setbacks to a Kurdish nationalist cause seen as a mortal threat in Ankara have also opened up the possibility of a zone under Turkish control in which Syrian displaced persons can be settled to prevent further refugee surges into Turkey itself. Despite the ongoing turmoil of institutional purges in Turkey, these incremental gains in Syria are fuelling a jingoistic atmosphere among Turkish voters that helps President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to further box in what remains of Turkey’s political opposition.

These swift changes in fortune do not mean that Turkey has suddenly become a winner or that Russia faces a permanent losing streak. Rather, they indicate how both states have entered into complex local conflicts that require constant manoeuvring on the ground in order to sustain any chance of achieving long-term goals. Interventions initiated in the hope of achieving swift gains have become long-term commitments through which Ankara and Moscow have become increasingly dependent on one another. In its efforts to prevent another refugee wave or to destroy the YPG, Ankara requires Russian help to restrain the Assad regime and the Iranians from blocking Turkish military operations. For the Kremlin, the Turkish effort to bring militias in Idlib province and northern Aleppo under control helps secure the position of the Assad regime in the rest of Syria without necessitating a military campaign into Idlib province that would be costly and difficult to wage. Conversely if Moscow does not respect Ankara’s sphere of influence, Turkish intelligence services could use their proxies to inflict casualties on Russian and regime troops on the ground. In turn, any move by Turkey that disrespects the Kremlin’s sphere could trigger a full regime assault on Idlib that risks pushing another wave of refugees across the border into adjacent Turkish provinces.

Rather than the open confrontation that seemed imminent when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, the interactions between Turkey and Russia over Syria have been shaped by a dynamic of mutual dependence that leaves both with no other choice but to respect each other’s red lines. To speak of clear losers and winners in this Syrian morass is therefore to misunderstand the challenges both Russia and Turkey face in managing their respective Syrian protectorates.

There is, however, one state that has come out a clear winner from this Russo-Turkish omni-quagmire in Syria. For Ukraine, the Syrian war has helped provide much needed space to rebuild military capabilities as long as Putin remains distracted by his Levantine adventure. Arms deals secured by Ukrainian manufacturers with a Turkish government looking to diversify its military suppliers have also proven very useful for Kiev. This rather strange victory is best encapsulated by an old Ukrainian saying: “While the tsar and sultan quarrel and fight, the Cossack leans back and smokes his pipe.”