February 05, 2020
Russia and Turkey on collision course
Russia and Turkey have both big geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa, but their relationship is far from straightforward and in danger of turning sour. On opposite sides of the conflicts in both Syria and Libya, they have worked together to de-escalate the situation in Syria and to initiate peace talks in Libya.
But their relationship took a hit in Idlib, the last battlefield of Syria's civil war. An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish civil and military personnel on Monday. Turkey in return killed at least 13 Syrian soldiers and has also sent an armoured convoy over the border into Syria.
Rather than the agreed de-escalation in the region we are seeing the opposite. Russian-backed air strikes accelerated since December, with bombardment of hospitals, markets and schools. About 3m people are living in this province, 400,000 already fled towards the Turkish border. This is another threat to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seeks to send back some of the 3.6m refugees Turkey is currently hosting, to be resettled in the occupied zone in north-east Syria.
A spat between Russia and Turkey may seem trivial compared with the unfolding human tragedy, but it would have serious consequences for the region, writes David Gardener in the FT. After the US retreated from Syria and the Europeans scrambled for the exit too, Russia emerged as the new ally for Turkey. But their goals are not aligned. Russia simply wants to be known as the superpower in the region, and for this it needs the Assad regime to remain intact. Erdogan pursues a neo-Ottoman agenda of re-establishing Turkish glory and controlling land well beyond its current borders. This is a constant threat to its neighbouring countries. This may remain fantasy but, its strategy in Syria is real. Turkey wants to fight the Syrian Kurds with supposed links to the PKK, and is driving them into the arms of the Assad regime to the benefit of the Russians. Turkey also wants to stem the flood of Syrian refugees. The deal with Russia to allow Turkey to enter Syria's north-east to establish a 50km buffer zone was part of this effort. How far will these tensions reverberate through the region? Erdogan said that Russia and Turkey should resolve their issues without anger. Turkey can hardly afford to confront Russia. But Russia can push back easily by pointing out that Turkey that it is not holding its part of the deal in Idlib.