In early 2016, a few months after Turkish fighter jets shot down the Russian Su-24 bomber, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the hope of achieving reconciliation with Russia, asked European and Central Asian heads of state to mediate between Ankara and Moscow. What followed was an unprecedented rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. The countries began co-operating in Syria and started engaging in regular top-level meetings through a three-way negotiation mechanism between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The latest of those trilateral meetings, which are collectively known as the Astana process, will be held in August, a chief adviser of President Erdogan said. The tripartite mechanism has also helped the leaders develop better relations with respect to various defence and foreign policy concerns beyond Syria.
Despite the initial agreement on designating various rebel-controlled areas as de-escalation zones, since December 2016, the Astana process on Syria has facilitated a situation where Bashar al Assad’s government has managed to liberate most of the de-escalation zones, and where Turkey has taken control of the north-western town of Afrin as well as increased its influence in Idlib.
Since last year, however, the process hasn’t achieved its negotiated aims in Idlib, which is currently the only area where a “hot” conflict persists. Turkey hasn’t managed to diminish the power of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Russia as well as (more recently) by Turkey, and the Syrian Air Force continues to bomb the area.
Syria’s recent aerial bombardment campaign, which it has carried out with the assistance of the Russian Aerospace Forces, has eliminated at least several dozen militants . Turkey sees its southern neighbour’s attacks on Idlib as an attempt to sabotage what it has called “the Astana spirit,” in reference to the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey signed in September 2017. Turkish President Erdogan and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar complained to their counterparts after Syria intensified its attacks in April 2019, and probably heard counter-complaints about Turkey not fulfilling its part of the agreement by neutralising the jihadists.
The continued presence of HTS is one of the most important cards that Ankara can play against Moscow during further negotiations. If HTS is thoroughly defeated and Syria regains control of its borders with Turkey in Northern Idlib, the governments of Russia and Syria will have considerably less need for Turkey. Despite initially managing to push the radical jihadist rebels to co-operate with the de-escalation agreement, Turkey couldn’t carry out other conditions established by the Astana process, such as disarming HTS. A government takeover of the last major rebel-held province could call into question Turkey’s relevance to the Syrian conflict and jeopardise its presence in the country.
Turkey’s long-term goal in Syria is to keep at least a limited military presence in the country following the settlement of the crisis. Ankara believes that controlling North-Western Syria will earn it a seat at the final negotiating table. By having a say on Syria’s future and keeping a military presence in Syria, Ankara also hopes to curb the influence of the Kurdish-led administrations in Eastern Syria. The Turkish government also believes it can utilise the armed groups under its control in Syria as further leverage.
Iran, on the other hand, aims to achieve a system in Syria where it dominates the apparatus of the central state from behind the scenes and establish a network of militias that will become part of the Syrian national army. Tehran wants to pursue this goal through a variety of military-political and ideological moves.
Russia wants to achieve a pro-Moscow settlement in Syria under which Turkey would be tasked with neutralising the jihadist rebels, after which the Syrian state could restore its control over all of the country’s borders, including the areas currently controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Moscow has so far also utilised the Turkish presence in Syria to put pressure on the Kurdish-led SDF administrations.
The increased tension and the increasing likelihood of a military conflict following the downing of a US drone by Iran could also have a significant effect on a future settlement of the Syrian conflict. One of the three declared aims of the US presence in Syria is to oust Iranian-backed forces from the country. The other two are to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and to protect the US-backed forces in Syria while pushing the Syrian government for a political settlement. Syria might inevitably become a theatre of war in the case of an armed conflict between Iran and the US.
In order to achieve its anti-Iranian objectives in Syria, the US administration is lobbying both Russia and Turkey to push them to a position to try to limit the Islamic Republic’s influence in Syria. A recent trilateral summit in Jerusalem between the US, Russian and Israeli national security advisers was one of the latest manifestations of that effort.
As for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria, most actors on the ground would try to make use of the challenge of Idlib to drive the Ankara-Moscow relationship to a dead end. HTS, the Assad government, and the Kurdish-led SDF all hope to see the Russian-Turkish relationship turn sour. The relationship between Ankara and Moscow, however, extends beyond the contours of the Syrian conflict. The delivery of the first batch of Russian-made S-400 missiles this week, despite loud protests from Washington, demonstrates Ankara’s determination not to alienate Moscow. Due to the multi-layered nature of the relationship between Turkey and Russia, it may be possible for the countries to mitigate, to a certain degree, the strains caused by the Idlib debacle.